VIDEO: One West Cork tourist town fighting back against washout summer

For any business, customer loyalty is vital, particularly during a summer routinely described as a washout. However, as Noel Baker discovered, one West Cork town is ensuring rain is not a spoiler by offering visitors more cultural events and a greater choice of eateries

VIDEO: One West Cork tourist town fighting back against washout summer

YOU can’t beat customer loyalty. Tina Philips, a Bantry native, but longtime resident of Cardiff, is pouring herself a tea outside Bantry House, taking in the view. The last time this reporter was in the same location, Tina was there as well. She even jokes she was wearing the same jumper.

Repeat custom is always welcome, particularly during a summer routinely described as a washout. For much of the country, the weather has not been kind, certainly in July and August, yet in Bantry, Co Cork, tourist numbers appear to be unaffected. There is a noticeable air of positivity about the place.

Sophie Shelswell White, who runs Bantry House, says visitor numbers are up about 4,000 compared with last year. It marks quite a turnaround for a place which, in 1946, became the first Irish country house to open to paying visitors.

Video: Denis Scannell

Less than a year ago, Sophie and her family were lamenting a licensing issue which had caused the cancellation of a proposed auction which, while effectively selling some of the family silver, would have gone some way to easing the financial burden and meeting the onerous running costs.

Now, that same licensing issue may have been a saving grace. While efforts are continuing to secure the involvement of benefactors which would see the contents of the house remain in situ, a greater number of visitors than before have been making their way around the premises.

According to Sophie, the much-maligned weather has something to do with it. “My Dad would say it’s because the weather is bad,” she says, referring to her late father, Egerton. “He used to love a wet bank holiday. It tends to be busier on wet days.”

Sophie Shelswell White, who runs Bantry House, says visitor numbers are up about 4,000 compared with last year. Picture: Denis Scannell

We’ve certainly had plenty of them in recent months, but the fluctuating weather patterns had been aided and abetted by a fresh marketing drive and new offers, such as guided tours included in the admission price.

While many other local attractions optimise their visitor numbers in fine weather, the reverse is true when the rain falls. Bantry House, on the other hand, is a safe bet on a wet day.

The festivals in the town — music and literary — were split this year by a week, rather than running back to back, and both attracted huge numbers of visitors to the harbour town, with Bantry House playing its part, hosting coffee mornings and chamber music.

Sophie also believes that the Wild Atlantic Way, already well established as a tourist attraction, is now entering the holiday lexicon.

“This year, I am hearing the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ term,” she says. “Last year, I didn’t hear the term being used.”

An example of a marketing campaign working out to perfection, this view is shared by Elaine Dempsey, the sales and marketing manager at the nearby Maritime Hotel who believes the Wild Atlantic Way will, at some point in the near future, sell itself.

Bantry is perfectly located to capitalise on the Wild Atlantic Way traffic, and visitors from overseas seem more durable when it comes to dealing with inclement weather than the domestic tourists.

According to Elaine, a small number of Irish holidaymakers ‘can’t wait to get home’.

As strange as it may sound, some domestic tourists arrive intending to stay for three nights, but if it rains for the first couple, they decide they may as well be at home.

Overall, the number of tourists staying at the Maritime is on a par with last year, as is revenue, but the weather has meant a few quieter nights.

“They are coming,” says Elaine, of the Irish holidaymaker. “The weather is so bad they are leaving a day early. In fact, many of the ‘home early’ brigade seem to be from Cork city but, in general, those that are staying in the town appear to be spending a little more freely than in previous years, compensating in revenue terms for the handful of nights during which the weather might have scared off some visitors.”

Sisters Clodagh, Aoife, Fia and Bronagh Henry from Douglas, enjoy their visit to Bantry Town. Picture: Denis Scannell

In addition, the aforementioned West Cork literary and music festivals continue to prove a huge draw.

“There aren’t enough beds in this area to cover it, it’s fabulous,” said Elaine. “We could have sold out the hotel twice over.”

As well as this, and the growing international awareness and appeal of the Wild Atlantic Way, other local initiatives have also proved successful, such as the recently-opened ‘Blue Way’ canoeing and kayaking routes nearby and continuing efforts to boost the year-round hillwalking attraction of the Sheep’s Head Way. “I think things are looking up,” Elaine continues, adding that when it comes to bookings, there seems to be less “rate resistance” than in previous years.

She believes that if suggestions of a medium-sized entertainment venue were turned into reality — the kind that could host concerts and shows — then Bantry’s upward trajectory would receive another boost.

