Dr Ziene Mottiar: It is surprising that a sector which employs 205,000 people, brings €6.6 billion of revenue into the country and contributes €1.6 billion in taxation is given so little attention in the Partnership for Government document, especially in light of the fact that there is considerable focus on rural development within the programme.
While this programme, and indeed the election, was set in a context of improving economic conditions, as has been well documented this recovery varies significantly across different geographical spheres and an urban rural divide is evident.
For many rural areas tourism is fundamental to their economic and social sustainability, and while there is a whole section in the programme relating to rural development there is an apparent lack of attention, and as a consequence we must assume a lack of debate, policy development and thought, relating to tourism.
A key issue that is in the programme is that of investing €100 million into the Wild Atlantic Way and Greenways. In terms of the Wild Atlantic Way, this is welcome investment in a project which is fundamental to a strategy of encouraging tourists to spend time and stay overnight in the West of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a brand which is now well known within Ireland but in fact research shows that internationally this is not the case. As noted by Michael Cawley (Chairman of Fáilte Ireland) ‘We know.. that the Wild Atlantic Way is a fantastic tourism proposition but has low international recognition at this point. When we survey potential overseas visitors most are unaware of the new initiative’.
Fáilte Ireland is making great efforts to change this, most recently exhibiting virtual reality tours of the route at tourism fairs, but there is clearly much to be done. This implies that the priority should be in terms of international marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way but the Partnership plan only identifies capital spending relating to the product.
The success of the Wild Atlantic Way, has been followed with the more recently developed Ancient East route. This Government Partnership plan says that now Fáilte Ireland will be directed to develop ‘Ireland’s Lakelands’ brand. To determine the viability of such a plan requires detailed exploration, as simply carving the country up into various ‘tourism propositions’ does not make for strategic tourism planning.
There are also no details about whether there will be any additional funding allocated for the development of the Lakelands brand and although a support scheme for businesses is mentioned, again there are no details, or budget, attached to this idea. This also calls into question why such a scheme would only be available to those located in the Lakelands, as other tourism businesses, in particular on the Ancient East route are also at the early stages of development and making financial supports available may enhance the product offering along this route. Is the spreading of scarce resources and support across three significant regional tourism product developments a wise strategy when all are at the relatively early stages of development?
Local communities and businesses are core to rural tourism and as the Gathering showed very clearly these stakeholders can play a key role in developing events, attractions and destinations. Thus the indication that a Town and Village Renewal Scheme will be developed during 2017 is good news. Research relating to the social and community impacts of the Gathering identifies the positive effect of the Towns and Villages scheme as providing a foundation of strong community spirit upon which the Gathering then gained momentum.
These two schemes have had positive impacts in terms of community cohesiveness, generating pride and encouraging active participation. Hopefully this new Town and Village Renewal scheme can encompass this as part of its modus operandi and in addition to the focus on physical structures and buildings there can also be a focus on developing the social capital or social milieu of the towns and villages as this has long term impacts in terms of sustainability and development.
So, overall this Partnership for Government is low on specific strategies for a sector which played an important role in our economic recovery, and is central to the sustainability and growth of rural Ireland. One can only hope that during the lifetime of this government greater insight, innovation and strategic planning may become apparent so that Ireland can maximise the potential opportunities from the global €937 billion industry that is tourism.
Dr Ziene Mottiar is a lecturer and researcher of tourism in the School of Hospitality Management and Tourism, Dublin Institute of Technology.