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”

Con­nemara

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