Tourism as if people mattered

Of all the sectors to be impacted by the Covid19 pandemic, tourism has to be the worst.  Cruise ships have been grounded, and in the worst cases, left stranded at seat as public health directives prevented docking at terminals, airlines are running at a tiny fraction of capacity, the business infrastructures that service both reeling from the collision with public health needs. Hotels, bed and breakfasts, AirBNB and pubs in almost all cases have been forced to shut their doors.  Cafes and restaurants mostly the same. Sports stadiums, with seasons stopped before their end of year finals, lie quiet.

There have, of course been silver linings. Some hotels have been repurposed as social distancing friendly accomodation centers for vulnerable populations like homeless people and asylum seekers, though not always with greetings of approval from a cynical public.  Sports centres like Croke Park became, for a while, part of an extensive service of public health testing for the virus.  Local clubs, in particular the GAA, have gone back to their social purposeful grassroots and helped service the community, delivering shopping and collecting prescriptions for elderly and vulnerable people who are "cocooning."

At the outset of the outbreak, there was criticism of many actions taken and not taken by government. Initially bemused by Simon Harris' cancellation of an Ireland v Italy rugby game, the public then muttered complaints that fans from already hard hit Italy would not be prevented from travelled.  However, as evidence later mounted around the same weekends England v France international in England, and a Liverpool v Madrid match in the former city, where no fewer than 3000 Spanish fans descended on the city despite a full lockdown already being in place in Spain, it appeared that the decision was not misplaced.  The cancellation of the St Patrick's Day parade left bemused tourists who had dared to travel anyway rambling confusedly around a quiet city, but not before social media howled with the hashtag "close the pubs" after videos emerged of revelry were posted from a pub in Temple Bar.

After greater restrictions were imposed, many people, stripped of their normal routines of bank holiday weekends away, social visits to family and dinners and drinks out, discovered local walking, cycling and crammed full places like Dun Laoghaire and Wicklow hills in search of - in many cases - new things to pass the time without the normal social events.

With as much as 9.4bn value to the country (2018 figures, https://www.gov.ie/en/policy/3fcc3a-tourism/), tourism is an enormous business, and includes diverse areas such as ticketing revenue to carriers, accomodation services, and catering as well as a healthy entertainment.  But as anybody who has walked through Temple Bar on a weekend night will know, not all of it is beneficial.  AirBNB is considered to be a signifiant reason for Dublin having one of the most unaffordable private rented sectors in the world, with as many of 7500 units available as of February 2020 (thanks to http://insideairbnb.com/dublin/ for this data).  Almost 5000 units were reported as being "complete units" as of March 2020. This market has collapsed, and the volume of rental stock in Dublin alone on public long tern rental website was reported to be 64% (Thanks to Charlie Weston, https://www.independent.ie/world-news/coronavirus/homes-for-rent-climb-as-airbnb-market-tumbles-39063281.html).

This isn't the end of the story - there are anecdotes of antisocial revellers invading apartment blocks around the city, with parties, noise, and wheelie bags dragged aross cobblestones in the early hours.  But the decimation of the Temple Bar area of the city to a thriving night club is appalling, given the orignal intent of the Temple Bar company to develop the area as a cultural amenity.  Culture should not simply be about nightlife, and particular not about nightlife that excludes anything but hard drinking and partying.

Perhaps it is time to take a more nuanced view, not just about how we develop tourism, but of our toelrance limits and what we encouarage for ourselves.  Kilkenny city in recent years has been stained by surges of hen parties descending on the city, roaming the town by night.  The commercial benefit of this goes to just a small few superpubs who endlessly spew drunken revellers with identikit experiences.  Many have been delighted to enjoy the outdoors, and some called, in vain, to permanently restrict vehicluar access in the Phoenix Park so it could be better enjoyed by cyclists and walkers.

It is easy to blame global tourism for this, but the reality is that we, ourselves, created the image of Ireland in general and Dublin and Galway in particular, as youthfully vinbrant, persistently partying cities where young people could revel away literally 24 by 365 without consequence. Much of our own domestic tourism has for too long centred on noisy pubs, shouting over ballad with low grade food thrown at you. We ignore lots of brilliant historical conenctions - particularly around the liberties, with its old world charm, and connections to figures such as GF Handel, whose Messiah was premiered in Fishamble St, now part of the infamous Temple Bar, but long since ripped apart, and with little or no commemoration. There is no Handel festival, no celebration of the vibrant culture of the past, and the little that does exist is honky-tonk recreations of "viking" culture that largely involve shipping stag and hen groups in plastic hats around the city in a boat repurposed as a vehicle.

Dublin Castle, with its beautiful coach house restored in the 1990s, gets very little compared to other more public transport friendly locations. The IMMA, too far from the beat, gets even less. Much of Ireland's literary and artistic past is unknown: the composer Arnold Bax, for example, lived in Gelnsallagh in Donegal, where if you go as a tourist, locals will be very surprised to learn that you are not a teacher, coming to learn the language.  It took decades for Dublin born Iris Murdoch to be celebrated in her birthplace, with a very low key celebration that was barely noticed.

It is high time that we started to develop a tourism here that is sensitive to both our history and our present, and one that does not erase either the history of those gone past, or the people who currently inhabit it.

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