By John Kelly
In advance of the annual tourist figures, after a whistle stop tour of the island’s hot spots where visitors tend to congregate, it appears that Americans were pretty scarce on the ground this season.
If what I have seen and what I have been told by hoteliers, guesthouse owners, publicans and coach drivers is true, it is pretty remarkable, given the high value of the dollar to the Euro.
It is an old adage in the industry that Americans travel more when the dollar is high. It has rarely been higher than it has been this year.
The British have arrived in abundance. Sterling, of course, is outside the Euro currency. UK visitors enjoy a 20 percent-plus bonus on every pound changed into Irish punts.
Ask international soccer players Phil Babb and Mark Kennedy just how much England-based visitors enjoy their trips to Dublin. They were having the proverbial ball until they fell foul of a woman garda outside a nightclub on Dublin’s Harcourt Street.
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Not alone did they get arrested. They were dropped from the Irish team to play Holland as well.
Whatever about that particular type of English visitor, Dublin has enjoyed a huge tourist influx. The number of Continental visitors is likely to top last year’s figure even though they do not enjoy currency exchange gains. Dublin, for whatever the reason, remains an "in city" for Europeans and UK visitors in particular. How long that will remain so is anybody’s guess. But, at present, the Irish capital is on the crest of the tourist wave along with Prague in Czechoslovakia. So, if I am correct in my impressions, and if the information I have been given, however subjective, is true, then, what happened to the U.S. trade?
The answer to that question may indicate just where the Irish tourist industry is likely to progress in future. Perhaps leaders in the trade should examine the reasons now in order to forestall possible future disaster. The biggest problem in the trade is that responsible bodies like Bord Failte and, above all, successive governments, never seem to have ascertained just what it is that makes Ireland attractive to tourists. On the rare occasions that they did examine it, they failed to form a national policy, coordinated through village after village within the island as a whole. The opportunity to take such an approach has never been greater as a result of the Good Friday agreement and the continuing peace process. Links between the Northern and Southern tourist interests are being strengthened.
It could, and should, lead to a new all-island policy. That would benefit the South just as much as the North because it would lay the foundation for a genuine national plan.
Despite the incredible increase in the number of top-class restaurants throughout the country and the improvement in general standards like hygiene and service, Irish tourism still tends to be something of a patchwork quilt, haphazard and often accidental in its effects.
That is part of its attractiveness. The unexpected can be the most welcome feature of all except, of course, when you are involved in an industry that is continually attempting to open new markets while preserving older ones.
There was a time, and not a very long time ago it was, when the U.S. tourist market was relatively easy. Americans came to Ireland to see the "old country," the Ireland that still lived in their minds because their parents or their grandparents had left, quite recently in generational terms.
That market did not need too much work. After all, the Americans came to visit their uncles, their aunts and their first cousins. They were, for the most part, always assured of a hearty welcome.
When organizations like Bord Failte had it good they should have been thinking of ways to make it better. It was obvious that the traditional market could only continue into the second, third and perhaps the fourth generations. It was just as obvious that it would dry up and that some other attractions would have to be conceived to extend it.
People working at the tourist coal face will tell you that the traditional market is already a thing of the past. Few Americans now visit Ireland just to meet relatives who are becoming more and more distant in time and memory.
Those who do visit may have no past connections with the country at all. More often or not, they tend to be golfers. Luckily, so far as the figures are concerned, new, top-class courses have mushroomed throughout the island.
As golfers, or just plain old tourists, they tend to book carefully planned package holidays. They travel in groups from A to B, then back to Shannon or Dublin, and away. They see little of Ireland or meet few of the real people, other than those directly concerned in routing the package. Tourism like that has a two-way effect. Not alone do the visitors not get to know and appreciate the people, they become unknown and unappreciated as well.
The natives view American tourists as groups who emerge in traditional bars for brief durations to quaff a Clintonesque glass of stout, take loads of pictures for the folk back home and then disappear in a cloud of smoke.
That’s bad on both sides.
There was a time when Americans enjoyed meeting the people most of all. Perhaps they still do. But they meet them less frequently.
Much the same pattern is becoming similar in the case of tourists from other countries. Britishers who visit Dublin, for example, tend to congregate in groups in places like Temple Bar. They visit golf course in the same fashion. The result is that there is a "them" and "us" attitude on the part of natives and tourists alike.
In the long term it cannot be good for tourism. Even golf, like cities, tends to fall out of fashion. If there is not a major rethink by those who are paid to think, especially in relation to pricing and variety, the Irish tourist trade could yet become the weakest organ of the Celtic Tiger.