How was it for you?

At the end of a tourism initiative launched in the depths of the recession and met with no little scepticism, Conall Ó Fátharta puts away his céad míle fáilte and asks...

How was it for you?

WHEN plans for The Gathering were announced in May of last year, many were sceptical of the idea.

Quite apart from early public scepticism, the entire project wasn’t helped by some notable public figures such as Michael O’Leary and Gabriel Byrne pouring scorn on the idea.

While Mr O’Leary labelled the event as “The Grabbing”, it was the Hollywood star who really made the headlines by calling The Gathering nothing more than a “shakedown”.

Although Byrne later admitted this may have been too strong a word, he stood over the bulk of his remarks, describing Enda Kenny’s speech launching the event as “slightly offensive” and that “most people didn’t give a shit about the diaspora except to shake them down for a few quid”.

However, more than a year later, after almost 5,000 events attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, The Gathering is now being hailed as a success.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar has hailed The Gathering as a success, but it is hard to argue with the numbers.

For the first 10 months of this year, overseas visits to Ireland are up 7.3% — amounting to an extra 414,000 additional visitors when compared to last year.

Research carried out by IPSOS MRBI indicates that anywhere between 250,000 and 275,000 travelled to Ireland specifically for a “gathering”, or because of The Gathering.

It estimated that the return on the €12m investment by the Department of Transport, Tourism, and Sport is estimated to be worth in the region of €170m to the economy.

However, Gathering organisers are keen to stress that the event was not all about the money.

They point out that the initiative “harnessed a unique sense of community and action”. In short, that the event was a success because it was a people’s project, driven at grassroots level throughout Ireland. The events were unique and local, and drew on personal and local links with families and communities around the world.

While this might all sound a little twee, again the research seems to back it up.

A survey carried out by IPSOS MRBI found that 71% of people feel The Gathering has brought communities together. An even higher number, almost four out of five, say The Gathering has been “a source of civic pride”, while some 75% felt it was a “worthwhile investment” for tourism.

For the tourism and hospitality sector, the feelgood factor around The Gathering has led to a badly needed bumper year.

Irish hotels and guesthouses reported an increase in business over the last 12 months largely on foot of The Gathering and strong levels of growth in overseas visitors — up over 7% on last year.

According to results of the Irish Hotels Federation’s quarterly report, hoteliers are more upbeat compared to this time last year, with 73% of respondents seeing an increase in overall business levels throughout the year.

Chief executive of the IHF, Tim Fenn, attributed much of this growth to The Gathering, which he labelled an “enormous success”.

“The Gathering has proved an enormous success in attracting additional overseas visitors, particularly from North America which is up 15% this year,” said Mr Fenn.

“Many of these holidaymakers travelled around the country during their stay, delivering a boost to regional tourism and local econ- omies. We have also benefited from growth in tourism visitors from continental Europe and the UK.”

So good have things been in 2013, almost half of hotel and guesthouse owners have said they plan to take on additional staff in 2014.

Similarly, Adrian Cummins, the chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said that despite the initial scepticism of some about the initiative, it was clear to anyone working in the tourism and hospitality sectors that it had been a success.

“Anyone involved in tourism or in the restaurant sector will tell you that it worked,” he said. “We definitely saw an increase in tourists and a lot of that was down to The Gathering. It did a lot of good for the sector but also for the country.”

However, he said it was crucial that the success and goodwill engendered by The Gathering was not lost in the coming years.

“I think we should already be planning something similar for 2016. We shouldn’t lose what has been gained this year. It’s important that we engage with the communities on the ground and not lose out on the legacy of The Gathering as it has clearly been something that worked very well.”

The central theme running through most of the positive reaction to the initiative was that the legacy must not be lost.

Given the huge promotional juggernaut that was The Gathering, what’s planned for next year?

With tourism seen as a such a key driver of our economic recovery, it seems certain that the Government will look to build on the success of this year.

However, organisers have said that The Gathering is not something that can be easily replicated and, if done every year, its lustre would fade dramatically. They have recommended that a final decision should not be taken until after the final economic report — due in the second quarter of next year. However, they warned that The Gathering should not take place more than every five years.

For his part, Mr Varadkar seems to have taken this advice on board. While The Gathering was all about promoting Irish people, in 2014 the focus will be on our landscape and scenery.

“The Gathering won’t be easy to replicate,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Next year we’ll have a better idea of just how The Gathering performed in 2013, but at this stage a five or seven-year cycle seems the most likely option. So what comes next? In 2014 we’ll be putting Irish scenery back centre stage and developing the Wild Atlantic Way to showcase the fantastic Atlantic coast. This coastal driving route will be fully way-marked by next spring,”

That’s not to say that nothing similar is being planned for next year. The Gathering project team has confirmed that it has compiled a shortlist of sustainable Gathering events and are recommending that these be supported by Fáilte Ireland.

The hope is that The Gathering may lead to long-term projects, much like what occurred when Ireland held a similar initiative in 1953 called An Tóstal. The hugely successful event established iconic events in the calendar of Irish life such as the Rose of Tralee, the annual Tidy Towns competition, and the All Ireland Drama Festival.

Organisers of The Gathering feel it has resulted in a new form of “community tourism” — something Fáilte Ireland is planning to sustain in coming years.

As for the legacy of The Gathering, organisers have pointed to an improved tourism events schedule at both national and local level which offer visitors real and meaningful reasons to visit Ireland, a range of new tourism networks at a local level, and thousands of newly established or reawakened relationships with overseas contacts.

However, its real legacy will lie in whether the Government can follow it. There can be no doubt that it was successful, but whether projects like the Wild Atlantic Way and other scenic tourism drives can capture the imagination on the same scale as The Gathering remains to be seen.

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