Clare is being “poorly served” by the tourism industry, according to Kilkee-based business man and tourism consultant Cillian Murphy, while he believes the county should strive to attract fewer tourists but more bed nights.
Mr Murphy has also suggested that the county is not benefiting sufficiently from the more than one million annual visitors to the Cliffs of Moher, with thousands of tourists arriving on a tour bus and then leaving after their visit without spending a bob.
The former chairman of Loop Head Tourism believes Clare should not try to increase visitor numbers but should seek to provide more accommodation options across the county.
“We do not necessarily need to attract more visitors. The marketing of Clare has been exceptional and has delivered ever-increasing numbers of visitors over the past 20 years. Our problem is we are not reaping the rewards in terms of the local economic benefits in our rural and coastal economies, such as local job opportunities.
“What we need is to get more of them to stay in overnight accommodation. This is where visitor spend can be maximised. They stay, they eat, they shop and they use other local services and activities and, of course, this is where the maximum economic return can be delivered from tourism into the county and where jobs can be created,” he stated.
He made his comments to The Clare Champion having read preliminary Fáilte Ireland findings on hotel accommodation levels in 2016.
“It shows Clare as having one the lowest amounts of hotel accommodation along the Wild Atlantic Way. This is a pretty staggering fact, given that Clare would consider itself to be one of the major tourism players in Ireland,” Mr Murphy said.
According to the Fáilte Ireland 2016 hotel register, Clare has 37 hotels and 2,140 rooms, while Galway has 83 hotels with 4,473 rooms. The West Clare towns of Kilrush and Kilkee have no large-scale hotel that can cater for either sizeable numbers or conferences.
“Last year, a report by the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC), using information from the CSO and Fáilte Ireland, made for some very interesting reading about where 2015 overseas visitors visit once they are in Ireland, how much they spent and where they spent it. Clare was the fifth most visited county in Ireland and the sixth highest spend, with €127m attributed to overseas visitors.
“However, when we dig a little deeper into the figures and look at the average spend per visitor, we find that Clare is ranked 24th out of the 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland, with an average spend of €212 per visitor. To continue the comparison with Galway, it is eighth, with an average spend of €350,” Mr Murphy found.
He maintains that “responsible tourism development is about delivering maximum benefits to host communities and minimising the negative impacts of tourism. One of the fundamental questions it asks in pursuit of this is: ‘is tourism using us or are we using tourism?’ On the evidence I can find, it is obvious that tourism is quite definitely using Clare. The people of Clare are particularly poorly served by tourism, given the quality of the attractions, landscape and cultural assets we have”.
Mr Murphy said when driving to Ennis from Kilkee last week, he travelled via Ennistymon and witnessed several tour buses.
“Four full 52-seat coaches, from one operator, passed me heading back to Dublin from the Cliffs of Moher. The trip costs €40 per person, so each bus is generating €2,080 in revenue. Multiplied by four, it equals €8,320 for the coach operator per day.
“I believe, and I am open to correction, that they pay approximately €3 to €5 per person for entry to the Cliffs Of Moher so, allowing for the maximium price, the only revenue the operator is paying into the Clare tourism industry is €1,040 for all four coaches. My guess is it is hardly covering the external costs to the local authority, such as road maintenance, litter or parking provision. All the while, it is filling hotel beds in Dublin. We need to take back control of our natural and cultural assets.
“They need to deliver the maximum return for Clare and its tourism businesses, creating local jobs and a more vibrant local economy,” he continued.
“Perhaps if they were forced to stay at least one night in overnight accommodation, to be able to access the county’s tourism assets, they might invest in hotels in Clare instead of shops on O’Connell Street in Dublin,” Mr Murphy suggested.
“According to a report from 2011, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group, estimates each hotel room generates between 1.5 and three jobs directly. Our natural assets are creating those hotel beds and associated jobs in Galway, Dublin and elsewhere. Meanwhile, we have record unemployment levels in coastal communities in Clare. It’s madness!
“We, in Clare, are left with the costs of managing the impacts from this traffic, without deriving appropriate levels of benefit. In business terms, County Clare is being asset-stripped. The tourism sector in Clare, and the rural development directorate within Clare County Council, would be the ideal facilitators of this. It needs to sit up and have a very serious conversation with itself about what needs to be done to ensure tourism development delivers the maximum benefit to its communities. In short, we have to radically change our thinking,” he claimed.
“We need to focus on the capacity for tourism as a development tool rather than an industry and ensure Clare is a place to stay rather than a place to visit. We need to focus our immediate attention on how this county can deliver a considerable number of new hotels and guesthouses and ensure the development of these new businesses is focused in our marginalised rural and coastal communities, to breathe new life into them.
“We need to implement, at policy level, the new Rural Development Strategy, which offers the ideal policy vehicle, the measurable goals of a set amount of newly-created overnight bedrooms within the county, by a stated date,” the Kilkee restaurant owner stated.
“If we ensure the ‘sale’ of our tourism assets only to those who stay in the county, if this policy delivers 1,000 new bedrooms and the resulting 1,500 jobs within the rural economy of Clare over the next three to five years, it will have been a roaring success. We in Clare should be ruthlessly selfish about the use of our natural and cultural assets. Their sole purpose should be to deliver benefit, and opportunities, to Clare people first and foremost. Many of these assets are within our declining rural populations who are most in need of the benefits.
“At the minute, it is absolutely the case that they are delivering the bulk of their economic benefit to external agencies that are sending hundreds of thousands of day-trippers to Clare on 50-seat coaches. It will take bravery and stubbornness to accomplish but the rewards will be worth it in a much more vibrant tourism-based local economy, with far more local employment,” Mr Murphy predicted.