Can ‘Destination Dublin’ Grow Again?
Written by Frank Corr, Honorary Member, Irish Guild of Sommeliers
Monday, 14 May 2012
This article appears in the current issue of ‘Hotel and Restaurant Times’

Frank Corr looks at the potential for tourism in the capital

The official reason for the abolition of Dublin Tourism and its appropriation by Failte Ireland, is that it is in accordance with a Government decision to reduce the number of quangos in the country.

That the move elicited smiles of quiet satisfaction in some quarters and groans of disappointment in others will not be officially recorded.

It is however one of the most significant decisions ever taken in relation to the development of tourism in our capital city and its marketing throughout the world.

Dublin is of enormous importance to the Irish tourism industry. Of the 5.86m visitors to Ireland in 2010, 3.48m visited Dublin and a further 772,000 visited the adjacent ‘East Midlands’ region. In that year also 35% of American visitors to this country visited Dublin- and Dublin only, never venturing outside of the capital city. Much the same can be said for more than a million visitors who come here on week-end breaks and those attending conferences. The vast majority fly into Dublin and remain there.

Europe has become Dublin’s biggest market, providing 1.35m visitors (39%)  and €448m revenue in 2010. It is closely followed by Britain with 1.26m visitors (36%) and €253. revenue with North America providing 608,000 visitors (18%) who spent €198m. They come to the city principally for leisure with 42% on a main holiday, 13% on a City Break and a sizeable 22% visiting family and friends. Just 18% come to Dublin on business. Both the British and European visitors tend to remain in the city throughout their stay while Americans are more likely to visit other parts of the country, often hiring a car to do so.

This annual influx of visitors makes a major contribution to the economy of Dublin and to Government taxes. They are by far the biggest market for the city’s 19,000 registered hotel rooms and 4,000 other rooms in guesthouses and hostels and they are the backbone of trade for city centre restaurants and pubs as well as keeping the tills ringing in retail stores. They are also the dominant market for the city’s visitor attractions (apart perhaps from Dublin Zoo), with 930,000 visiting the Guinness Storehouse in 2010, 469,000 viewing the Book of Kells, 300,000 paying admission to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and 278,000 touring Kilmainham Gaol. All this is before they drink a pint, travel on the DART or LUAS or go to a show.

The current worry among all of these service providers is that the number of visitors to the city has been declining rapidly since 2007, pretty much in line with the national decline in tourism. Total visitors to Dublin have fallen from 4.4m in 2007 to 3.4m in 2010. It amounts to around one million fewer visitors now than at the peak of the boom. The biggest declines have been from Britain (down from 1.86m to 1.28m) and North America (732,000 to 214,000) while European visitors have fallen from 1.48m to 1.35m. Detailed figures for 2011 are not yet published but they are likely to show a slight increase.

The downturn has focussed attention on the overall management of tourism in Dublin, which until the beginning of this year was nominally the responsibility of Dublin Tourism, an independent organisation which was for many years funded by Failte Ireland, Dublin local authorities and its membership. During the early years of this century however Dublin Tourism provided a growing share of its annual budget through a range of commercial activities. In 2004 for instance accountants Deloitte revealed in a report on the organisation , that Failte Ireland was contributing just over 15% of revenue with commercial activities grossing close on €5m of a €6.5m. budget. This report also referred to a new ‘award-winning website’, the successful launch of the ‘Dublin Pass’ and 1.5m customers visiting its Tourism Information Offices, including its attractive headquarters in a converted church close to Grafton Street. There can be little doubt that Dublin was ‘flying high’ at that time and was indeed ranked only behind London and Paris in terms of European Capital City bednights which, at 18.6m, had grown by 21% between 1990 and 2003.  There were no suggestions at that time that Dublin Tourism should be absorbed into Failte Ireland.

Hard times however encouraged planners to take a closer look at Dublin Tourism and to analyse its activities. Responsibility for the marketing of Dublin abroad had been largely assumed by Tourism Ireland while other players such as Dublin City Councils had become more active in developing tourism infrastructure. Apart from some specialised marketing on the domestic and overseas markets, the principal activity of Dublin Tourism was in selling a range of tourism products through its TIOs (which proved to be very profitable) and operating five Tourism Attractions (Malahide Castle, Dublin Writers Museum, Fry Model Railway, Shaw’s Birthplace and the Joyce Museum), none of which featured in the Top Ten attractions of the city. A view developed therefore that the development of the tourism product in Dublin might be best served by transferring responsibility to Failte Ireland which could both invest directly and co-ordinate the activities of other stakeholders such as the Chamber of Commerce, Dublin City Councils and attraction operators. This view developed more traction when Failte Ireland took over the other regional tourism organisations (even Cork-Kerry) and came to fruition with the Government policy on semi-state bodies.

The demise of Dublin tourism has given rise to some anxiety that a vacuum may exist in the promotion and development of Dublin as a destination and this has led to a decision by ITIC to commission research on the marketing requirements of the capital. The project called ‘Capitalising on Dublin’s Potential’ is being undertaken by Tourism Development International which has invited comment from interested parties. According to ITIC, the transfer of the functions of Dublin Tourism to Failte Ireland ‘brings centre stage the urgent need to establish an international destination marketing function which will exploit to the full the enormous potential still untapped for Dublin’.

A top priority in any such strategy must be to win back the one million visitors per annum which the city has lost since 2007. Central to such a plan must be a clear understanding of why the tourism has fallen away particularly in the Britain and US markets. Currency values and economic conditions are of course factors, but a close look should also be taken at the ‘fashionability’ of Dublin, a possibly ‘tired’ product in places like Temple Bar, dining, drinking, transport and entertainment pricing and the creation of new ‘must see’ attractions.

Dublin is a complex tourism product whose principal market is leisure visitors. The availability of things to see and do, places to eat and drink and the value on offer are therefore of prime importance. This is particularly true of the large numbers (50% of British visitors and 25% of Americans) who stay with family and friends. Their only contribution to the local economy is the money they spend on sight-seeing, dining, drinking, shopping and entertainment.

A sub-division of leisure visitors which does not feature in the statistics are the growing numbers who come to the city for concerts and sports fixtures. Thanks to the opening of  the O2 and Bord Gais Energy theatres and the Aviva sports stadium, this segment has grown rapidly in recent years and has scope for significant further development.

The opening of CCD has of course made a similar contribution to business tourism which at 18% of total visitors to Dublin is relatively small, but punches above its weight in revenue terms. The conference market is both rewarding and competitive and the existence of a strong ‘city brand’ can be a powerful tool in winning business.

Failte Ireland is now the key player in the development of tourism in Dublin and it will be interesting to see how it approaches a significant challenge. It will need to be a leader and co-ordinator for the diverse stakeholders including an array of competitive commercial interests, cash-strapped local authorities, Dublin Airport and Port authorities, carriers, transporters, the heritage and arts communities and maybe the industrial and educational sectors. The ITIC study is examining the option of a ‘Brand Dublin’ which would encompass tourism, industry, commerce and lifestyle along the lines of the image presented by New York and London.

Such a strategy would require significant funding and even more significant co-operation, but the benefits of getting an entire community to present a single (friendly) image to the world, would indeed be immense.