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Felim O'Rourke: Forget the spin, tourism here is in real trouble

THE total number of overseas visitors to Ireland in 2011 was 6.6 million -- an 8pc increase on 2010. This is very good news -- or not, depending on how it is spun.

If we just look at the visitor figures and compare them with 2010, they appear very good. But if we dig deeper and compare 'real tourists' or holiday visitors in 2011 with earlier years, then we can see why our tourism industry is in such trouble.

In 2011, our emigrants made just over two million visits home to see their families. It is an insult to the parents of Ireland that our children coming home for a visit are counted by Failte Ireland as tourists. If we count only those who come to Ireland for a holiday, then we end up with 'real tourists' and the number of these for 2011 was 2.8 million.

We have to be very careful about comparing 2011 with 2010 because of the Icelandic volcanic eruption in April 2010. Irish air travel was massively disrupted from April 15 to May 17, but holiday travel was affected into June. This meant that the early summer of 2010 was a complete disaster for Irish tourism. A recovery in 2011 from the disaster of 2010 means very little.

The 2.8 million holiday visitors in 2011 was less than every year between 1998 and 2009. In 2007, for example, Ireland attracted just over four million holiday visitors, so 2011 is down 31pc on four years previously.

The best way of measuring Irish tourism is to count the bed nights of overseas holiday visitors. In 2011, these visitors spent 19 million bed nights in Ireland -- almost 30pc below the figure for 2007 and less even than the figure for 1995.

Very few people in Ireland know that real tourism in Ireland is now at the same level as in the mid-1990s. This is a tribute to the ability of Failte Ireland to spin.

This spin has dominated discussion of tourism policy for the last 20 years. As a result, the public remains in the dark about key facts concerning our tourism industry.

Last year, Irish residents made four million holiday visits to overseas destinations, compared with 2.8 million holiday visits to Ireland by overseas residents.

Irish residents spent 37 million bed nights overseas last year on holiday, compared with the 19 million bed nights spent by overseas holiday-makers in Ireland. Irish residents spent €2.8bn on holidays abroad in 2010 -- almost twice the €1.5bn spent by overseas holiday-makers here.

Tourism statistics are complicated and often confusing. Failte Ireland has failed to highlight the massive decline in overseas holiday visitors that has taken place.

Between 2004 and 2011, the number of overseas holiday visitors to Ireland fell by 18pc. Failte Ireland's spinning of tourism statistics has kept this from view.

Felim O'Rourke is an economist who has written extensively on tourism

Irish Independent