Tuesday 21 November 2017

At least Queen won't have to contend with overpriced, unclean facilities

Maeve Dineen

QUEEN Elizabeth may face a few protests when she comes here this week, but she can thank her lucky stars that she won't be have to face the toilets at the state-run visitor centre at the Cliffs of Moher.

The fact that may other visitors to Clare will indeed be forced to use these stinking facilities makes me shudder two weeks after I was in that neck of the woods for a short visit of my own. The cost of that visit (€6 per adult and a further €2 to visit a small near-by tower) along with the fact that most of the cliffs are off limits makes me despair of the Government's commendable efforts to kick-start the tourism industry in last week's jobs initiative.

Leaving aside the wisdom of raiding your pension to fund the measures, the basic idea of helping out the tourism is welcome. The problems are deep-seated and require more than a tweak of the VAT rates.

The reasons are not hard too find. The World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism competitiveness Index concluded recently that poor public transport and high prices have left Ireland lagging behind the rest of the EU when it comes to attracting foreign tourists. This is common sense; few Dubliners can negotiate the capital's bus system. How any visitor here for a few days manages is beyond comprehension.

Not only is the state-owned transport network worthless, according to Colm McCarthy's latest report, it is also helping to destroy other related sectors such as tourism.

Not surprisingly, the report also identified prices as a particular problem, with the report ranking Ireland sixth from the bottom in relation to purchasing power parity. Only Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland are more expensive places to holiday. These things get around.

No wonder there has been a significant drop in visitors year after year and fewer than 1pc of Europe plans to visit Ireland this year.

Slashing our tourism and travel taxes is a worthy attempt to rescue the economy through boosting visitor numbers to the country but we need to go much, much further.

Firstly, we need to stop focusing Ireland as the land of spas and golf. The vast majority of Europeans don't play golf while the continent's excellent and again cleaner public swimming pools, where you can get a swim and a sauna for a few euro, mean that Europeans will always be appalled by the high costs of spas here.

We really need to listen to Europeans, then start to deliver. Ten years ago Bord Failte, or whatever the national tourist board was calling itself at the time, concluded that Europeans who travel to Ireland were attracted by the landscape and wanted more cycle paths and walking trails.

There have been sporadic attempts since then to create a network, but billions more were pumped into tax breaks for luxury hotels, golf courses and spas which distorted the market and eventually left the taxpayer, in the shape of NAMA, as one of the country's biggest hotel operators.

Official Ireland is as unresponsive to the wishes of our visitors as it is to its own citizens. It would be nice to think that Michael Noonan is not repeated the mistakes of Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen but he has done nothing to convince us otherwise.

The few concrete measures in last week's jobs initiative are all aimed at the tourism sector but where is the evidence that this is what tourists really want. We need to start seeing some of the evidence that backs up government initiatives. It would be fascinating to know what research suggested that expensive haircuts were a deterrent to visitors rather than the extortionate entry charges to our tourism attractions.

The arrival of Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama will place the eyes of the world our on bankrupt island this month. It is too late to ensure that the 1,200 foreign journalists reporting on the trips will be able to enjoy their visit here, but we really could do a lot more in the years ahead to improve the experience of tourists.

This would have a dual benefit. It would be good for the economy and it would be good for the national morale. After all, given the sharp spending cuts and big tax rises, two-thirds of us expect to holiday at home this year.

After the long hell we've been through, we could all do with a bit fun. And clean toilets.

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