Time to get a better measure of tourism’s benefits

As the summer draws to a close it is useful to consider the impact of tourism on the economy. More particularly we can sometimes draw lessons and analogies from the tourism sector to the wider economy.

The proposed South Kerry Greenway, a cycle track along the bed of the old great southern and western railway from Killarney to Cahersiveen is an excellent example of the good and bad of economic planning.

Despite the importance of tourism in Ireland, there are relatively few published academic studies of its impact. This shows the impact of a marginal euro on the economy when that euro is spent in a sector. Two types are calculated — direct and indirect, the indirect also accounting for the increase in demand and consumption from the injection generated by the first.

The Department of Tourism estimates that upwards of €8bn in revenue is generated from the tourism sector and that something of the order of 200,000 jobs are dependent upon it. Such a large sector should really have a large amount of research pertaining to its impact. What little research that does exist tends to focus on issues around sustainability, or on willingness to pay for more environmentally-friendly products.

Part of the difficulty is the tourism sector is diffuse. The high-end golfers who jet in to play links courses in the West are a very different market to the European hiking and cycling tourists.

We do have some estimates of the impact. A 2014 comparative study put the direct multiplier for hotels and restaurants at 1.4, which would suggest a total impact of perhaps 2 or 3. Another study suggests that walking tourism generates around 12 jobs and €500 extra per 1,000 walkers. Some economic impact analysis does exist for greenways, but they’re neither peer-reviewed nor independent. However, they suggest a very considerable return from greenways. This is mirrored in other countries, where slow tourism has a higher economic impact in the longer run than alternative forms. Irish local authorities are at best moderate-to-poor in their analysis of the economic impact of tourism.

The Kerry Greenway has been planned for sometime but has been blocked for yet another year by a small number of objectors. I may perhaps be biased, coming from the area, but there is little doubt in my mind that a walking and cycle track along Dingle Bay into the heart of the Iveragh Peninsula would rank as one of the most spectacular tourist experiences anywhere in the world. People will pay good money to engage in slow tourism. Unfashionable though it may be I suggest it is far more beneficial to the environment, to the people, and to the tourists themselves, to slowly take in the sights than to hurtle around the Ring of Kerry in an air-conditioned bus.

There are great plans for greenways around the country but these do not link up. Even existing greenways are having difficulty. The great Southern Trail, which runs from Rathkeale to Abbeyfeale has a plan for extension northwards towards Limerick and southwards towards Tralee. The northward extension has stalled.

What would an ambitious national greenway plan look like? Recognising that such slow sustainable tourism has a strong impact, it is one we should seek. It would base itself around the remains of the once extremely extensive railway sector in Ireland.

This will require compulsory purchase orders of land and property, to either renew the railbeds or circumvent blockages. It would have a plan to place a cycle/ walking-only path the entire length of the Wild Atlantic Way. It would be nationally delivered as the evidence is that local authorities are ill-prepared for such initiatives and local micro objections can stall plans for years. It would ensure that gravel or asphalt are laid on the banks of all canals; it would ensure that there are regular, 10km-spaced, facilities for families; and it would link with the Pilgrim Paths initiative and with local food groups.

This is all very low key stuff and not terribly exciting but has far greater potential to ensure a vibrant rural year-round tourist industry and thus rural development than some of the present initiatives.


Brian Lucey is professor of international finance and commodities at TCD


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