Mid-West needs to recapture its tourism ‘mojo’

IN the 1960s and 70s, Ireland’s Mid-West region was recognised as an international benchmark for tourism innovation with a Brendan O’Regan-led Shannon Development inventing everything from duty-free shopping to medieval banquets and from Irish coffee to the folk village recreations.

Of course, things were somewhat easier then.

The compulsory stopover for transatlantic airlines meant that most US visitors disembarked at Shannon Airport where, armed with the then mighty dollar, they immediately found Irish prices much to their liking.

But this advantage didn’t breed complacency, with O’Regan ensuring there was always plenty to keep them within, what was then, the cutting-edge Mid-West. Aside from the famous banquets, visitors could also attend the pioneering Shannon céilí, shop duty free, stay in a castle or visit the authentically recreated Bunratty Folk Park.

With the departure of O’Regan the area somehow lost its mojo. Others copied his innovations and visitor numbers declined as international tourism became intensely competitive with the result that, by 2010, overseas visitors to the renamed Shannon Region were almost exactly equal to the figure for 1993.

So how is it that a region once renowned for innovation and having the world renowned Burren as its unique selling point has achieved almost zero growth when the total number of overseas visitors to Ireland has more than doubled?

The end of the compulsory Shannon stopover was certainly a huge blow, with the region then looking to Michael O’Leary as its saviour.

The Ryanair chief proved no philanthropist but a hard-nosed businessman driving an ever harder bargain that eventually proved a deal breaker. In any case, it was probably naive to believe the airline would ever deliver an alternative to the free spending type visitors lost from the American market.

Increasing passenger numbers is, in any case, a necessary but not sufficient condition for visitor growth since approximately half of all airport passengers are just returning travellers. Others are coming anyway for family or business reasons and will simply use a local airport if there are convenient flights.

Finally, those travelling for leisure purposes are a highly autonomous bunch, clearly knowing the difference between price and value. They are resolutely not in the business of being delivered anywhere despite Michael O’Leary assertions that he could deliver millions of extra visitors.

Research shows they do not choose a destination on the basis of connectivity. Instead they seek a region that best suits their idea of a compelling experience and it is only then that cheap, convenient access becomes important in ensuring a holiday purchase.

Lahinch hotelier Michael Vaughan is, therefore, correct when recently declaring what is needed for the Shannon Region “is a comprehensive integrated aviation and tourism policy”.

Capturing the heritage of the area with a suite of unique visitor attractions was how O’Regan achieved this five decades ago, but these heritage-based innovations have since been copied to death.

What the region needs is a paradigm shift towards the so-far under-exploited area of activity-based holidays, where it possesses huge comparative advantages.

An innovative way to start would be to concentrate resources on marketing north-west Clare as an international hub for outdoor recreation. This area possesses an internationally unmatched combination of natural features ideal for meeting the needs of walkers, cyclists, rock climbers, pot holers, mountain bikers, surfers, anglers, botanists and other water sports enthusiasts.

Fully exploiting these strong comparative advantages would hugely stimulate tourism in Clare and create a spin-off helping the wider Shannon Region reclaim its place at the cutting edge of Irish tourism.

* John G O’Dwyer works as a travel consultant for incoming tourism

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