Life in Kilkee after the Covid-19 lockdown: ‘People are eager to get going’

Hotels in Kilkee are noticing an increase in bookings for July onwards, mostly from domestic tourists, mainly from Limerick and Dublin.
Life in Kilkee after the Covid-19 lockdown: ‘People are eager to get going’

John Hickey has more reasons to be cheerful than most hoteliers in tourist towns around the country right now.

He owns one of the main hotels in Kilkee on the Co Clare coast.

While tens of thousands of tourists would normally flock to the picturesque town at the entrance to the Loop Head peninsula, the place has been pretty much deserted since March.

Even the  June bank holiday weather failed to bring them back.

While novelist Charlotte Bronte honeymooned in Kilkee in 1854, Hollywood legend Richard Harris won the men’s open racquet championship, and where Che Guevara visited in 1962, the only strangers of any note to grace the Loop so far this summer were the group of basking sharks feeding at Byrne’s Cove, near Kilkee Golf Course, on May 8.

But despite the gloom, John believes that when he reopens at the end of the month, the truncated tourist season will pretty much return to normal at the Bay View Hotel.

Bookings at his 17-room boutique hotel are back up, and business is on course to being as good as last year for July until at least mid-September.

“Obviously there is a big percentage of bookings gone but the trend we are seeing is that a lot of domestic bookings have rebooked,” he says.

“A small percentage of foreign bookings have rebooked for next year and I do mean a small percentage, maybe about 10%.

“But we are lucky enough that if, going by government guidelines we do get to open on 20 July, it is looking pretty good right out to the middle of September roughly.

“If you compare last year for booking up occupancy, it is the same. It looks like people are eager and waiting to get going.

“They are waiting to get travelling, waiting for the travelling restrictions to be lifted, which the sooner that is, the better.”

Other hotels in the town are also noticing an increase in bookings for July onwards, mostly from domestic tourists, mainly from Limerick and Dublin.

Surfers meet basking sharks, offshore in Co Clare.  Pic; Tom Gillespie via Instagram @tom__gillespie
Surfers meet basking sharks, offshore in Co Clare. Pic; Tom Gillespie via Instagram @tom__gillespie

It's welcome news for a community where the season making any decent money ends in September. For many, that has to last them throughout the year.

While Kilkee has a population of about 950, this increases to around 5,000 for the summer months, with many staying in the local caravan parks or holiday homes in and around the town. But on any hot summer weekend, there can be up to 20,000 in the town.

A number of events that draw people in have either been cancelled or postponed, including the Hell of the West triathlon event, Run Kilkee, and the famous Strand Races, a rare horse racing event given so few towns in Ireland host horse racing on their beaches.

With Covid-19, the town is effectively dead.

“Kilkee has been badly hit," says Fianna Fail county councillor Cillian Murphy, who ran a restaurant in the town until last December

“We are probably no better and no worse than any other coastal community in the country. At the minute there is nothing happening - even when the sun is splitting the stones here in Kilkee. We are empty.

“In the run-up before the June bank holiday weekend with great weather we would have expected the place to be packed to the rafters.

“What happens next is the real question.”

A big issue for businesses - most of which are small, family-run operations - is the lack of clarity over physical distancing requirements, whether businesses have to comply with one or two metres physical distancing.

However, an article in medical journal The Lancet this week comes down heavily in favour of maintaining the two-metre rule. This could well spell the ruin - or reinvention - of many small businesses not just in Kilkee but all over the country.

“By the nature of many small communities, many of our businesses in Kilkee are small,” says Cillian, who works as a tourism destination development consultant.

“We don't have lots of space and businesses tend to be small family operated businesses in the main. So if it is a two-metre rule, it is just not workable. There isn't a business in the world that can build a business model on a 50% footfall of its business model.

“The other thing from a seasonal resort point of view is that if the big towns don't get to open until September 1, there is some chance of having a trade over the winter. So, if you are in Ennis or Limerick or Galway or Dublin, the season isn't the be all and the end all. In Kilkee, it is.”

Restaurant owner Johnny Redmond is another businessman also seeing an increase in bookings for July and August, but he too is also dealing with the fact that his income has all but vanished since March.

The last time he took a big financial hit was in 2014 when the town was badly hit by Storm Darwin.

John Redmond owner of The Strand Restaurant, Kilkee, Co Clare. Picture : Eamon Ward
John Redmond owner of The Strand Restaurant, Kilkee, Co Clare. Picture : Eamon Ward

The strand road on either side of him was in effect ripped up and he spent up to 16 months with roadworks around him.

“At one point, you could have been forgiven for thinking I was living in a building site,” he recalls.

It cost him more than €50,000 in lost business at his Strand Bistro, Seafood and Steaks and Guesthouse.

Before then, the biggest shock to his business was the toll emigration took on it.

He also used to own the Strand Bar music venue.

“It was possibly the busiest bar in West Clare at one stage but after the recession in 2010 all my 18- to 25-year-old clientele went to Australia and it never recovered,” says Johnny. “So I sold it.”

As to the future with Covid-19, Johnny - who completed a degree in electrical engineering - is unsure.

“I think it is one of these 'how long is a piece of string?' scenarios,” he says. “We would normally have six months of the year, in which you would attempt to make a living.

“Now you have possibly six weeks between now and September and we are very unlikely to get the foreign tourists that would hang around in the off-season between September and October.

“I have a restaurant that seats 70 people in one go and I have to wonder how many am I going to be like to have in it, what the physical distancing restrictions are going to be.”

Like most of the business owners in Kilkee, Johnny doesn’t live in the town because he has to. He and his civil servant wife live there because they want to.

However, it is times like now that the economic realities of life in their remote piece of rural idyll.

“It is a big ask every year for a seaside resort to make a good living, hence the fact that I've just done a degree and my wife has another job,” he says.

“I can guarantee you don't make enough out of running a business over a summer season in Kilkee especially.

“I don't know what is going to happen but it is going to be a hard slog to see some places open next year, and that will depend on the support they get from domestic tourists.”

Nonetheless, John Hickey remains optimistic.

“I can only speak for myself but we rely a lot on domestic tourism,” he says.

“We are very lucky in that we are one of the few places here that stays open all year round.

“We have a very, very good and very loyal local customer base.

“But then we do also get a huge support from people with second homes and holiday homes when they come to the town.

“People are starting to come back to us and I believe that is a trend that will continue.”

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