Taking the scenic coastal route to a wedding in the west of Ireland last week, it was a joy to motor pleasantly along quiet country roads devoid of tourist buses and high season traffic.
That said, it was hard to ignore the shuttered pubs in every small town we passed through.
Some were clearly recent closures, with business names still intact, while others displayed a more dismal and dilapidated frontage, indicating years of empty neglect.
Much has changed in rural Ireland over the past decade, with permanently padlocked pubs a malignant sore numbering 1,535 less premises than in 2005. That quaint hostelry with a half-dozen stools and a kindly older lady filling one’s pint with experienced care is a thing of the past in 2019, a vision only conjured in the memory of bygone, better days.
But, while the rural pub continues to wrestle with the combined constraints of stricter drink driving laws and the flight of populations to urban job markets, it can now add yet another obstacle to its often difficult modern progress.
Recent CSO figures reveal that the decline in British tourist expenditure continues, underlining the on-the-ground feedback concerning the lack of UK visitors this summer compared to 2018.
Second quarter figures reveal a 3.1% drop in UK tourist spend, compared with a 5.3% drop in the first quarter — representing a total loss of €19m in turnover for the first half of the year.
As has been heard many times across bar counters, the British tourist has always been a treasured guest on these shores, being of similar cultural tastes to us natives.
“The EU visitors are fine, but they’ll often just have one glass and leave,” a veteran publican once confided.
Though the spectre of Brexit has been put temporarily on hold, the prospect of less UK tourist traffic is a reality Ireland’s rural pubs must also add to their growing list of ills.
At a time when Brexit is causing obvious nervousness amongst UK travellers, the fact we have the second highest excise rate in Europe is severely hampering our competitiveness, according to Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners Federation of Ireland.
“British tourists are spending less when they visit Ireland, which is particularly significant as they share a similar culture and, so, usually spend more in pubs then American or European visitors,” he said.
The addition of the recent increase in the hospitality VAT rate “increasingly looks like an ill-timed intervention by the Government”, he added.
While major urban centres like Dublin, Cork and Galway will see the majority of tourists in any given year, smaller towns in rural areas suffer particularly due to being less economically diverse.
The Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) sees them as being highly vulnerable to the fallout of a no-deal Brexit downturn, particularly the reduction in tourism numbers and a tougher export market that are likely to follow a further devaluation of sterling.
The warning was made in a recent report, commissioned by DIGI, showing how the hospitality and wider tourism sector — of which the drinks industry is an integral component — contributes a substantial share of the overall employment picture.
Ireland’s tourism as a share of total employment is the fourth highest in the EU, after Greece, Cyprus and Malta.
Over recent years, hospitality employment has grown faster than total employment and employs 175,000 people, nearly 8% of all Irish workers.
The sector accounts for 9% of all jobs in the border region, and over 10% in Co Kerry.
While pubs remain a focal point of Irish culture, and a constant ‘must do’ on visitors’ lists, publicans, restaurateurs and off-licence owners cite high taxes as major culprits behind closures.
Ireland has the highest wine excise in the EU, the second highest beer excise, and third highest spirits excise, ranking alongside Finland and Sweden.
Up to 80c on every glass of wine, 55c on a pint of lager and €12 on a bottle of whiskey go straight to the Exchequer, giving Ireland the second highest overall excise alcohol tax in the EU.
Ireland may be a transformed country, economically and socially, over the past 20 years, but some things remain permanent cultural touchstones — such as the pub’s place in daily life.
“The drinks and hospitality industry is one of Ireland’s most important sectors in terms of tourism,” according to Rosemary Garth, chair of DIGI and director of communications and corporate affairs at Irish Distillers.
“This industry delivers over €6bn in tourism spend, but with Brexit uncertainty, and our lack of competitiveness in Europe, this industry is facing into some very challenging times,” said Ms Garth.
In France, excise tax on a glass of wine is just 1c, and the Germans charge only 5c on a pint of lager.
“A large-scale and long-term reduction in visitor numbers from the UK would have dire recession-type effects on the drinks and hospitality sector, particularly in rural Ireland, and lead to job losses and business closures,” said Ms Garth.