Why only promote Irish summers?

THE Irish landscape, still the main attraction for the seven million plus tourists who come here each year, is just as exquisite in winter as it is in the summer peak season.

Yet, we get only a scattering of visitors between October and March.

This is in contrast to the situation in Scotland where they have an organised winter tourism scene, supported by the government and tourism authorities. Reckoned to be worth around £70 million, it fills thousands of empty beds and puts bums on bar stools and restaurant seats at a slack time of the year.

There’s no reason why the same situation should not pertain in Ireland. Our scenery is very similar and our tourism offerings are every bit as good as those of our Celtic neighbours.

And though we may constantly whine about the weather here, the Scottish winter climate is, if anything, worse than ours. Having experienced the cold, rain and piercing damp of the Firth of Forth (not to mention the Highlands), a few years ago, I left with an understanding of the Scots’ liking for good whiskey.

They need the ball of malt to take the chill out of their bones. Hence, their far-famed partiality to a cheery wee dram.

A recent plan announced by Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar to spend €9m on marketing Ireland as a winter holiday destination is to be welcomed. It will target Europe, Asia and the US, and joint campaigns between Tourism Ireland and a list of private operators will reach an audience of 20 million potential overseas visitors.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that Kerry Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin was ahead of his minister in this one. The deputy from the glorious Dingle Peninsula had been urging a winter tourism promotion for some time. Like many others, he couldn’t understand why, come October, the Irish tourism industry virtually locks up shop.

It means that facilities, hotels, bed & breakfasts, trails and mountain walks are all but closed down for half the year.

Deputy Griffin believes likewise and says we should be optimistic and aim for that target, adding: “Scotland focuses on the romanticism of its lakes, Edinburgh and twilight evenings with log fires in pubs and hotels. In addition, they are focused towards the couples market.” Killarney’s Lough Lein is just as beautiful in February as it is in July; similarly with Kylemore Abbey, in Connemara. And we need go no further than Inchydoney, Baltimore, or the Beara Peninsula in west Cork.

A walk on a beach at this time of year can be an invigorating thrill, with Atlantic winds blowing and rollers beating a steady rhythm as they crash onto the surf-fringed shoreline. Nor is the rain an excuse for shirking the outdoors: all you need is suitable clothing and footwear.

In Scotland, winter tourism is centred on a series of festivals, starting with St Andrew’s Day, on November 30. The biggest lure is the Hogmanay New Year celebrations in Edinburgh on December 31. More than 60 festive events are featured on the Scottish programme and many of the visitors move around the country to savour its varied outdoor delights.

In Ireland, we should be able to build such a programme around cultural and heritage events. Our weather-independent musical and literary traditions come to mind.

Here’s an idea. Let a winter tourism programme begin with a major national festival at Halloween, an authentic Irish event dating back thousands of years to druidic times and immersed in Celtic mysticism which fascinates many visitors.

Given all that goes on at Halloween, it need not take too much effort to organise a festival in every city, town and village during that week at the end of October when we officially move into winter. And let’s concentrate on what’s truly Irish rather than the imported American influences, trick-or-treating etc.

The ghostly/spooky bit is an obvious one to go for as a lure, but why not include storytelling, music, visits to fairy forts, stone circles, haunted mansions and castles and encourage the revival of old Halloween customs such as snap apple something that took place in every home until a generation ago? Visitors would come here at Halloween expecting thrills and frights, so give them what they want as well a true picture of what this old Irish festival is all about. They might even repair to cosy Irish pubs in the fading light where they could chance upon natural storytellers, giving a boost to the hard-pressed licensed trade.

Halloween could become Ireland’s Hogmanay. Go for it Mr Varadkar and Tourism Ireland.

* A sincere thanks to readers for their good wishes during my recent illness and to colleague Tommy Barker for standing in. It’s great to be back.

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