While the numbers of British visitors may be falling, many other nationalities are embracing West Cork and especially the Wild Atlantic Way, writes Brian Moore
THERE has been a marked fall in the number of UK tourists visiting West Cork this year, as well as a number of British tour operators cancelling bookings for 2018.
The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC) has recorded a drop of 5% nationally in comparison to the same period last year, while in West Cork some areas and popular visitor attractions are reporting as much as a 10% decrease in UK tourist numbers.
‘We have noticed a huge drop and this is very worrying,’ Carolyn Daly, assistant manager at the Mizen Visitor Centre told The Southern Star.
‘There was a steady decrease since the beginning of the season, but now we are faced with the reality of tour operators cancelling bookings for next year. We have been told that these cancellations are due to a lack of people booking with them in the UK.’
While the number of tourists coming to West Cork from the US, France, Germany and the rest of Europe has increased, the decline in those making the short journey across the Irish Sea is a worrying development for the many tourist businesses along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Kevin Cullinane, head of communications, Cork Airport said: ‘Cork Airport has welcomed a 7.2% increase in overall passenger numbers in August, compared to the same month last year, through Ireland’s newest transatlantic airport.’
While passengers transiting through London to Cork have increased, the number of UK residents travelling to Cork is almost level with last year’s figures.
‘Passengers travelling from the other UK provincial airports in England, Scotland and Wales into Cork Airport were up a more modest 2% from 41,000 in 2016 to 42,000 last month,’ Kevin said.
In Bantry, a significant decrease in the number of visitors from the UK has been recorded.
‘We are very concerned at this decrease in the number of UK visitors,’ Eileen O’Shea, chairperson of the Bantry Development and Tourism Association, said. ‘Our records here at the Bantry Tourist Office show a 10% drop in the numbers of UK visitors. The UK market is, traditionally, very important to this part of West Cork and more will need to be done to ensure that this trend can be reversed as soon as possible.’
Skibbereen Heritage Centre’s visitor numbers had increased by over 8% to the end of August, compared with 2016 figures, despite a notable drop in tourists from the UK.
‘We have seen an increase in visitor numbers from the US, Canada and Continental Europe and this has balanced the drop in UK visitors but it is certainly a worrying trend,’ according to Terri Kearney, the Centre’s manager. ‘We have also noticed that the UK tourist is also a lot more price-conscious than heretofore.’
Aaron Mansworth, chair of the Cork Branch of the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), said; ‘Tourism in Cork in particular relies heavily on the UK market, so any fall-off in numbers gives cause for serious concern.
‘While the drop in visitors from Britain has been offset by increases in other markets, such as North America and the rest of Europe, we are seeing a significant slowdown in tourism growth so far this year.
‘The recent recovery in tourism is now under threat as a result of Brexit, with fewer people from Britain visiting Ireland due to the significant drop in the value of sterling and increased economic uncertainty,’ he said.
Cormac Fitzgerald of the Blue Haven Group in Kinsale, said that the town has been lucky to benefit from its location on the popular Wild Atlantic Way.
‘The Wild Atlantic Way has been a huge positive for tourism in West Cork and Kinsale is nicely positioned on the beginning of this exciting journey which shows what some joined up thinking can achieve,’ he pointed out. ‘But it is now costing the UK tourist over 30% more than it did two years ago to holiday in West Cork, so this has an obvious impact despite all it has to offer,’ he added.
‘Overall Kinsale had a good season in general, from chatting to local businesses, but the seasonality of tourism is the ongoing issue for SMEs and rural towns need support and co-ordinated marketing efforts to grow.’
Mr Fitzgerald pointed ou that Great Britain is Ireland’s largest source market for overseas visitors. In 2016, 41% of overseas visitors to Ireland originated in Great Britain, and they accounted for 23% of total overseas visitor revenues.
‘The immediate challenge for Irish tourism emanates from sterling weakness, but the longer-term issue concerns any threat to the common travel area between the UK and Ireland. In the first six months of 2017, visitor numbers from the UK were 6.4% lower than the first half of 2016.
‘Visitors from the UK accounted for 38.3% of total overseas visitors to Ireland in the first half of 2017. The good news is that other source markets are growing strongly,’ he added.
This feeling was echoed by Alex Connolly of Fáilte Ireland. ‘While UK visitors are down 6% this includes business travellers, so the figure for holidaymakers is actually a 9% fall,’ he said. ‘But this was more than compensated by an overall increase of 3-4% in tourists to Ireland.’
Mr Connolly said a ‘Get Brexit Ready’ campaign has just been launched by the tourism body, which is available online. Businesses with a overly high exposure to the UK market will get tips on diversifying and there is also an online tool to diagnose issues, with suggestions of supports for those affected.
Kim McNamara from Clonakilty’s Model Railway Village was happy to report that overall visitor numbers were up. ‘Our visitor numbers are up on last year and we have had a good summer. The majority of our visitors are Irish families, but I have noticed in the last few years a steady decline in UK visitors.’
However, some venues have found no drop-off in British visitors. ‘We found that UK visitors to Fernhill were not down at all,’ said Fernhill House Hotel’s Michael O’Neill Jnr, adding: ‘Failte Ireland research shows that British tourists love gardens and historic houses, so we believe that this helped us to buck the trend. Maybe there is a lesson there for tourism bodies that we have to focus on what British tourists want. Especially in tough times like now.’
His thoughts were somewhat echoed by Pat Gill of the Westlodge Hotel in Bantry. ‘We have found no noticeable drop in any market segment, even the British market,’ he said. ‘The home market has been very strong and numbers on all UK coaches have held up well. It has been a very strong season for continental visitors as well, and Ireland is seen as a safe destination after a number of terrorist-related incidents in some of the sunnier destinations.’
However, he added a note of caution: ‘We do feel that we may get a slight decrease in UK numbers going forward as a result of a ‘hard Brexit’ and this may affect our coach business, but we will try and compensate this by increasing business from other European markets and hopefully more US business, especially with the new Norwegian Air connection of Boston to Cork.’