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Q&A: Is Dublin losing its cultural soul in the rush to build hotels?


Ushers Island, known as James Joyce's House of The Dead, which is being converted into a 54-bedroom hostel. Pic: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

Ushers Island, known as James Joyce's House of The Dead, which is being converted into a 54-bedroom hostel. Pic: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

Ushers Island, known as James Joyce's House of The Dead, which is being converted into a 54-bedroom hostel. Pic: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

So why is Dublin about to start building more hotels than you’d find on a Monopoly board?

Because with the end of Covid-19 in sight, investors seem confident that the city’s tourism industry can make a rapid recovery.

Last week, estate agents Savills Ireland revealed that no fewer than 24 new hotels with 4,500 rooms will be developed here by the end of 2023.

Not everybody sees this as a good news story, however – with a protest movement called No More Hotels complaining that Dublin has become a playground for overseas visitors while failing to provide affordable housing, neglecting local communities and losing its cultural soul.

“To be honest, I don’t like the arrival of extra hotels,” former Lord Mayor Hazel Chu has said. “For the last 18 months, Dublin has been a doughnut with a hole at its centre. The last thing we want to do is build back to what it was beforehand – it wasn’t working.”

Is there really enough demand for all this new tourism accommodation?

There is good reason to think so. In the last pre-Covid year of 2019, Dublin hotels’ average occupancy rate was 82pc.

That’s the third-highest of all European capitals, behind only London and Amsterdam.

“There is a degree of catch-up due to the construction closedown last year,” says Tom Barrett, Director of Hotels and Leisure at Savills Ireland.

“Hotels bring employment and regeneration to the city, and we can now see that Dublin is… not as attractive without tourists.

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“Tourists bring energy to the city, so we have to meet that demand when international travel comes back.”

What effect has Covid-19 had on Dublin hotels?

Catastrophic. With holiday-makers, sporting contests and musical events all practically non-existent, many hotels had to temporarily shut their doors.

The room occupancy rate collapsed to 31pc in 2020, and for the first six months of this year it was even lower at 20pc.

While most hotels along the Wild Atlantic Way are now taking off again, Dublin is lagging behind. That’s because Dubliners, broadly speaking, are happy to take staycations in other parts of Ireland but the reverse does not hold true.

As the Irish Hotels Federation President Elaina Fitzgerald Kane has pointed out, 83pc of guests at their Dublin venues come from abroad – which leaves “a big void to fill”.

But despite the current gloom and doom, Dublin hotels’ long-term future looks sound?

Yes. According to a report by the global property group CBRE last April, Dublin may get fewer visits from corporate travellers after Covid because the pandemic has shown companies what can be done over Zoom.

However, the CBRE believes this will be more than offset by the “greater footprint” of international businesses here.

In particular, it expects our top ten technology employers to “more than double” their Dublin presence over the next two years.

The upshot is that by 2024, Dublin should be back to the good old days of 2019 when a record 6.6m visitors spent €2.1bn (that’s around €1,500 for every man, woman and child).

So where exactly is the backlash against hotels coming from?

It first became really visible in 2019 when the Bernard Shaw pub on Richmond Street closed down.

This had been a popular hang-out for DJs, graffiti artists and other hipsters, but could not secure a new lease and it has since relocated to Drumcondra.

“Dublin is changing, we can all see it and feel it,” the pub’s parent company Bodytonic declared.

“There are so many young, creative, clever, smart people in Dublin at the moment… but they need the spaces to meet each other, make plans and make them happen!”

Meanwhile, a mural was painted at the Bernard Shaw site with a self-explanatory slogan: “No More Hotels”.

This has become the title of a new grassroots campaign, pioneered by political activist Andrea Horan.

“Dublin was becoming a monoculture of facilities for tourists to splash their cash,” she has explained, “with nowhere for the residents of the city to let their hair down.”

So the hotel boom is not seen as bad in itself – just a symptom of a much bigger problem?

Exactly. The objectors’ real bugbear is Dublin’s housing crisis, which has pushed average rents up to €1,745 per month and forced many writers, actors and musicians to leave.

“If James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were around now,” the Limerick comedian and podcaster Blindboy Boatclub has claimed, “they’d be priced out of their houses by an Airbnb.”

To take just one recent example of commerce trumping culture, last April An Bord Pleanála approved plans to turn the house where Joyce’s famous short story The Dead was set into a 54-bed hostel.

This has outraged other Irish authors including Colm Toibin, Edna O’Brien and Sally Rooney, who say it will “destroy an essential part of Ireland’s heritage”.

Where does Dublin City Council (DCC) stand on all this?

Not for the first time, there is tension between the council’s officials and the people we elect.

Councillors passed a motion two years ago calling for a limit to the number of hotels being built, saying they were “deeply concerned at the increasing erosion of cultural life and space in Dublin city”.

However, council management rejected this on the grounds that it would leave them open to legal action. In fairness to DCC, it doesn’t just blindly wave through anything with a reception desk.

Permission for a nine-storey hotel on Capel Street was refused last February because council planners felt the area already had “a saturation” of similar establishments.

Finally, where does the debate over Dublin’s post-Covid future go from here?

Two upcoming documents should tell us a lot. One is the Government’s long-awaited Housing for All plan, originally scheduled for last week but now delayed until late August or early September.

Soon after that, DCC is expected to unveil its Development Plan 2022-28 – which will be closely examined for what it says about striking a balance between tourism and citizens’ rights.

Dublin’s hotel explosion means that our guests will soon be spoiled for choice about where to lay their heads at night. Sadly, the same can’t always be said for people who actually want to live here.