Brexit and fewer British visitors, Airbnb’s incursion into the accommodation sector, and the Vat hike are reasons why the Kerry beauty spot has lost its bustle, says Anne Lucey
At this time of the year, Co Kerry, one of the country’s tourist magnets, should be bustling. But parts of the county do not have the visitor numbers they had during a bumper 2018, and tourism chiefs have identified a number of factors.
They say direct oversight of Airbnb and all short-term letting, a return to the lower Vat rate, and direct regional marketing are needed to protect the tourist industry.
Tourism is noticeably down in Killarney this season. Vat, the constant movement along the Wild Atlantic Way, and worry over Brexit are being blamed for a drop in the number of British visitors.
Cancellations of whole coaches are also being reported and coach business is down, possibly because of the public service shutdown in the US in January, as well as that significant Vat hike.
In Kerry, it is not just the spare room that is a quick Airbnb money earner — containers in back gardens are being let.
And the spare room is now going to increasingly mobile tourists, for one and two nights, instead of to seasonal staff.
Last month, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy brought in new rules, requiring Airbnb, and other short-term letting hosts, to register with their local authority, and apply for planning permission, if they rent out an entire property for more than 90 days a year.
But Killarney guesthouse owner Kathleen O’Regan Sheppard said anyone doing Airbnb should be required to get planning permission, for health and fire-safety reasons and so as not to undermine the established industry. She said 90 days was the whole season for many in Kerry, and all short-term lettings should come under the planning radar.
Ms O’Regan Sheppard, owner of Kathleen’s Country House, has been at the ‘coal face’ of the industry for decades.
Ms O’Regan Sheppard, a former chair of Kerry Chairing County Tourism, Kerry IHF president, and director of Cork Kerry Tourism, said Airbnb has radically changed the accommodation business in Kerry, particularly for its most established tourist area, Killarney.
“The facts are shorter stays and more traffic, as people move around,” Ms O’Regan Sheppard said.
The county has one of the lowest incomes per capita in the country, alongside the border counties, but the 250-year-old tourism industry is a huge contributor to employment and to the national purse.
But the changing accommodation sector is threatening to undermine that. The lack of oversight is bound to bring a fall in professional standards and to be alarming for registered properties.
“My own rates to the local authority, Kerry County Council, are €7,951. I have to turn over three times that just to pay the rates.”
The pressure from Airbnb is also having a knock-on effect on accommodation for workers in Killarney and Dingle, with rooms no longer available for them.
No-one seems to be taking account of the impact — on the environment, on waste water, and on energy — of the one- and two-night stays, the washing of towels and sheets, and other linen, she said.
Ms O’Regan Sheppard also said regional marketing bodies need to be reinstated.
“We need the Killarney and south Kerry area to be marketed properly and we need a return from Cork-Kerry tourism,” she said.
Kerry County Council, which has involved itself in marketing in recent years, really has enough to do looking after infrastructure, like roads and beaches, and signage.
There are calls now, in Kerry, for more locally organised direct marketing, a strategy that is paying dividends for Kerry Airport.
It has increased its numbers, despite a rocky market in the UK. The growth is largely due to a new marketing strategy, in anticipation of the nervousness this year would bring in the UK.
Year on year, the airport reports total overall passenger growth. Total passenger numbers, January to May 2019, are 134,860, versus 132,462 in 2018, which is a 2% growth, year on year, without any additional flights.
April passenger numbers, particularly on the Dublin and London routes — Kerry has links to both Stansted and Luton — stepped back in growth.
“However, June/July numbers are trending upwards and should support clawback and further year-on-year growth,” John Mulhern, the airport company’s new chief executive, said.
“The reason we have managed to hold off the negative impact of both Brexit and the weak pound has been an organised, and pre-emptive, and targeted campaign of marketing by the airport, over the past five months, to lessen the effect and, in our case, even make some ground, year on year,” Mr Mulhern added.
Tom Randles, Killarney hotelier, newly appointed to The Tourism Leadership Group of the Department of Tourism, says “worries” and uncertainty about Brexit are having a bigger effect on domestic tourism than is generally appreciated.
“Roads are noticeably quieter,” Mr Randles said.
This is not due to any better traffic-management strategy, but to a lower “volume” of visitors.
Mr Randles said it is the domestic sector that is down. Of the 1.1m tourists to Killarney, over 420,000 are from other parts of Ireland.
The fall is in the farmers and those who work in the food industry.
“A lot of people visiting Killarney work in the agri-food sector. They are worried,” he said.
The Americans are around in numbers, but September is their biggest month for arrival.
Mr Randles will be part of the group to oversee the development strategy over the next two years of the national tourism action plan, under Tourism Ministers Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin.
He said the concentration of overseas visitors in Dublin is a big challenge.
Approximately 80% of overseas visitors arrive into the capital and leave from there, and there is much work to be done in getting tourists directly into the regions.
“Regionality and seasonality are big factors,” he said.
But along with Brexit, the 4.5% hike in Vat is having an undue effect on tourism enterprises in the regions. The restaurant and hotel spend is down this year, as a result.
“We have the highest tourism tax rate,” Mr Randles said of Ireland, adding it needs to be reversed, particularly in the regions, where the Vat hike was the difference between surviving, and not surviving.