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Ignore tourism trends at your peril

An Cailín Rua

DISAPPOINTING Recent Failte Ireland funding for developing outdoor dining experiences is restricted to only a few counties, with no urban centre north of Galway eligible for support.

An Cailín Rua

Anne-Marie Flynn

It looks like we might be seeing light at the end of the Covid tunnel, and for our tourism and hospitality businesses, some hope is long overdue. It’s been a long, uncertain slog for many industries, but few have been hit so hard, and given our heavy reliance on this industry in the west, rural Ireland badly needs a strong tourism recovery.
But how is recovery going to look, post-Covid?
For my sins, a lot of my night-time reading as a mature Tourism student revolves around global tourism megatrends, and about destination development in places around the world. It’s inspiring and frustrating at times to see what is being done elsewhere – the innovation, the imagination and the boldness harnessed in diverse destinations like Bregenz (look up the Bregenz Opera, and how it has transformed this Austrian region), New Zealand, Somerset, Copenhagen, Scotland and Vienna, to name a few.
The envy is strong, but equally, the work ethic is to be respected. And it’s done in response to emerging knowledge about the future of tourism, but equally, what will benefit host communities.
We know tourists are looking for hands-on, personalised experiences, added value, sustainability, activities geared towards smaller groups, even solo travellers. We know that because we have an ageing population, we will also have an ageing tourism population. We know that technology will play a major role in tourism experiences.
We know that responsible tourism is becoming more and more important, because even if it is unpalatable within our insular local politics to acknowledge that there is a climate emergency, it does not change the reality.
Are we keeping ourselves informed, and are we planning with the future in mind, not just this year or next year?
Take as an example our town centres. There is lots of research out there to demonstrate the types of things that drive footfall – pedestrianisation being one of them – and deliver the urban experiences that locals and visitors are seeking.
Public realm planning for people (not cars) is vitally important if we are to retain our town centres. In a new era of outdoor dining, how are we making this more feasible and enjoyable for people? What about our night-time economy?
Proposed changes to licensing laws announced by Minister Helen McEntee recently are to be welcomed (and perhaps in time might help to change our relationship as a country with alcohol).
It’s disappointing to see the recent funding from Failte Ireland for developing outdoor dining experiences restricted to so few counties, with no urban centre north of Galway eligible for support. Presumably, because of footfall, but if funding decisions are constantly made on that basis, how are areas like ours meant to get a leg up?
If towns like Ballina (always at the forefront of this writer’s mind) are not deemed eligible, surely Westport would have been in ideal destination for such an initiative, given its vibrant food scene?
One thing is certain. If we – and by we, I mean rural areas like the West of Ireland – are going to bounce back and enjoy a strong recovery, it is time for a new and fresh way of thinking. We can no longer continue to do things the way we have always done them and expect to continue to succeed.
We have an opportunity over the next few months to educate ourselves, to broaden our horizons, talk to each other, see what is being done elsewhere and what is coming down the track.
It may require hard work, stepping out of our comfort zones, taking risks, working with our competitors and embracing new ways of thinking. For example, the loss of a car parking space outside your business could mean a gain of three cyclists or four pedestrians. North Mayo working with South Mayo, East with West brings more people into Mayo and we all benefit. We are too small to be in competition.
National policies have demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the development of rural Ireland is simply not a priority for them – no matter how loudly our politicians may protest the opposite – so if we are to attract additional spend into our regions, we need to start being braver and bolder.