Expert analysis from Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.
In 2019, we welcomed almost 11.2 million overseas visitors to the island of Ireland, who spent approximately €5.8 billion during their time here. Inbound tourism is hugely important for the economy – it is our largest indigenous industry, employing around 325,000 people across the island last year. Tourism is also a major contributor to the peace process – before and since the Good Friday Agreement.
As we embarked on 2020, we were certainly conscious that the year would continue to present some challenges for Irish tourism – including the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit, economic and geo-political uncertainty, as well as constraints on the availability of aircraft. However, nothing could have prepared us for the biggest crisis the travel and tourism industry has ever faced across the globe – the outbreak and spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19’s Impact on Tourism
COVID-19 has been on the Tourism Ireland radar since early January, when news of the outbreak in China broke. We took immediate action in the Chinese market – postponing our planned sales mission and temporarily winding down our operations there. As the situation escalated throughout Europe during February and early March, almost all of our paid-for promotional activity was stood down or postponed until the end of August 2020.
While the COVID-19 pandemic remains first and foremost a public health issue for now, this virus has had, and continues to have, unprecedented and extremely serious consequences for tourism operators across the island of Ireland. We saw the closure of hotels, visitor attractions, bars and restaurants, as well as the cancellation of events, conferences and sports activities. There were major restrictions on travel and the closure of borders, with Europe’s skies closed to all but a small number of repatriation flights and airlines having grounded most, if not all, of their fleets. I remember previous crises such as Foot & Mouth, SARS, 9/11 and the volcanic ash cloud in 2010, which dramatically dampened demand. COVID-19 has dwarfed all of these other crises.
In a normal year, around 75% of the tourism spend comes from international visitors. So, while it is really great news that our hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses will begin to re-open from 29 June, marking the beginning of the recovery of domestic tourism business, it is important to remember that the economic hardship on our tourism industry cannot be compensated for by domestic business. Overseas tourism receipts are expected to be down around -75% in 2020.
As I mentioned, almost all of our paid-for promotional activity is on hold for now. However, we are running an extensive online campaign, which is using the hashtag #FillYourHeartWithIreland. Because people can’t travel here right now, the aim of the initiative is to bring the best of Ireland onto people’s screens and to help ensure that Ireland stays ‘front-of-mind’ with prospective visitors for future holidays. It’s all about sharing inspirational content that speaks to the world at this difficult time and connecting them with the island of Ireland. Tourism Ireland is sharing this content with our millions of fans and followers on our social channels – including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. The content is also being shared with our database of influential travel and lifestyle journalists, who are all looking for great ‘armchair travel’ ideas right now. Our activity also aims to leverage people’s increased consumption of content online during the pandemic period – by bringing entertaining, uplifting or otherwise compelling content to them from the island of Ireland.
Strong Access Links Vital for Overseas Tourism
As an island destination, we know that strong air and sea access links are vital for growth in overseas tourism. Last summer, there were more than 615,000 direct, one-way seats available on planes flying to the island of Ireland every week. However, the landscape has profoundly changed in recent weeks. Airline industry analysts OAG predict that it will be three to four years before Europe’s capacity returns to the levels seen in 2019. The restoration of air connectivity will be absolutely essential to restoring growth in overseas tourism to Ireland. Sea access levels have been retained, however, and are likely to provide opportunities for closer-to-home markets. Sea may, in fact, become a more attractive option initially – particularly for cautious travellers.
The Changed Consumer and the New Marketplace
Over the past weeks and months, my team and I have been in daily contact with our tourism industry colleagues right around the island of Ireland, as well as with our key travel partners around the world. I think there is no question that the shape of the Irish tourism industry that emerges from this crisis will be different than it was at the beginning of 2020. Tour operators who have programmed the island of Ireland for many years may be forced to scale back their inventory significantly. It is too soon to say what, if any, of the ‘Ireland experience’ for overseas visitors will be changed. However, we in Tourism Ireland will do everything we can to support our industry partners to get them back out to the overseas marketplace – when the time is right.
In the face of the fundamental changes facing our industry, we need a comprehensive understanding of the changed consumer and the new marketplace. We are carrying out an extensive COVID-19 programme of research in our major markets – which will help us identify when consumers are ready to consider holidaying again and which of our markets offer us the best short-term prospects. We will then explore in-depth which segments and demographics are most likely to travel, which products and experiences will most appeal to them and what messaging will most strongly convince them to consider holidaying on the island of Ireland. The insights we gain will ensure that our future promotional plan is as tightly targeted and as powerfully motivational as it possibly can be, in order to drive a strong recovery, as quickly as it is possible to realise it.
The Quarantine Situation
Currently, a 14-day quarantine period is mandatory for all passengers arriving at Irish ports and airports, including for British citizens – which effectively means that Ireland is closed to international tourists. Given that other EU countries are now beginning to lift their quarantine restrictions, Ireland is in danger of being at a competitive disadvantage, in terms of winning any available tourism business. I believe that we need to closely monitor the situation in Mainland Europe, so that our quarantine restrictions can be lifted as soon as it is safely possible – always bearing in mind that public health is the first and foremost consideration. If the restrictions were removed, it would send a positive message that Ireland is open for business once more and prospective overseas visitors could begin to book their holiday to Ireland with a degree of confidence.
Looking to the Future
Given that tourism is our largest indigenous industry, responsible for in excess of 4% of GNP in the Republic of Ireland, a return to growth as quickly as possible is vital. Tourism Ireland is represented on new taskforces, in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which have been set up to identify measures to enable tourism to recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19. The announcement by the Irish Government of the roadmap to ease COVID-19 restrictions and to re-open our tourism and hospitality businesses in a phased manner was a really positive development; and, in particular, the acceleration of that roadmap – meaning that hotels and restaurants in Ireland can now open sooner than previously planned, on 29 June – is really good news. Hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions in Northern Ireland will re-open from 3 July.
Once the current crisis of COVID-19 is past, Tourism Ireland will be ready on the ground to roll out an extensive global recovery kick-start programme – but only when the time is right. We have begun the process of planning for the recovery of overseas tourism. Recent announcements by various airlines – including Ryanair, easyJet and Emirates – about beginning to resume their services to Ireland, give us grounds for optimism. Our focus is on having campaigns which will be ready to go, once there are signs that consumers overseas are getting back on the move and that Ireland is open for business. We will be working flat out to recover as much business as possible. We look forward to getting back in full swing, to continue to promote the island of Ireland as a ‘must-see’ destination across the world. Together with our tourism industry partners, we will be ready to extend a wonderful warm Irish welcome to all our visitors to the island of Ireland.