Richard Curran: Tourism industry is at a crossroads as it makes big decisions on final destination
The summer of 1989 was a great one for me. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and spent the summer months taking visitors on walking tours of Trinity College and Dublin City.
The money was good. I took my first non-working foreign holiday that summer, to the Highlands of Scotland. The contrast between the fledgling Irish tourism sector I was part of that year at home, and the industry I saw in Scotland, was dramatic.
Places like Kerry, West Cork and Dublin had milked the American green trousers and shillelagh market for what it was worth. Dublin was beginning to dip its toes into the European backpacker market.
Scotland by contrast had similar beautiful scenery but Highland roads full of cars and large state-of-the-art tourist ferries to bring huge numbers to islands like Iona and Skye.
So much has changed in the industry in Ireland now. It boomed in the early noughties and was instrumental in the economic recovery that has brought us back from the recession quite quickly.
Last year we attracted 8.9 million foreign visitors to Ireland - 1.5m more than we did in 2006 at the height of the boom. Back in 2006 Scotland had 2.7 million visitors from outside Great Britain. In 2016 the number was still 2.7 million.
But Scotland's tourism industry is built on visits from people living in England. Each year it gets around 6 million visitors from south of its border, although this is half a million fewer than it did in 2006.
Our tourism industry is enjoying some tailwinds right now. Growth is strong and the industry has done a great job in recent years in extending the season and offering different holiday experiences for different kinds of people.
The tourism industry itself plans to invest around €2.5bn in infrastructure and new offerings in the next three years. So it is reasonable to ask whether the Government is being ambitious enough in its plans for the future of Ireland's largest domestic industry. The industry is made up of around 20,000 companies, 230,000 employees and visitors spent nearly €5bn here last year.
The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC) recently launched its eight-year strategy for the sector. It wants the Government to be more ambitious in its targets and it asks why it only allocated €300m to tourism infrastructure in the recent national development plan up to 2027.
This was a €91bn plan.
The ITIC wants to see double that level of financial commitment and believes by 2025 we can get our visitor numbers up a massive 54pc to 13.7m, creating an extra 80,000 jobs in the process. This is a well thought-out document with a clear plan. It not only has recommendations but good ideas too. How big do we want the tourism industry in Ireland to be?
If we want it to be as big as possible, then we have to be ambitious enough but also ask serious questions about how we achieve that goal without wrecking the things we have.
Cities like Barcelona have become victims of their own tourism success which has forced a rethink. Visitor numbers to the Catalan city grew from 2 million in 1990 to 9 million in 2016.
As tourism here becomes more successful, there will be greater queues for attractions, more congestion at key sites and the need to get the balance right.
The ITIC report has solutions to these issues.
It argues for greater investment in tourism infrastructure for Dublin, but also a good regional spread when it comes to airport access around the country. It wants the government to focus on keeping the industry competitive in the face of rising costs, bureaucracy and red tape.
One problem we have is that 88pc of all overseas visitors coming to Ireland last year arrived by plane. Dublin accounted for 85pc of all air passengers.
The Wild Atlantic Way has been an enormous marketing success but over-success in some parts of it will take away from it, while other places could benefit more from a better share.
The ITIC report is very aware of this issue. It says: "In the context of managing capacity at visitor attractions there is a growing realisation that there needs to be new things of scale and international appeal for visitors to do, to both ensure a better regional spread of tourism as well as take pressure off existing Irish visitor attractions."
The industry is investing for the future.
Take the Guinness Storehouse's €16m extension of its rooftop Gravity bar; Center Parcs' new €233m holiday village in Longford due to open in 2019; Westport House's €50m plan for development; and Jameson's Distillery's recent €11m revamp.
The ITIC strategy points to lots more new ideas which could do with state investment including, a coast-to-coast Greenway from Dublin to Galway; a flagship Midlands attraction based around the Shannon corridor or our national peat boglands; an enhanced and interpreted Sliabh Liag cliffs experience in Donegal or an observatory along the Wild Atlantic Way to see the wonders of the Dark Skies.
The report also talks about converting the iconic and historical Customs House building in Dublin into a visitor experience.
These are all great ideas.
So what are the flies in the ointment or challenges to be overcome? Targeting these increases in tourism numbers requires a clear plan as to where we are positioning Ireland for tourism. Take the marketing boost for the Kerry and Donegal coastlines from filming part of the last Star Wars movie there.
Yet, there is a quiet debate going in Kerry about how to make the most of the 'Star Wars' fame.
Should tourism businesses go all in, with Yoda candles and 'Star Wars' everywhere, or should they emphasise how Skellig Michael was a place of natural beauty and spiritual significance for 1,600 years before the film crews arrived?
Local communities have to buy into the tourism boom. Take the problem last weekend at the Dark Hedges road in Co Antrim, made famous by the TV show 'Game of Thrones'.
As visitor numbers grew, the local council had to ban cars from using the road. Heavy vehicle use could undermine the tree roots themselves. But 'no cars' means no local cars either. Council signs banning cars were defaced.
There are those in big cities who will say that major tourism attractions will spoil the experience of a less intrusive form of tourism such as cycling or walking. But surely there should be room for both. We have the space.
Some regions are approaching tourism growth from a very low base and need all the help they can get.
There are other challenges. Brexit is one.
Also, the ITIC estimates that its ambitious plan would require 11,000 new hotel rooms in Ireland. Right now there are 6,157 new hotel beds projected for Dublin by 2021 but just 110 for Galway and 623 for Cork.
Lots of new workers from outside our tourist spots will have to be hired. Where will they come from? What pressures does that place on Gaeltacht areas?
The greatest challenge is complacency.
Irish political discourse operates on the basis of short-term responses to who shouts the loudest. Just because tourism is going well now, doesn't mean it should be seen as being OK. Such complacency is a recipe for failing to reach its true potential.
The tourism industry is at a crossroads.
Having gone from tiny to reasonably large, it now about how big do we want it to become.
If we really go for it in a serious way, we need investment, but also a plan to cope with the drawbacks as well as the benefits that can entail.