Fewer tourists on the 'ould sod': Dublin moves to lure them back

The scene: the chandelier-encrusted lounge of Dublin's noted Royal Hibernian Hotel. Two women from Columbus, Ohio, are shadowed by young Sean -- laden with enough baggage to clothe the entire first-class complement of the QE2.

"Look, Myrtle," Grainne intones, "We've done Killarney, Cork, Kerry, Galway, and Donegal. Today we're goin' to do Dublin. . . ." And a weary Grainne trudges out into Dublin's traffic "to do" the city.

American tourists are (would they but know it) one of the joys and sights of Dublin. At least to Dubliners. But they have become a declining breed. And this year as never before, Ireland is mounting a tremendous campaign to bring them back.

Tourism was one of last year's economic casualties in Ireland as elsewhere -- but the size of the drop in number of visitors was an unexpected jolt.

The number of out-of-state visitors to Ireland declined to 2,265,000 last year, from 2,360,000 in 1979 -- a 4 percent fall that was accompanied by a drop in the volume of spending.

Taking inflation into account (estimated by Bord Failte -- the Irish Tourist Board -- at 18 percent), the volume of spending fell by 3 percent in 1979, whereas tourist spending rose in other European countries by 2 percent.

Breaking down those cold statistics has been an unnerving experience for Bord Failte, reckoned by its competition to be one of the keenest national promotion boards. Its internal report prepared over the winter identifies the weaknesses and problem areas:

* Overall the severity of the world recession and its effects on consumer spending had been underestimated.

* Rising prices in Ireland accelerated faster (18.3 percent) than in any of the major tourist markets.

* Prolonged strikes by Aier Lingus workers and oil tanker drivers, to quote the interim report, inflicted "misery and hardship" on visitors.

* The third bad summer tourist season in a row was a "negative factor,"

* Violence in Northern Ireland continued "to frustrate the achievement of Ireland's tourism potential."

The latter point is extremely interesting, as Bord Failte continually monitors the effect that Northern Irish terrorism has on tourism. Last year recorded the lowest number of deaths (76) as a result of Ulster violence since the beginning of the '70s.

In confidential surveys conducted for Bord Failte in Britain each month, the question is put -- "Would you be interested in going to Ireland despite the existing political circumstances?"

Since 1973 the positive response has fluctuated from a low 12 percent to high of 25 percent last October (14 months after the Irish Republican Army's murder of Lord Mountbatten). That accounts for about 10.5 million British people, whereas the actual number of British tourists is little more than 1.5 million.

This year's marketing strategy in the United States and Canada is having regard for last year's fall in North American visitors, from a peak of 309,000 in 1978 to 251,000 last year, and Ireland's economic woes have already contributed to registering an upturn in interest in North Americans wanting to visit the "ould sod" -- appropriate because up to 60 percent of American tourists have a direct Irish connection.

The American visitor to Ireland is now seen to be younger than before and less likely to want a packaged holiday. At last Americans appear to have discovered that "real Ireland" can easily be found by motoring around in a rented car, or by hitchhiking --rather than on programmed excursions.

Americans are more interested now in visiting Ireland and Britain together -- spending seven or eight days in each country.

If Americans have become less inclined for whatever reason to venture abroad, continental Europeans have become more adventurous. In the early '70s there were only about 100,000 mainland European visitors to Ireland --thirds of them from Germany and France).

Ireland's economy benefits directly to the tuen of L385 million (Irish punts) in foreign exchange from tourism -- eventually generating L620 million as the new money is recycled. That represents L579 a year for each employed person.

And if out-of-state tourism ceased altogether, about 80,000 jobs would be lost and unemployment (at around 10 percent) would be doubled.

There is more behind the twinkle in the eye of the Irishman who greets the visitor with a traditional "Cead mile failte" . . . "A hundred thousand welcomes."

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