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Mark Evans: Hotels offer us a ray of hope as tourism figures start to rise

Falling revenues, more empty beds, zombie hotels. If you're involved in the Irish hospitality industry, you might be forgiven for doing a Basil Fawlty and going postal.

Recent releases do make grim reading at a time when misery seems to be the only currency in town.

The latest Hotels.com worldwide prices index shows Irish hotel room rates down 4pc -- set against a global rise of 2pc.

The recent Irish Hotels Federation conference wasn't one for the faint of heart either.

Some 84pc of the 180 hoteliers surveyed by the IHF said they were concerned about the viability of their business this year, pointing to the cost of doing business in Ireland.

And compared with this time last year, almost half reported a decrease in overall business levels, and one in five indicated no change.

But among the figures there is a glimmer of hope.

The Hotels.com survey also revealed that because we're slashing prices, Ireland's getting more competitive.

We're the least expensive destination in Western Europe and the fourth least expensive in Europe -- and that's up against stiff competition from countries (Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland) where wages and costs are still much lower than here.

And dear old Dublin is anything but. If you want a room here, you'll save a fortune on what you'd spend in the likes of London, Rome, Paris and even traditionally cheaper Madrid, Lisbon and Berlin.

So you're getting more bang for your buck -- and industry sources quietly confide that while passenger numbers from here to America are down, inbound traffic is booming on many routes with tourists attracted by cheaper prices, even with the euro strong against the dollar.

The IHF survey also revealed that one in three of those downtrodden hoteliers said business is actually up this year -- again a positive step with the industry feeling that we've hit the bottom, even if there is going to be a big climb back up.

And you can point fingers at what went wrong. Builders' hotels, built on the back of tax breaks in areas that didn't need them; the fleecing of tourists; lack of a basic cead mile failte in return; and an oversupply of beds in the market just didn't add up.

Now, finally, we seem to be getting our act together. I recently contacted Dublin Tourism to give some advice to inbound weekenders in the travel business. By the time they'd checked into their hotel, a variety of info and packs was waiting in their rooms.

We're aggressively seeking business again, getting back to basics, and our much-maligned tourist chiefs and foot soldiers here would put many foreign tourist boards to shame.

While many of the more soulless hotels of the boom look in peril, the traditional experts are riding the waves of recession.

Kenmare's Park Hotel is one of those timeless institutions that has seen boom and bust down the generations.

What it does, it does well. General Manager John Brennan and brother Francis are familiar faces on TV with their At Your Service series, and a loyal clientele return year after year.

Now John has splashed out on Dromquinna Manor Hotel in Kerry -- and, given his track record, who'd argue against the decision?

Another traditional favourite, Kelly's Resort in Rosslare, is also taking a positive view.

"Booking patterns for this year are good," says boss Bill Kelly, and the hotel -- where many of the staff are local, with local knowledge and smiles -- is in profit.

"Things are down of course, we're all working harder but my message to the team here is that nobody talks about recession," he reveals.

"There's so much negative energy trying to get hotels out of the sector -- it's not going to happen. We should channel that energy into getting more business into the country."

But for the consumer there is an upside. "The value in the hotel sector is unbelievable at the moment. I was in Paris recently, where a night in a five-star hotel would cost you up to e500 or e600 a night. In Dublin you can stay in a top-class hotel for e200 or less."

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