'We want to be an international attraction' - Ireland takes the stand at world's biggest travel show
From missing ministers to Cliffs of Moher cattle... it's our Travel Editor's dispatch from World Travel Market
“We want to be the next Guinness Storehouse, the next Titanic Belfast. That’s the kind of level we want to start operating on.”
John Crotty, General Manager of Cork's Spike Island, is raising his voice above the din at World Travel Market (WTM) in ExCeL London.
Around him, crowds are jostling between the all-singing, all-dancing displays of over 180 travel destinations at the cavernous convention centre.
A few feet away is the stand for Warner Brothers' Making of Harry Potter studio tour; another invites passers-by to be ‘Inspired by Iceland’.
In this company, Spike Island may seem like small fry. But there’s something about the world's biggest B2B trade show, about the bustling goodwill surrounding stand ‘Ireland’, that has people bullish for the year ahead.
“We want to be an international attraction,” Crotty continues. Spike Island's plans for 2019 include a new, 130-seater ferry, a War of Independence exhibition and a permanent ticket office in Cobh, he tells me. And it's only getting started.
The former fortress and prison is one of 70 businesses on the Irish stand in ExCeL. Other enterprises from across the island range from Castle Leslie Estate to the Causeway Coast, from Bill O’Brien’s Doolin Ferry Company to Titanic Belfast.
All are part of a €300,000 marketing push, funded together with Tourism Ireland, that aims to drum up business with international tour operators and kick off an all-island promotional drive for the 2019 tourism season.
Va-va voom and VAT
On Monday evening, pints of Guinness were flowing as crowds flocked to a shindig at the Irish stand, with hoards of attendees circling around its faux pub, tea room and music shop sets.
Last year, some €3.5 billion worth of business was done at World Travel Market. Team Ireland hopes to capture its share, and sentiment is up - CSO figures record more than 8.2 million overseas visitors from January to September, an increase of 7pc over the same period last year.
Niall Gibbons, Tourism Ireland's CEO, is shortly expecting confirmation of a "good lift" in the marketing organisation's €35m budget. With it, he hopes to oversee a new global marketing campaign and the redevelopment of the Ireland.com website, among other 2019 initiatives.
But it's not all good news. Budget 2019 confirmed a hike in VAT for the tourism sector from 9pc to 13.5pc, and there's plenty of muttering at the prospect.
“We have to up our price,” Spike Island's John Crotty confirms.
“We’re going from €18 to €19 from January, and the family ticket will go from €45 to €48. That’s solely due to the VAT rise. We’re not in a position to absorb that.”
Eoghan O’Meara Walsh, CEO with the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC), calls the VAT hike "a setback".
Like most at the stand, he's positive about 2019, largely due to booming air and sea access. But he also has concerns about the impact of price rises in rural Ireland particularly, and the possible damage to tourist demand.
“Next year is all about trying to consolidate, avoiding the peaks and the troughs that Irish tourism has suffered from in the past, and making sure that the record growth we have at the moment is sustainable,” he says.
“A lot of that is about making sure we have new product, services and experience for the international buyer. That's what this week at WTM is all about.”
Missing Ministers and Cliffs of Moher cattle
A 4.5pc VAT rise may not sound like much to the punter, but it could amount to a €220,000 hit for Choice Hotels in the Galway region alone next year.
That’s according to Andrew O’Neill, CEO of the hotel group, which has six properties in Ireland and one in London. Part of his job at WTM, O'Neill says, is to reassure clients that have already booked rooms for 2019 and 2020 that Choice will honour rates already agreed, and not pass the buck.
“We’ll stand over the rates we have given them and protect our business that way,” he says. “We just wish the Minister was here today, to try to talk to him to get his opinion on it. I’m very disappointed.”
He's talking about Shane Ross, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who won't be attending WTM due to government meeting commitments.
“It shows a lack of interest," O'Neill charges.
"Tourism is the second-largest employer in Ireland after agriculture, so it’s very important that he make a statement to say he is with us and that he is not cowering out in the back streets, trying to stay away from us. He should be here.”
In response, the Department said Minister of State Brendan Griffin will attend WTM today (Tuesday), and that tourism ministers "have made and will continue to make every effort to support the industry at important promotional opportunities overseas, including WTM".
Brexit is another word not far from everyone's lips. Though the mood is buoyant, attitudes to the 'B-word' range from the fearful to the fed-up.
39pc of Ireland’s visitors come from Britain, Eoghan O’Meara Walsh points out - one reason why the industry has doubled down on efforts to diversify its marketing to North America, continental Europe and beyond.
“The softer the Brexit, the better for Irish tourism. If you have a 'hard’ Brexit, you may get restrictions on aviation, different regulatory regimes, and that’s all bad for tourism… there’s an awful lot of things to worry about.”
On the other hand, new research released at World Travel Market - by ForwardKeys, which analyses flight reservations data – suggests that British holidaymakers may actually be “oblivious to the concerns” of the travel industry.
Forward air bookings by Brits for 2019 summer holidays are up 5.7pc compared to the same period last year, the company claims.
One place that isn't concerned is the Cliffs of Moher.
This year, the popular visitor attraction introduced a new online reservations system that allows independent visitors cheaper entry prices at less busy times.
“Overall we can deal with the numbers, but we need to spread them throughout the day, because it’s no fun for anyone if the site is really packed,” says the Visitor Centre's Marketing Manager, Maura Fay.
“Brexit isn’t really a concern. Our numbers from the UK are about 7pc and that’s relatively stable,” she says.
"But North America is growing, and we’re getting huge amounts of French, German, Middle Eastern, Chinese and Indian visitors… and they love Ireland.
"When they see cattle grazing beside the centre, things we take for granted, they’re delighted, you know?”
Read more:Irish Tourism in Numbers: From our most popular attraction to our least visited county... and more