JOE GILL: Unprecedented travel boom risks wrecking Irish tourism

Dubrovnik, Porto, Barcelona, and the Cliffs of Moher are some of the most attractive tourism locations in Europe. They are also becoming some of the most overcrowded and that has implications for the industry and policymakers alike, writes Joe Gill.

This year, residents in Barcelona protested against the volumes of tourists there. A friend of mine who visited Dubrovnik in the summer described it as claustrophobic.

The authorities there have been advised by Unesco to sharply reduce daily tourist volumes to protect the integrity of the city. On the Cliffs of Moher, there are days when the number of buses seems to interfere with the beauty of the place.

All of these pressure points are a function of fast-changing dynamics in the tourism industry worldwide.

The advent of low-cost airlines has opened up markets that previously were too expensive to access. Airbnb has created an entire wave of inexpensive accommodation, which, combined with low-fare flights, delivers huge numbers of tourists.

Next to all of this, however, there is one other major factor to consider — China. As with many other parts of the economy, global tourism is being radically changed by China, which is undergoing structural change.

That is enormously progressing the standard of living for its citizens.

Given the absolute size of the population, the rapid enlargement of China’s middle-class is producing a new surge in demand for travel outside of China.

The country’s airlines have been quickly responding to this multi-year advance in economic prosperity, and this will have implications for decades ahead.

It is expected, by large aircraft manufacturers, like Airbus and Boeing, that China will be the key driver of demand for new aircraft for the foreseeable future.

That implies the volume of Chinese tourists looking for experiences across the world can only grow.

Ireland has to weigh up the optimal approach to managing such potential.

Currently, there are no direct flights between China and Ireland, but that is expected to change relatively soon.

It is true, too, that Ireland is appearing on many Chinese tourism lists, particularly after the Wild Atlantic Way won a prestigious award there last year.

Every incremental tourist in Ireland is a benefit for the local economy, especially in rural locations. But any major step-up in tourism volumes could undermine the quality of experience at various tourist locations.

Furthermore, the temptation to price-gouge new tourists will only increase as numbers grow.

The tourism industry has to future-proof itself to ensure growth can be managed in a way that improves local and national economies.

A good way to begin is to imagine what a typical Chinese tourist will expect in Ireland in 10 years’ time.

That package would include direct flights, efficient local transport, price-competitive accommodation, good food and drink, and ease of access and use of tourism venues.

Delivering that package, together with Ireland’s renowned friendliness, would be a sure-fire bet for success, but it comes with the risk of overcrowding.

It should not be beyond the combined intelligence of the Irish tourism industry to figure out a way of managing this, without incurring the traumas evident for citizens of places like Dubrovnik and Barcelona.

Flow-management techniques, diversification of the number of tourism attractions, and an appetite for the hard work needed to attract Chinese tourists will help a lot.

Studying how other parts of European tourism are managing the pressure would be advisable.

China offers Ireland a golden opportunity for many parts of its economy, but this must be handled in a measured way that delivers long-term, sustainable success.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers.


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