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Ireland's call draws increasing numbers of visitors

Ireland – long appreciated by lovers of wide-open spaces, by culture enthusiasts, by hedonists and athletes – needs no introduction. From Dublin’s pubs to its cliffs overhanging the Atlantic, visitors are easily conquered by the charms of this country that remains wild, by the simplicity of a welcoming population, and the melodious tune of fiddles.

Irish tourism may be pleased with 2015’s results, and the list of good news continues to grow for the sector’s professionals. Close to 8 million international visitors traveled to the island last year, generating close to 4.2 billion euros in revenues according to Tourism Ireland. Arrivals are up 13% from the previous year; such growth allows the Emerald Isle to surpass a previous record from 2008. This dynamic does not look ready to lose steam: in the first 6 months of 2016, arrivals rose by 14%. That’s worthy of a couple of pints of Guinness! So, what’s your secret Ireland?

According to Eoghan O’Mara Walsh, Chief Executive of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC), “there is a combination of factors. The ‘Irish tourism’ product is recognized for its very good quality: good value for money, an excellent reputation, a truly diverse destination for visitors... External factors should also be mentioned: until recently, economies have been quite strong in main source markets, access is easier due to the multiplication of airlines, oil prices are reaching their lowest in years, not to mention a favorable exchange rate with the United Kingdom – at least until the ‘Brexit’.”

The island also benefited from appearances on living room screens and the silver screen: this growing phenomenon has been called screen tourism. Northern Ireland and the region of Belfast in particular are among the most popular filming locations for the current most popular series, Game of Thrones, and since its very first seasons. Tourism professionals in Northern Ireland took advantage of the growing interest of millions of fans for its ancient castles and misty coastlines that give the region its unique character. While the Giant’s Causeway remains THE attraction in Ulster, thematic routes are multiplying around the series’ film locations, attracting visitors who wish to tramp through a real life Westeros. Some tour-operators even supply costumes, allowing tourist to choose their side in the battle for the Iron Throne.

As if the filming of the Game of Thrones were not enough to attract geeks from around the world, the most famous Space Opera of all times also chose the emblematic Irish coast for its most recent opus, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”, which came out in December 2015. The movie features one of the main protagonists of the original trilogy at the summit of Skellig Michael, an island that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and rises 200 meters above the waves off County Kerry. This exceptional site should be featured again in the next episode of the saga, as should Ceann Sibéal, on the neighboring peninsula of Dingle. At Malin Head in County Donegal, the northernmost point of the Republic of Ireland, inquiring visitors may also have noticed the silhouette of the famous Millennium Falcon.

It is difficult to measure the real impact of these more or less fugacious apparitions of Irish landscapes in these works of fiction, but recent tourist trends have shown the importance of screen tourism for marketing a destination. According to Tim Fenn, Chief Executive of the Irish Hotels Federation, “there is no doubt that pop culture and cinema can have an effect on many visitors. Poll studies revealed that around 7% of tourists were influenced by film when choosing their travel destination.” Tourism authorities, in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, have taken advantage of this dynamic and used this new communication tool - for example, Tourism Ireland launched several marketing initiatives making references to Star Wars. According to Eoghan O’Mara Walsh, “it is a clever approach, especially in terms of social media. Communications linked to these filming locations has been very successful, enabling tourist organizations to spend less. Even though it is difficult to estimate the volume of tourists coming specifically for this reason, it puts the spotlight on the destination; it sparks some interest.”

Ireland has nonetheless not had to waitfor these prestigious appearances to promote its many tourism assets. Officially launched in 2014, the Wild Atlantic Way, a touring route 2,500 kilometers long along Ireland’s Atlantic Coast, crosses no fewer than nine Counties and including 157 key points of discovery. The initiative has already proven to be a great success: Tim Fenn affirms that in western areas of the Isle, “9 out of 10 hoteliers believe the Wild Atlantic Way contributes to improving their performance.” Another regional “umbrella brand” for Irish tourism is Ireland’s Ancient East. Launched in 2015 this tourist region promotes not only its landscapes, but also close to 5,000 years of historical heritage: ancient tombs, imposing castles, misty cemeteries… Covering 17 counties, the initiative addresses those passionate about culture as well as mystery, to offer them a typically Irish adventure.

Tourist accommodations in Ireland stand out for a few particularities: it is especially important to outline the number of Guesthouses (235 in 2014) and Bed and Breakfasts (1,400 addresses) in the national supply. While these types of accommodations might be twice as many in number as classic hotels, they can hardly rival in terms of capacity. In the Republic of Ireland alone, traditional hotels offered a capacity of more than 56,000 rooms in 2014, compared to just under 9,000 for the two types of supply previously mentioned.

With the increase in volume of arrivals, one of the biggest obstacles getting in the way of tourism in Ireland is the lack of hotel accommodations in the country’s capital, Dublin. According to a study ordered this year by the National Authority for Tourism Development, Fáilte Ireland, the city’s hotel supply has a deficit of 6,000 to 8,000 rooms (its hotel capacity was 18,500 in 2014). In the midterm, this situation could compromise the destination’s competitiveness: Ireland’s capital is a must on any touring route in the country, and, logically, it remains travelers’ primary gateway onto the island. The Tourism Minister of the Republic of Ireland, Patrick O’Donovan, recently repeated that “since seven out of ten visitors to Ireland will stay in Dublin at some stage in their trip, whether it is their sole destination or a gateway to the rest of the country, the issues outlined in this report have a national impact. If we are to enjoy sustained growth in tourism nationally, I believe it is incumbent on all tourism stakeholders, where we can, to help create the right environment for the tourism sector to expand and meet the inevitable growth in demand for accommodations that Dublin is facing.”

