Visitor numbers to Ireland are likely to drop by at least 5% next year, on top of the 3% decline this year, Martin Cullen, the tourism minister, has warned.
The slump could cost Irish businesses more than €300m in lost revenues, but Cullen believes an increase in British visitor numbers, despite the weakness of sterling, can help the industry escape a steeper downturn.
Tour operators and holiday enterprises enjoyed a record year in 2007 when the number of visitors to the republic exceeded 8m for the first time. But more than a decade of steady tourism growth, interrupted only by the post-9/11 downturn in 2002, has come to an end.
“Given the recent currency movements [the fall in sterling and the dollar], if we were around 5% down next year it would be a good outcome,” said Cullen. “Some countries are haemorrhaging big time. That is not to say it is not going to be difficult, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the business people are up for that challenge.”
Tourism is still an important contributor to the Irish economy, providing employment for 320,000 people, generating “about €6 billion in foreign revenues” and a contribution of about €2.5 billion to the exchequer.
Cullen said the Irish tourism industry had proven to be robust following other setbacks. “We have a lot of new hotels in the industry, and they haven’t had a lot of time to bed in. It is going to be challenging,” he said. “We’ll probably see some casualties but we have a put a lot [of effort] into it and I have kept the [marketing] budget intact to stay focused on maintaining our share.”
The tourism industry’s efforts in 2009 will concentrate more on the home market — enticing Irish people to take their holidays in Ireland — and on the UK. British tourists accounted for more than half of the 8m visitors to Ireland in 2007 and Cullen believes the British segment of the market can be increased further.
He believes people are likely to opt for shorter holiday breaks closer to home next year, and that more British people may choose Ireland over the continent, taking a week or 10 days instead of the traditional two weeks.
“We’ve had a lot of meetings with national and regional tourism organisations, trying to get fight into the industry and I found it at the international tourism trade fair in London in November,” he said. “I went to it expecting people very down and depressed but there were 41 different Irish organisations and businesses there, and they were very up for the fight.”
On the arts side of his brief, Cullen insisted that both of the flagship projects — the construction of a new Abbey theatre in Dublin docklands and the redevelopment of the National Concert Hall — are moving ahead. The minister said the Abbey was essential, because Ireland would need projects such as that to be coming on stream when the economy has recovered in a few years’ time.
“You shouldn’t be culling a project like that. You can’t turn off everything and then turn up in four years when everthing is booming and have nothing in the pipeline.”