Niall Gibbons (Chief Executive, Tourism Ireland)

09.03.2011 - Interview conducted by Ashley S. Fitzpatrick & Olivia OíConnell.

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Q1. There is a growing East/West divide in Irish tourism with tourism having increased in the capital city Dublin and having declined outside the city, in particular there has been a huge decline in visitors to the west of Ireland. What do you consider to be the best approach to solving this problem?

Five years ago there was certainly an East/West divide what weíve seen in the last number of years however, is that with the economic downturn everyone has suffered in the tourism sector. 80 percent of all the traffic that comes in to Ireland comes through Dublin so inevitably that is a big favour to Dublin. The good news is that we have had a major improvement in road access around the country, the availability of car rental is very good so the possibility of getting into the region is better than it has been before. In addition to that, we have smaller airports such as Shannon, Cork, Kerry, Galway, Knock and Sligo so regional air access is possible too. I think for tourism in the regions to grow, tourism to Dublin has to grow because it is bringing in 80 percent of the people and so for access it is essential.

Q2. Irish tourism has recently been described as lacking in appeal and distinctiveness and as having failed to recognise touristsí changing preferences. What do see as the most effective and innovative way of making the most of Irelandís natural and cultural assets?

I disagree with the comments that have been made, what we find overseas is that there is still a big affinity to Ireland, there is also a younger profile travelling to Ireland than there had been coming in the past. We do research every year to see what consumer preferences are, there has been some pretty good product development over the years and new product development coming on stream. In Waterford for example thereís a new tour called the Viking Triangle which will be finished later on this year and that is exposing the medieval history that there is around that city and also the Waterford Crystal Visitorís Centre which had been closed and is now reopened. There are a lot of things that bring the Ireland brand to life and I think there is a lot of appeal there and there is still an affinity. I think what has tended to happen is that because of the downturn in visitors it has caused people to question more whether we are fit for purpose so to speak. I think it is important that we consider these questions. By and large, of visitors who leave Ireland over 90 percent of them have either been satisfied or very satisfied with their holiday and so that is a good indication.

Q3. The UK has been Irelandís largest tourism market, visitor numbers from the UK however are declining due it being an expensive country to travel. In competing with other European destinations how can Ireland increase visitor numbers from the UK?

There are a number of things that you have to do to compete. First of all, you have to be distinctive which I think Ireland is. You get that distinctiveness through your culture, through your advertising. You have to be competitive, I think for a number of years Ireland was not competitive, prices had got too high which was visible across Europe. We are much more competitive now. You also need to exploit opportunities by increasing the availability of air access services because every other country in Europe is accessible by land. Even the UK is connected to France by train. Ireland is wholly dependent on air access, 85 percent of access is through air and to a lesser extent by sea. By a larger extent it comes down to the distinctiveness of what it means to be Irish, for us it is the people, the culture and the scenery. They are the three things that differentiate us from other destinations and for us that is why customers say they come back.

Q4. The tourism sector has negative implications for the environment both at a local and international level. In the context of globalisation, how can Ireland work with other international actors to tackle these problems?

I donít think tourism has to be negative for the environment, there are a number of levels to it. There are steps you can take within the industry in relation to greener, accreditation programmes and getting the industry on board. By being environmentally and eco friendly you can carve out a niche for yourself you have to make yourself distinctive and Ireland already has a green image and so it is strength we can play up to. On the emission side of things, that is one that is very important from an environmental perspective but we need to strike the balance between being environmentally sustainable and at the same time be able to deliver to visitors. Also if emissions directives across the globe are implemented at the same level for everybody, it is people on the periphery that will lose out. That is the most important thing; people canít be marginalised. It is definitely a balance and there are no easy answers. From an Irish perspective we have an important role to play and I think we can turn it into our advantage.

Q5. To what extent has cultural diplomacy played a role in economic, social and political cooperation between the north and south of Ireland?

Hugely important, we are the example of it we were born out of a political agreement. The Irish South and Irish North tourist board used to operate separately and now they work together. That requires an enormous amount of cultural diplomacy because you are working with people that have conflicts and so cultural diplomacy is at the heart of our organisation. Tourism also has a huge role to play internationally, as people talk and that is how information is communicated. If people donít talk vacuums are created and misunderstandings occur.

Thank you so much for your time.