Ireland: it’s the quality that counts
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.
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.
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”