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Round Ireland in a Facemask

Some may recall the charming book by Tony Hawks based on a hitch-hiking journey round Ireland while re-evaluating his life and career with a fridge for company. This summer I have been lucky to return and rediscover parts of the country I have not visited for years mostly along the spectacular Wild Atlantic Way which stretches from the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal and ending in Kinsale in County Cork. I did not have the fridge, but the COVID restrictions made the journey and insights fascinating in a different way.

The restrictions on travel and socialising clearly encouraged many other domestic tourists like me to rediscover their own place and everywhere was very busy, it struck me that Ireland has created an excellent offer for a very different time and target audience.  

I was surprised and inspired to find significant foreign investors such as Allergan, Randox and Liebherr in remote parts of rural Ireland like Westport, Dungloe and Killarney taking advantage of the facilities, skills and cost base that these regions offer, but a lack of reciprocation by significant indigenous firms or local enterprise who tend to cluster around major cities like Dublin, Cork and East Coast and are forced to move to the cities to attract talent and money.

The new COVID reality of remote working and home working offers great promise to these communities which in many cases have been hollowed out, but the availability of decent broadband and connectivity remains a major issue for many of the places I visited and the availability of shared working spaces and digital hubs is a major limitation for start-ups and local enterprise although efforts are underway to quickly mobilise facilities.        

The tourism offer is heavily geared to international visitors, especially from the US. Unspoiled beaches from Achill to Arannmore were overwhelmed by camper vans and unregulated camping, and the facilities, capacity and infrastructure simply do not exist for the domestic tourist. The famous South West golf courses from Ballybunion to Waterville and Old Head are really struggling without their well-heeled American patrons who think nothing of spending $500 on a round of golf or $100k membership. Only 40 of Old Head’s 400 members are Irish. And thousands of caddies who depend on the US clients are without any work. In one restaurant in Killarney, I commented to the waiter on the wine-list which went from sub €20 bottles straight to €150 plus and he indicated that the locals just want plonk and the US all go high end. Nothing for the discerning mid-price domestic tippler.

There are worrying noises that the regional airports like Kerry, Shannon and even Cork will no longer be viable for some carriers, while some of the independent hotels did not consider it viable to open their doors this season. And the travesty of the fate of wet bars which serve local communities versus those with restaurants will inflict long term damage on these fragile places.   

While there are many great examples of Irish towns that have remained firmly independent in respect of their retail offer with great variety and quality of local shops such as Kinsale, Westport and Dingle, retail multiples have colonised out of town centres in hubs like Sligo, Galway and Letterkenny creating traffic problems and putting pressure on the traditional high street and I suspect a wavering post Brexit commitment to these marginal venues.

If we anticipate that social distancing will be a medium to long term phenomena, and many of the major insurance firms, business services and tech giants have indicated that they will not be re-opening city centre offices anytime soon, local councils need to move quickly to provide the infrastructure and incentives to allow people to work remotely or in smaller hubs and reinvent their local retail, tourism and investment proposition to resonate with the domestic base, not exclusively the foreign investor or international short term visitor.

Now can anyone direct me to the lobby? I mean reception.   

Mark O'Connell  



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