| 20.9°C Dublin

If tourists want to experience the real Ireland, make them actually live here


THE WEARING OF THE GREEN: Temple Bar has been called one of the world’s most disappointing tourist desinations Photo: Steve Humphreys

THE WEARING OF THE GREEN: Temple Bar has been called one of the world’s most disappointing tourist desinations Photo: Steve Humphreys

THE WEARING OF THE GREEN: Temple Bar has been called one of the world’s most disappointing tourist desinations Photo: Steve Humphreys

'Misinformation and assumptions" - those were the stated targets of Airbnb's new report on the good it's allegedly doing us. Forget the housing crisis, never mind the vague tax rules for hosts, or the fact that our capital city is bursting at the seams.

According to the cheerfully titled Home-Sharing: the Positive Impacts on Dublin, which was released last week, the online accommodation service was responsible for more than €200m being pumped into the economy and a nixer of around €5k a year for the average host. Plus, many of those tourists said they wouldn't have stayed as long as they did without a cheap alternative to a hotel.

So Airbnb can't be all bad, right?

The optimism of this conclusion reminded me of a trip I once took to the US. I spent part of it with friends at an Airbnb property. One morning I was awoken by a blood-curdling scream from the other bedroom. As my friend had sat up in bed, he realised something was stuck to his back. He reached around - and unpeeled a condom from his shoulder blade.

I wanted to run for the nearest Holiday Inn but my friend calmly shook his pillows out for any remaining souvenirs and said: "Maybe the furniture is all made out of recyclable materials. Look at it this way: at least it was still in its wrapper."

It takes that kind of dogged determination to look on the bright side and to accept that the various 'positive impacts' of Airbnb's presence here outweigh the negative impacts. The baseline presumption that runs through the company's analysis is that tourists are always worth the money, so long as they pay the price.

But tourism is anathema to a living city. At best, it's a sort of a fungus that must be kept in check. The more that focus is placed on turning a city into a 'destination', the more likely it is that real people - citizens - will not want or be able to live there any more. They are shoved to the margins, and Dublin is a city whose margins are especially ugly. Our skyline is black with cranes but they are building hotels and offices, not homes. Apartments for real people to live in are an afterthought.

We won't be the first this happened to and we won't be the last. Venice already has no Venetians living in it. Barcelona is a city of barely two million which last year hosted almost eight million tourists. The untrammelled growth of the tourism industry has consistently been linked with corruption in Spain.

The writer and wit Fran Liebowitz says that tourists in a city are a bit like children in a house. You might think that you love great conversation and nice aesthetics, but the second you have a rug rat, your home transforms into a sea of plastic 'early learning' tat and conversation goes out the window.

So it is with tourists. We might pride ourselves on our heritage and culture but the second we make tourism the focus of an area, it all turns into diddly-eye music, rickshaw drivers and people wearing sandwich boards. And in the end, ironically, the tourists hate us anyway - for organising everything around them: witness Temple Bar being consistently called one of the biggest tourist disappointments in the world.

"But tourism creates jobs," is the inevitable reply.

Yeah, more crap jobs. A TASC report two years ago found that almost a fifth of all workers in the sector earned just the minimum wage - but not the mythical living wage (which is now reckoned to be €11.50 an hour).

Workers are often paid by the hour, meaning they lose several hours' pay on the traditional 39-hour week and the industry is replete with zero-hour contracts. The average weekly wage earned by workers in the hospitality industry is €325 - which is less than half the average wage for the country as a whole.

At least it can be said of Airbnb that its hosts and staff earn a decent cut of its profits. But spare me the claim that tourism in general is a boon for the type of employment you'd do yourself. Slave wages, slave conditions and a breed of beady-eyed B&B women is what tourists have brought us.

Many are reluctant to criticise tourism, as that's seen by some to be anti-foreigner.

Columnist Ita O'Kelly wrote last year about "a living city (Dublin) that is being choked by too many visitors, too many wheelie cases and way too many coffee shops catering to their needs." For her trouble, she was called xenophobic and worse by online commentators. As though objecting to a city being turned into a tatty theme park was the same thing as being against free movement of workers in Europe.

What's truly ironic is that the sheer number of tourists who clog up the capital actually makes it more difficult for Irish-based companies to house their own foreign workers. And it's those foreign workers, not rich tourists, who will really enrich Irish society.

In Spain, there is a movement called Guanyem Barcelona which aims to "win back Barcelona" and change the way the city deals with tourism. But when people raise similar concerns in Ireland, they are called jingoists.

Everyone is a tourist at some point - and while I wash my hands of Airbnb, I was, as mentioned, happy(ish) to use it, free prophylactics and all. But after a certain point I couldn't stand being another customer in a theme park either.

You don't really see a place - any place - as a tourist. Locals realise you are a parasite in their city. You are fleeced and despised and they keep all the best bits to themselves.

Acutely conscious of all this, I decided that if I ever went back to America it would be to move there for a while, and that, in the end, was what I did. Perhaps that would be the solution for the hordes who will visit Ireland this year.

Let them come, but if they do, they can't leave again, at least for a while. Perhaps then our infrastructure would improve, houses would finally be built and we might actually win our beautiful capital city back from the free market.

And perhaps then, too, some real meaning would be given to the Airbnb slogan: "Don't go there, live there."

Sunday Independent