Irish tourism is booming with visitors per capita leaving hotspots such as Spain in the shadows. However, worrying patterns of tourism spend demonstrate widespread inequality.
From January to October, figures show overseas visitors increased by 11.6% and are expected to reach a record nine million for 2016.
In Dublin, visitors from abroad reportedly spent €1.72bn in 2015. The figure for the nine westerly counties along the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) was €1.83bn, representing an increase of €500m in just two years. The state’s remaining 16 counties shared €703m, about 16% of the total.
Clearly, Dublin and the WAW counties have powered ahead, while the remainder languish. As 2015 had been the first year the WAW had been signposted, it is very likely the upward trend will, without intervention, become more pronounced.
About 80% of overseas visitors enter Ireland through Dublin. Typically, they spend a few days exploring the capital before moving west.
They may stop at Clonmacnoise or the Rock of Cashel but these visits rarely detain them. Mostly they will overnight and do their serious spending in one of the counties on the western seaboard.
Along the seaboard from Donegal to Cork, a continuation of this imbalance may not be optimal. Having visited Killarney, Dingle and Doolin this summer it was clear those top tourist areas were close to their maximum carrying capacity.
Carrying capacity is the number of visitors that can use a destination without environment disruption or an unacceptable decline in the visitor experience. When capacity is exceeded, tourists begin voting with their feet.
Visitors per capita to Ireland are now greater than Spain. Previously, the Spanish Mediterranean lost market share as a consequence of tourism growing exponentially with the local infrastructure incapable of handling the visitor numbers.
Already, there are warning signs for Ireland: severe accommodation shortages in Dublin and traffic snarl-ups becoming increasingly common along the WAW.
There is now a strong case for pro-actively supporting weaker tourism regions to avoid diseconomies in stronger areas. Creativity and imagination will, of course, be required and looking at my own county of Tipperary it is clear we are failing to maximise the internationally branded attraction the Rock of Cashel represents.
Average time spent on site is about an hour with most visitors then continuing elsewhere. To hold on to visitors, why can’t access be provided to the wonderful 360-degree panorama from the top of the central tower? Health and safety perhaps? But Blarney Castle and Trim Castle, among others, are examples of non-structural modification allowing access to high points.
Worldwide experience shows sports museums work to best advantage when located within stadiums. A fine collection of exhibits is presently crammed into the underperforming Lar na Pairce GAA Museum in Thurles. Why can’t these be moved to the spaciousness of Semple Stadium? Combined with a stadium tour this should create a product to rival the very successful Croke Park Museum.
Waterford’s new greenway is also proving a huge success, so what about a feasibility study to examine the reopening of the disused railway from Thurles to Clonmel and Roscrea to Birr as greenway attractions.
Finally, the Slieve Felim village of Upperchurch has developed a strong brand for showcasing the best of rural living.
What about a modest investment here, aimed at developing a tourism product that would offer overseas visitors a chance to spend time with locals and better understand the vibrant traditions of rural living?