By and large the experience was not a particularly good one. For example, getting food in a hotel after 9pm was virtually impossible and one got the distinct impression that staff regarded visitors as a nuisance. As well as the poor quality of service the quality of the overall product was generally not good.
The experience prompted me to title my next column for this newspaper ‘The Irish Hostility Industry’. I got quite a negative reaction, but I stood my ground and felt confident in my assertions based on my own experiences.
A decade on, much has changed in Ireland. In my experience the quality of the tourism product has improved dramatically. There are now so many hotels in the country, admittedly many of the more recently built ones owned by Nama, that they have had to compete on price, and particularly, quality customer service to survive. The quality of restaurants and coffee shops is also incredibly high and towns like Dungarvan, Kinsale and Killarney have really established themselves as great places to eat and visit with a quality offering the most common experience.
Last week I had to visit Scotland for a few days and the contrast with contemporary Ireland was incredible. We flew to Aberdeen and hired a car to travel 60 miles to our destination in the Highlands. We stopped at five hotels on the journey to get lunch but as it was after 2pm food could not or would not be served. At the fifth there was a sign outside stating that food was served until 3pm. We went in at 2.30 only to be told that the chef had taken a half day — there was no attempt at an apology or a sense of regret.
The hotel we ended up staying in at our destination was pretty terrible — the food was awful, the staff were bordering on hostile and at 11pm everybody in the bar was ejected and no service was available after that time regardless of whether one was a resident or not.
Scotland might be a beautiful country that has a heavy reliance on tourism, but my experience was suggestive of an industry in remote areas that has a captive audience and treats it accordingly. I had a similar experience on a walking break in the English Lake District a couple of years ago.
Arguably, Ireland was a lot like that a decade or more ago, but we have learned the errors of our ways. For a country that has so much work to do to rebuild its economic model and identify the sectors that can contribute to our economic renaissance, tourism stands out as a sector that can offer considerable potential provided the product is correct.
Thankfully we are making considerable strides in developing the product and should be proud of rather than critical of what we have achieved. There are exceptions, but generally one can now go into an Irish hotel or restaurant and be fairly confident of receiving a high-quality product and reasonable value for money, not to mention a friendly service.
As I write this article in a Cork City hotel, it is late afternoon and outside of normal dining hours, yet I have received well-priced quality food served with a Cork accent and a smile.
I met a bus tour operator in Scotland who told me that five years ago he brought an average of six coach tours to Ireland every month, but this year he will bring none. He attributed this to the high prices in Ireland. Yes he was more than happy to bring his guests to a very low-quality hotel, but at least he was cheap. He clearly knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Ireland should take a bow and feel good about the tourism product that it offers. We should never sacrifice quality for price.