On the week that traditionally marks the beginning of the Irish tourist season proper, 2019 is already shaping up as a challenging year for this most important of industries.
And given the spectre of Brexit, the current season faces a significant uphill struggle to match the record-breaking success of last year.
In 2018, some 11.2m people visited the country — an increase of 6% on the previous year.
In revenue terms, that amounted to €6.1bn — an increase of 10% from 2017.
When Fáilte Ireland’s chief executive, Paul Kelly, addressed the Irish Hotel Federation’s annual conference earlier this month with the message of the need “to prepare and diversify”, it was another rallying cry to an industry that has shown itself to be inventive and resilient to similar challenges in the past.
Advising the industry to step up its efforts to diversify into newer markets ahead of Brexit, he urged businesses to be both “product-ready” and “industry-ready” ahead of the impending UK withdrawal from the EU.
Attempting to better the record-breaking figures of 2018 is surely a tall order in a turbulent year.
But the tourism sector which demonstrated its adaptability to survive and thrive through the recent recession does have a reasonable hand of cards to play in this high-stakes game.
Given the success of the Wild Atlantic Way and the Ancient East (both of which caught the imaginations of visitors around the globe) the latest addition to Ireland’s geographical offering may be another success.
Tourism’s latest regional brand — the Hidden Heartlands — is planned to complement its east and west coast initiatives by opening up the relatively unexplored midlands region.
It is focusing on thegrowing trend for “active in nature tourism” in a region rich natural assets of lakes, waterways, woodlands, and distinctive landscapes.
The relatively overlooked region currently hosts only 4% of all international and domestic overnight stays.
But the region clearly has potential, with gems such as the extraordinary Cloughoughter Castle on an island in the middle of Lough Oughter in Killykeen Forest Park, or the remarkable Corlea Trackway, built from huge oak planks, preserved in a Longford bog since its construction in 148 BC.
The Hidden Heartlands will have its international marketing debut next month. It will be part ofMeitheal 2019, Ireland’sbiggest trade event for overseas tour operators.
Another lucrative slice of the tourism industry which has hit the ground running in 2019 is the conference and business sector, worth over €760m to the economy and supporting 22,000 jobs.
January proved a record month for attracting international business conferences and events to Ireland, with 57 conferences and 19,000 international delegates contributing €28m at venues around the country.
That surely speaks well about the possibilities for that part of the industry over the full 11 months.
With every business delegate estimated to be worth €1,600 to the economy, three times more than the average leisure tourist, it is clear why Fáilte Ireland aims to build the sector to €1bn by 2025.
Business tourism has also been identified as a priority area to help offset any Brexit aftershocks. It has the additional benefits of helping boost business at convention bureaus in Shannon, Cork, Kerry, and Galway.
Fáilte Ireland is aiming to win conferences worth €31m for locations outside Dublin this year, a 15% increase on last year, including. The conferences secured so far include the Union of Aerospace Insurers, the World Ballroom Championships, and the Third Global Soil Biodiversity Conference.
With last week’s Cheltenham Racing Festival having enjoyed another bumper year, it seems entirely appropriate and timely that a unique tourism project is under development tocelebrate Ireland’s horse-racing heritage.
Located at the National Stud and Gardens in Kildare, the attraction will play to a “Sport of Kings” theme in a €3.2m investment where visitors can “race” their horse by using state-of-the-art simulation technology which is new to Ireland.
This Irish RacehorseExperience is due to open next year.