We need to diversify tourism so that all of Ireland benefits

Paul Kelly, Fáilte Ireland CEO, addresses the‘Tourism is Everyone’s Business’ Conference. Picture: Clare Keogh

Seven out of 10 bed-nights are spent in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, and Clare, and this congestion diminishes the tourist value of the rest of the country, writes Paul Kelly, CEO, Fáilte Ireland

Former US president Barack Obama was the keynote speaker at the World Travel and Tourism Global Summit in Seville this week. His message to all governments was that travel and tourism are drivers of economic growth and creators of jobs.

This is our message at Fáilte Ireland. As Obama was speaking in Seville, I was speaking in Cork to local government workers, at a conference at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The conference — titled ‘Tourism is Everyone’s Business’ — was hosted by the County and City Management Association (CCMA) and supported by ourselves.

If all politics is local, so is tourism. Tourism is an economic engine for growth and it helped pull us out of the recession of 2008. However, tourism can only grow with the practical support of local government, through city and county councils. Over the last five years, local authorities have invested €100m in developing tourist attractions, and such commitment is ongoing.

Tourism is countless strands woven into the fabric of the local community and economy. Attractive towns and cities draw overseas visitors to Ireland, so improving public facilities is not just an investment in a better quality of life and local civic pride, it is an economic necessity. It’s about supporting employment and communities — where and how people want to live — by diversifying tourism regionally and seasonally.

Last year, more than 10m overseas visitors came here. That was a record. The industry now generates almost €8bn in revenue and employs 260,000 people, but if we cannot ensure a greater regional spread of tourism, the sector’s potential for generating revenue and jobs will remain untapped in many parts of Ireland. This will have serious repercussions for rural regeneration and development, post-Brexit.

Currently, seven out of 10 tourism bed-nights take place in just five counties — Cork, Galway, Dublin, Kerry, and Clare. This regional disparity needs to be addressed. If it isn’t, we face severe congestion at popular tourism hotspots, thus diminishing the attractiveness of Ireland as a destination.

We are all called on to be deciders, implementers, and change-makers, not passive observers. At Fáilte Ireland, as the national tourism development authority, our job is to give thought leadership and to offer practical assistance to ensure our tourism industry is in-sync with both what our visitors want and who we are as a country.

The most critical of our partnerships are the ones we have with local authorities. In Cork, for example, we are working closely with both the City and County Councils on a number of important projects.

Cork is one of the focus points for our Maritime Visitor Experience Development Plan and we are working with both councils on developing unique visitor experiences in places such as Cork city, Cobh, Spike Island, and Youghal.

We also recently launched our investment scheme, ‘Destination Towns’, which is valued at €15.5m. Every local authority in the country will be able to bid for funding of between €250,000 and €500,000 to develop up to two towns in their area that have the potential to become a ‘destination town’ for tourists. Public spaces and squares, streetscapes, and markets will be enhanced in a way that will engage tourists. Local authorities will, quite rightly, be at the centre of this work.

Tourism is a bigger industry than almost any other. Our attraction for visitors is a desire to know who we are and how we live. They consistently look for are experiences that are authentic.

This was the message Irish tourism businesses heard directly this week from overseas tour operators at Meitheal 2019. Running since 1975, Meitheal is Fáilte Ireland’s flagship trade event, which we organise in conjunction with Tourism Ireland. This year was our biggest Meitheal yet and, as a no-deal Brexit looms, our most important.

We brought together more than 600 Irish tourism businesses and 300 international buyers from 22 countries, including Britain, Germany, France, the US, the Middle East, China, and India. We stage it to give tourism businesses the opportunity to pitch face-to-face to hugely influential, international tour operators. Thousands of new business contracts were signed, worth hundreds of millions to the Irish economy. This is hugely significant and positive, at a time of great uncertainty, caused by Brexit.

As we prepare for Brexit, central to our work is selling Ireland as a business tourism destination.
As we prepare for Brexit, central to our work is selling Ireland as a business tourism destination.

In the case of a hard Brexit, Ireland could lose more than one million overseas tourists from Britain alone, as well as other core markets. That could cost the tourism sector €380m and 10,000 jobs in the first year.

So, as we prepare for Brexit, central to our work is selling Ireland as a business tourism destination. Every business delegate is worth €1,600 to the economy, which is three times more than the average leisure tourist, so we’re maximising every opportunity.

Since January 1, we have secured conferences worth €57m to the Irish economy, which is an increase of 15% on this time last year. We want to grow the sector, particularly in the regions, to bring the value of business tourism in the Irish economy to well over the €1billion mark.

Currently, it’s worth €760m and supports 22,000 jobs.

We have stunning scenery, interspersed with historic towns. Each has a unique hinterland and history and a specific local experience.

The towns that reap the greatest benefits from tourism are those where all local tourism players pull together.

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