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Ireland: it’s the quality that counts

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This year’s Best of Ireland is being produced against the backdrop of Brexit. It is a moment of enormous uncertaint­y for people throughout Europe, and in particular in Ireland.

As we go to press, the situation could not be more fraught. There is a real possibilit­y that the complete lack of any hint of political consensus in the House of Commons might result in the UK lurching haplessly into a No Deal Brexit by default. If that were to happen, all bets would be off: no one knows how damaging the ramificati­ons might be for the Irish food sector in particular. And what affects Irish food impacts also on Irish tourism. When you throw issues concerning the border into the mix, these are perilous times.

The hope is that, by the time you are reading this, a more palatable way forward will have been found, ideally one that will minimise the negative impact of Brexit on Ireland. Either way, there is little doubt that the next few years will be far more challengin­g for people in the hospitalit­y and tourism industry here than would have been the case had Brexit been rejected by the British.

STRATEGY WORKING

Britain remains one of Ireland’s most important tourism markets. British residents accounted for 3.8 million trips to Ireland during 2018, representi­ng well over a third of the 10.6 million visits that were made to Ireland. Overall, visitor numbers have been rising impressive­ly, with an increase of 6.9% over the past 12 months. The major growth areas have been from North America and Canada, with a 13.4% increase to 2.4 million; the European mainland, with a 9.5% increase to 3.8 million (now exactly equal to the

UK); and the Rest of the World, with a 6.7% increase to 660,700. In contrast, there was little change in the numbers coming from Britain.

In Ireland, we are very quick to criticise our politician­s and our State bodies. However, as those gures con rm, our tourism strategy has been working. The growth achieved in the U.S. market has been spectacula­r, with Ireland attracting a remarkable 10% of all American visitors to Europe. Within Europe, we have also been performing well, especially with visitors from Germany and Italy.

That said, Brexit could create a far more dif cult environmen­t. On the one hand, the likelihood is that British people will become more conservati­ve, and inward-looking, and make fewer trips abroad. Ireland may be less affected by this than other European countries, given that so many Irish people have family connection­s in the UK. But a drop of some significan­ce in the number of visitors crossing the Irish Sea is a strong possibilit­y nonetheles­s, especially if Brexit gets very messy. On the other hand, with a likely fall in the value of Sterling, the UK might become a more desirable destinatio­n for people from the U.S. and Europe, potentiall­y attracting visitors away from Ireland.

Against that background, Irish hotels and restaurant­s will point to the decision in the 2018 budget to increase VAT from 9.5% to 13.5% and complain. They have a point. The reality is that it is already far more expensive to eat in a restaurant in Ireland than is the case in most of Europe, including Spain, Portugal and parts of Italy. Food is more expensive here. But even more so, wine has been targeted over and over again with exorbitant levels of duty. We should not under-estimate the risk involved in making our hotels and restaurant­s even more expensive.

CULTURALLY VIBRANT

In such uncertain waters, the best response is to up your game in any and every way possible. What is enormously encouragin­g in this regard is that people have been doing exactly that, throughout Ireland, over the past number of years. Travelling around the country, and researchin­g this issue of

Best of Ireland, it is striking the extent to which Irish people have embraced change, moving onwards and upwards. There is a far greater understand­ing than ever before of what quality means. Increasing­ly, our food producers are world class. Our restaurant­s are as consistent­ly good as anywhere in the world. Our pubs and music venues are putting in more effort than ever before. People are investing in well thought-out improvemen­ts to country houses and hotels.

All over the island now, there are great places to stay, to eat and to drink. There are more and better visitor attraction­s, with the Irish art of storytelli­ng harnessed productive­ly to make these work. Our waterways are being renewed. Fresh routes are being created for walking and cycling. Sustainabl­e tourism is being encouraged. The Wild Atlantic Way has been a major success, and other parts of the island are now being promoted in a similar spirit. We are joining the dots much more effectivel­y.

Something else has been happening too. Over the past twenty years Ireland has gradually been transforme­d socially. It has become one of the most culturally rich, forward-looking and liberal places in Europe. There is a new openness and friendline­ss about the place, which has been winning hearts and minds.

We have more LGBTQ visitors than ever before. Elsewhere (though thankfully not everywhere) in Europe, and especially in the UK, there has been a drift towards xenophobia – which generally makes places far less attractive to visitors. Here, the shift has been in the opposite direction. And it has made Ireland a far more intriguing and desirable place for sophistica­ted tourists to visit.

What we want, going forward, is more of the same. We need to support and nurture Irish musicians and artists. We need to continue to encourage the growth and developmen­t of the craft food sector. We need to ensure that our new craft distillers and brewers are nurtured and supported. And most of all, we need to nurture the openness, charm, kindness and friendline­ss that visitors to this country so often remark on – and relish so much.

We need to change our licensing laws and allow nightlife to ourish. And we should also beware the over-intrusive influence of the new temperance movement: people who come here want to have a good time. Irish people do too.

If we make Ireland the most open, fun, friendly, liberal, tolerant and culturally vibrant place in Europe then the visitors will come. So here’s to all poets and dreamers, the doers and the makers, the chefs and the creators all over Ireland, who have been inspired to move us in that direction. You have fashioned the wonderful array of places to eat, drink, enjoy yourself and stay all over Ireland, which we have highlighte­d and celebrated in Best of Ireland 2019.

May the road rise with you all.

“ALL OVER THE ISL AND NOW, THERE ARE GREAT PL ACES TO STAY, TO EAT AND TO DRINK”

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