Tourism: Air of optimism emerging from Irish economic crisis


A decade ago, when the so-called Celtic Tiger was at its peak, Dublin heaved with atmosphere and good times. The Temple Bar area of the city, which emerged from a failed attempt to build a transport hub just south of the Liffey River, became a focal point for nightlife and good times. It was a tale of transformation from the grimy, smog-enveloped town of the 1980s to the vibrant capital city that emerged from the economic boom of the latter 1990s, which saw Dublin elevated by culture, modernity, and new business, imbued with a confidence that infected the country as a whole.

When the bubble burst in 2008, an economy based on precarious property speculation finally collapsed. It was a swift descent. The tourists stopped coming – 2009 proved a disastrous year for the industry – businesses closed down, unemployment went up and wages were curbed.

Towards the end of last year, the centrist Fianna Fáil government that so boastfully took the credit for the good times, but by then wheezing towards electoral disaster, went cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union asking for help to pay its debts. It was a humiliating comedown for a country once held up as a shining example of how governments could lift their economies out of the mire, and the episode provoked more than one over-the-top newspaper editorial about lost independence.

But the new Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, of the centre-right Fine Gael party, has vowed to get Ireland back on its feet. At the recent Global Irish Economic Forum, a kind of an old school network on an international scale where global business leaders of Irish descent pledge their support, he confidently predicted Ireland would be the first of the three bailed-out Eurozone countries, the others being Greece and Portugal, to be free of the IMF. The Forum, the second such event after a less than successful one in 2009, is a kind of an old school network on an international scale, in which global business leaders of Irish decent have pledged to get the county up and running again.

Former US President Bill Clinton, now a globetrotting motivational speaker for hire, has also agreed to do his bit: next year he will convene a conference in New York on how to lift Ireland out of its present economic problems.

Tourism is a big part of the plan. It is still considered a vital part of Ireland’s economy, accounting for about 6% of GDP and about 5% of employment and the government wants this to improve.

In 2013, when Ireland holds the EU presidency, the country aims to attract an extra 350,000 visitors to its shores through various local initiatives. The service industry, which Clinton claims the Irish do better than anyone else in the world, also continues to be promoted. Hotels make a point of their ability to provide for any business or leisure occasion, and the new Convention Centre Dublin, a state-of-the-art centrepiece in the redeveloped docklands, aims to attract big, international trade.

Talk to people in the tourism or leisure industries, and there is a certain amount of confidence creeping back, while in the pubs and bars the optimism is mixed with a touch of cynicism as the future is discussed. The economic forecast is a little sunnier, but there remains an understandable reluctance to take politicians and business leaders at their word as they promise to restore national pride and confidence.