KYRAN FITZGERALD: Time to clean up our act on tourism

Wander down Dublin’s Grafton Street after a decent stretch of good weather and one can only be struck by the filthy stains — many caused by poorly maintained delivery vans — evident across the recently remodelled pavements.

Beer cans litter Temple Bar, Dublin. Pic: Photocall

Many litter bins are filled to overflowing. On the Grand Canal, large amounts of green slime clog the water.

It all rather makes a mockery of the brave PR campaigns organisations such as Tourism Ireland engage in.

During a recession, there is a decent excuse available for the inaction of local councils and State bodies like Waterways Ireland. 

During a windy day in the Cork city of the 1980s, litter flew through the streets. But then budgets were under huge pressure.

Today, five years into an economic recovery, with employment rates back to pre-crash levels, no such excuse exists.

Yet, availability of financial resources are not the only issue. Imagination and determination also play a part. The streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, are now considered to be cleaner than those in far more affluent London and New York.

In Dublin, much hope was placed in so-called ‘business improvement districts’ (BIDs) yet there have been little signs of improvement in areas covered by them.

The BIDs were narrowly renewed for a further five-year period, last year, but many local businesses oppose the scheme, arguing that it amounts to a form of double — or even treble — taxation, given that it means further payments on top of fast-rising commercial rates and service charges.

Ireland is undergoing a major upsurge in visits from overseas, both leisure and business based. It matters that we show our best face to such visitors, some of whom may be pondering a personal, or corporate commitment to the country.

Towns have been known to lose out on major investments due to having failed the basic appearance test during the course of an IDA-organised visit.

As of March last, an estimated 230,000 people were directly employed in the Irish tourist industry — with a rise of 25,000 in 2017. 

The Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC) recently published a plan which targets growth in Irish tourism revenues from just under €5bn to just over €8bn by 2025, with 80,000 additional jobs, many in the regions, resulting.

The reality is that many of these extra visitors — should they transpire — will be headed for Dublin, Cork, and Galway where the problems associated with large urban spaces from crime and homelessness are most evident.

An investment boom in the sector is currently underway, led in large part by the private sector. ITIC has estimated that €2.5bn has been committed by the private sector in the period up to 2021. 

The effort will have to be maintained. The industry body contends that 11,000 hotel bedrooms will be needed if its 2025 target is to be achieved.

The resurgence in visitor numbers has coincided with economic revival, but along with it has come the re-emergence of problems experienced during the Celtic Tiger years.

By 2009, 41% of tourists rated Ireland as poor value for money, according to Fáilte Ireland’s own surveys. By 2016, this rate of recorded dissatisfaction had fallen to just 5%, helped by a lowering in the Vat rate on hospitality services to just 9% and the removal of the airport tax. 

The signs are that this satisfaction rate is being reversed as prices surge, particularly in the area of accommodation.

The great epicentre of overcharging is Temple Bar where one can expect to cough up €12 or more for a glass of plonk in an informal eatery where those lucky enough to find a seat often end up squashed.

Perhaps it is time for the authorities to put pressure on particularly egregious offenders in the pricing space as part of an effort to rein in the animal spirits of landlord and hospitality purveyors.

Businesspeople are tempted by short-term thinking as they seek to fill their coffers. Countries must aspire to capture repeat business.

At national level, politicians need to review the current practice of heaping costs on to businesses in the form of rates and charges as such costs are almost invariably passed on to customers. But Dublin City Council, in particular, needs to examine carefully its own priorities.

It has an annual budget of almost €200m. Many — including some of its city councillors — question whether this is being spent efficiently. 

One idea would be to suspend sometimes controversial street ‘improvements’, such as the proposed College Green ‘Plaza’, pending a review of the quality of maintenance and repair in the city.

The trade unions, for their own good reasons, are resisting moves to privatise street cleaning. Certainly, the outsourcing of waste collection has hardly been problem free, but it has generated several millions in savings. 

Introducing new operators into the cleaning area might actually shake up the weary complacency that appears to pervade this key sector.

Businesses are a key component in the life of the city. Many have come under attack during the recession while a new threat has emerged in the form of rocketing rents during the recovery.

We run the risk of creating a new commercial monoculture along the lines of so many urban centres across the water. This will do nothing to enhance the visitor experience.

We need to examine why it is that family businesses appear to survive over longer periods in many continental European cities than is the case in either Britain or Ireland, where many city districts have been penetrated by often soulless retail chains. 

The spread of the rather creepy Starbuck logo through our towns is a case in point. We are losing too many of the businesses that bring variety to our central districts and long-established suburbs.

Dublin has, arguably, been worse affected than Cork, but Leeside has experienced the loss of many of its most loved high street businesses.

A solution to this conundrum will not be easily found. Perhaps we could revamp our system of commercial rates so that more of the burden is borne by chains and other businesses with large turnovers, while a fund is set up to provide backing for low profit businesses such as small bookshops and those with a true heritage.

In seeking to spread the tourism ‘load’ across Ireland, Tourism Ireland is making a correct judgement call. The Wild Atlantic Way is one of the most successful Irish consumer brands to emerge since the 1980s. 

It is now being backed up by Ireland’s Ancient East and by Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, the brand covering much of the Shannon/Midlands region.

But brands need to be backed where it matters. Rivers need to be maintained if greenways and the like are to thrive. Local farmers need to be brought onside. 

Local authorities now have a greater role in local tourism development. But a spread of best practice in planning is required. Town centres have been left to decay, with businesses relocating to suburban parks.

In many respects, tourism can act as a canary in the coal mine, a warning of potential social and environmental decline, or even of meltdown. Clear-eyed visitors can, themselves, act as our eyes and ears. 

Much greater effort could be put into the recording of their experiences using the latest technology.



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