On the streets, plenty of foreign accents are audible, among them are those of Swiss couple Peter and Anna Hammer. They have arrived just a few days previously from their home just outside Zurich, and are quite willing to express their happiness at their new surroundings. Two of their children have spent some time in Ireland before, so, while it is their first visit, they are armed with knowledge.

“We like the nature,” Anna says, while Peter outlines how they are essentially freewheeling around the country. They have yet to decide on where they will go, but Galway and Donegal are on the list during their 10-day visit. “What we are going to do is some walking,” he explains. “We have a lot of places in mind.”

As they speak, the sun is shining and the day is warming up, so it’s no surprise that they laugh when asked if the weather is a factor in whether or not they feel they can fully enjoy their holiday.

“We are from Switzerland,” says Anna, pointing out their home country isn’t exactly in the tropics. Peter adds that they holidayed in Greece last year — maybe they are keen to help out the bailout nations.

He does have one idea about how his Ireland holiday experience could be improved, however: “Change to right-hand driving.”

At the Stuffed Olive cafe, Graham Norton is just leaving as we arrive. Not all the cafe’s customers are much-loved BBC chat-show hosts, but, as staff member Bernie O’Sullivan explains, they get plenty of repeat business and have a loyal customer base, boosted by tourist numbers during the summer months.

On the benches outside, people with American and English accents are discussing the merits of the coffee they have tasted on their travels.

Bernie believes Bantry is a town that is now less weather-dependent than other coastal locations and that the occasional rain means people have to “think outside the box”.

Bernie O’Sullivan believes Bantry is not that weather dependent and occasional rain means people have to ‘think outside the box’. Picture: Denis Scannell

The vibrant cultural scene in Bantry is a case in point, with outdoor theatre, including a production of the Lonesome West, providing a fresh evening alternative to going to the pub. These kinds of cultural diversions — and a greater choice of eateries — mean visitors can use Bantry as a place where they can “stop and take everything in”, Bernie says.

Nonetheless, the weather has not been kind to everyone. “Someone relying on outdoor seating or with a tapas menu, it has affected them,” she says, “but we have had all these fantastic festivals.”

She returned to her native Bantry three years ago and remarks on the “fantastic” music scene and the gradual move to more of a cafe-style culture.

“There is more of an awareness of the little things going on,” she says.

‘Any fine day, it’s busy. Any wet day, it’s quiet’

Peter and Jill Drew on board the Harbour Queen Ferry, in Glengariff, Co Cork. Picture: Denis Scannell

On the road out to Glengarriff an elderly couple have pulled in at the side of the road and, with the splendour of Bantry Bay behind them, are posing for a selfie.

Down on the pier in Glengarriff another coach has arrived, bringing more tourists into the village, but not everyone has managed to swerve the impact of what has at times been a damp and dreary summer.

Brendan O’Sullivan of Harbour Queen Ferries is one of the operators of boats across to Garinish Island and out on seal-watching trips. “Any fine day, it’s busy. Any wet day, it’s quiet,” he says

Why? Because while the boats are covered, Garinish Island — a beautiful and unique place, its 37 acres forming an island garden complete with Martello Tower — is not, bar the extravagant and exotic trees and fauna.

By next summer, however, Garinish House will have been fully redeveloped and open to the public, meaning a separate attraction on an island which otherwise can offer just a cafe as a place of sanctuary from a downpour.

According to Brendan, the weather has been “a major factor” this year, one that has impacted on visitor numbers and revenue.

The early part of the summer was busiest for foreign visitors, whereas at this time of the year the ferries are more likely to be carrying domestic tourists, people like mother and daughter Janet and Siobhan Bradley.

From Douglas, outside Cork City, they have taken a number of domestic mini-breaks this year, and the Garinish trip was just the latest. They couldn’t care less about the weather and Siobhan says that it was “hard enough” to secure accommodation on some of the trips they took, something which might be music to the ears of the tourist board.

Peter Drew, originally from Lombardstown near Mallow but a resident of Southampton for the past 25 years, is another passenger on the boat, alongside his wife, Jill.

As we slow down to take in the sight of seals lolling on the rocks and float past the nest of a white-tailed eagle en route to Garinish, Peter says he has really enjoyed his holiday ‘home’ this year.

He is not the only one. The summer may have been a washout but it seems that for most people, it didn’t matter a damn.

“People don’t really come to Ireland for the weather, do they? That’s the bonus,” Sophie Shelswell-White says of any sunny day.

“That’s the cherry on top.”

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