The affordable prices available at commercial accommodations have long been a major asset for Irish tourism, but the current dynamic runs a strong risk of changing that. In recent years hoteliers benefited from double-digit growth in their average daily rates, a sign of the destination’s growing success. According to data published by MKG Consulting / OlaKala_Destinations Observatory, average daily rates grew by 18% throughout the country in 2015, and reached +22.9% in the capital. It is still necessary to look back at 2008 to find the higher rates that were prevalent just before the country went into a recession, temporarily caging the Celtic Tiger – it was a time when the occupancy rate of Irish hotels had nothing to do with the levels observed today. According to Fáilte Ireland, the number of nights in commercial accommodations in Dublin increased by close to 33% between 2013 and 2015, from 8.1 million to nearly 9.6 million. The occupancy rate at Dublin’s hotels rose 15 points since 2010, while the capacity of the supply fell by 6% across the same period. According to the MKG Consulting / OlaKala_Destinations Observatory, Dublin’s occupancy rate reached 84% last year, placing the city among the European capitals with the highest occupancy rates. The Revenue per available room at hotels in the capital progressed by close to 25% in 2015 – an increase that reached 18.1% in the first six months of this year, despite a relatively stable occupancy rate. Dublin’s hotel supply hardly changed since 2007 (the year when the 15,000 room benchmark was surpassed for the first time) until a drop 4 years ago, at the lowest point in Ireland’s crisis. Its pipeline represents a volume of some 4,800 rooms by 2020 – including the completion of 55 new hotels. However it remains uncertain whether or not all these projects will be completed or delivered on time.

Eoghan O’Mara Walsh considers this to be “a major problem. Capacity needs to meet the demand; this is why ITIC has tried to get the government to intervene in this matter: hotel development has to be stimulated, for example by relaxing height restrictions where appropriate and creating strategic development zones.” And time is running out, because those rooms that are currently being created will, for the most part, not be delivered before 2018. In addition to the shortage, Brexit has offered Irish tourism professionals an unfortunate gift, and the years to come risk being more difficult than expected. “There is a danger of becoming uncompetitive, losing our reputation. Ireland cannot be perceived as bad value for money, which is why tourism must grow sustainably.” explains Mr O’Mara Walsh. All the more so since the devalued British pound and the weakening of the United Kingdom’s economy risk lowering buying power for British visitors, who represent no fewer than 40% of international arrivals to the Isle. According to the Chief Executive of ITIC, “the industry needs to remain competitive, to adopt a strategy of price moderation. Exchange rates could make Britain more affordable: destinations such as Scotland could benefit from this phenomenon at the cost of Ireland.”

According to Mr O’Mara Walsh, Brexit thus undoubtedly “a setback, a blow” to Irish tourism. In terms of tourist revenue, it is important to qualify this observation: “if they represent four out of ten foreign visitors, British residents are responsible for 25% of tourist spending only, comparatively less than tourists from North America or continental Europe. Fortunately, Ireland has managed to diversify its source markets.” In 2014, close to 48% of British tourists stayed with friends or family while visiting the neighboring isle (Central Statistics Office of the Republic of Ireland): the impact of Brexit could thus be less severe for Irish hoteliers.The risk is certainly greater for Dublin, which depends more on MICE clientele, business travelers and city breakers. Ireland has benefited in recent years from greater diversification of its tourist clientele. In increasing numbers, Europeans, in particular, are taking advantage of low cost flights to visit the birthplace of Ryanair. This popularity is reinforced by the opening of many flight routes: “Dublin Airport handled a record 25 million passengers last year, and this volume could increase by 50% in the next five years. There will be new opportunities for growth.” reminds Mr Fenn. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of German tourists grew from 381,000 to 535,000 visitors, while French tourists grew from 344,000 to 420,000. Growth is also significant for smaller source markets such as Spain (274,000 visitors in 2014), the Netherlands (151,000) and Belgium (99,000). Of all the major European markets, only Italy and Poland delivered slow growth.

The privileged relationship between Ireland and the United States, many citizens of which have Irish origins, also guarantees a steady flow of visitors for local tourism. Nearly one in ten Americans traveling to Europe aims to visit Ireland. Here again, the dynamic is particularly positive in recent years: the number of American tourists on the Emerald Isle surpassed one million for the first time in 2014, meaning 220,000 more than in 2010. In terms of volume, growth on the Canadian market is even more impressive, growing from 83,000 visitors to close to 140,000 in just five years. The opening of different airline routes to North America makes it possible to aim for sustainable growth in arrivals.

Despite the Brexit and growing concerns about the hotel shortage in the capital, perspectives remain positive for Irish tourism. According to the Irish Hotels Federation, while 95% of the country’s hoteliers are concerned about the consequences of Brexit, 90% of them are also likely to post new growth in their results in 2016. Even the capital’s hotel deficit can be seen as relative. According to Tim Fenn, Chief Executive of the organization, “capacity is an issue, but it should be resolved relatively quickly as properties are being signed regularly. This situation can represent a disadvantage for the capital yet prove beneficial to the rest of the country, as tour operators are doing fewer nights in Dublin to favor other destinations across the island.” This optimistic observation confirms figures from the MKG Consulting / OlaKala_Destinations Observatory that show new growth in the RevPAR by close to 17% at hotels in the country in the first six months of the year. Nothing should stand in the way of Irish tourism pursuing its swift ascension, from the Glens of Antrim to the rugged hills of Galway, and the walls of Limerick to Dublin Bay.

Also Read:

  • Ireland draws increasing volumes of tourists
  • Star Wars and Tourism: these destinations should feel the power of the Force
  • Game of Thrones : when tourism inherits the seven crowns

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