TOURISM Minister Leo Varadkar's department cranked out a dreadful press release on Friday that goes a long way towards explaining why the sector is in crisis. The department was trying to promote the development of Ireland's first cycle route from Dublin to Galway. The off-road trail is a welcome change to the usual build-another-golf-course approach to tourism.
The problem is not the trail but the manner in which it appears to be planned. The canned quote from Mr Varadkar says it all: "I would love to see this project being completed within the next few years. It has the potential to bring in at least €15m per annum, much of that going straight into local businesses along the route."
The rest of the release makes it clear, however, that the route has not yet been chosen and funding for the overall project has not been allocated. The obvious question is how can Mr Varadkar, or anybody else, know how much money will be generated from a project that is still at the earliest stages and may well not even happen?
The press release adds that "the most recent figures available on cycle tourism show that 173,000 visitors to Ireland in 2011 engaged in cycling during their stay, spending an estimated €200m" but we are none the wiser. How many of these visitors rented bikes from the excellent Dublin Bike scheme. How many rented bikes for an hour at the Phoenix Park? What we need to know is how many people came to Ireland for a cycling holiday and what research is there to show that many more people want to come here.
The €15m figure has been plucked from the air and the release makes no attempt to justify the figure or explain it. This matters because the same department has a long, long record of over promising and under delivering. The Ryder Cup was meant to generate millions but never did. Taxpayer-funded projects such as the Aviva Stadium have almost broken the Football Association of Ireland. The National Conference Centre is another white elephant that costs over the odds and lies empty far too often.
Last week, the Fiscal Advisory Council was unusually critical of the Government's €2.25bn stimulus package announced back in June. The council didn't like the fact that the Government has made no serious attempt to analyse the costs and benefits of the various roads and projects announced with such fanfare back in June.
During the boom, the last government tended to rely on reports supplied by the promoters of projects rather than independent analysis. One European Commission report found that Ireland was the worst in Europe when it came to costing plans. The Greeks were next.
Woolly thinking is commonplace in all parts of Government but it is perhaps most common in Failte Ireland. Like the marketing departments in many companies, Failte Ireland yearns to be taken seriously but does nothing to ensure that this happens.
With the Gathering happening next year, I am already dreading the guff that will spew from the various tourism organs across the country. No clear targets have been set but we already know that it will be judged a success no matter how few people come to these shores because we will be told that far fewer people would have come without it.
The creation of a national cycle track sounds like a welcome change in policy but it will need more than a soft press release to make it happen and we will need a lot more hard information if we are to ever learn whether it is a financial success.