In a January 2021 Zoom teleconference, Tourism Ireland CEO Niall Gibbons led a wide ranging briefing with North Americn media and disapora leaders about his agency's plans for restoring the hospitality and travel sector on the island of Ireland.
By Ed Forry
Boston Irish Publisher
Officials of Tourism Ireland hosted a wide-ranging online conversation about tourism in Ireland, even as the hard-hit hospitality and travel sector in Ireland continues to hemorrhage after twelve months of a complete shutdown due to the COVID 19 pandemic.
Tourism Ireland CEO Niall Gibbons, speaking from his office in Dublin, was joined on January 22 by Alison Metcalf, agency EVP for North America in New York and RTE presenter and commentator Marty Morrissey in a one hour Zoom reach-out to more than 50 American and Canadian Irish media and cultural representatives.
Details from the session include:
• Some 325,000 workers in the Irish tourism and hospitality sectors have been unable to work due to the shutdown for a full year. The industry usually employs 10% of the island’s workforce.
• With the failure of budget airline Norwegian Air (NAI), transatlantic service from Cork has ended, and is not likely to be resumed anytime soon
• Surveys reveal a huge pent-up demand to return to Ireland to re-connect with friends and family.
• The agency is hoping that a small recovery could begin in late summer or fall this year, but full recovery of the industry is not expected until at least 2022.
“I remember in 2013, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny launched ‘The Gathering,’ I wondered if we would ever see one million visitors from North America spending a billion dollars,” Gibbons said. “But by the time we got to 2019, it was actually two million visitors spending $2 billion. And what happened was that Great Britain, which had traditionally been our biggest market was completely eclipsed by this whole North American wave. And it's been a phenomenal success story., it really has.
“I scratched my head all the time because no one could ever have foreseen that. And we are now in a situation- I used to always start my speeches on the first of January saying, ‘The clock has gone back to zero and we have to do it all again,’ and people used to laugh. Now, the clock really has gone back- it went back to zero on the 13th of March last year. And it’s been zero since. So here we are again. And we just have to dig deep and find resilience.
He said COVID has altered the mindset about their future travel plans
“And I put the call out for when the time is right to come home. And what we've been doing is really important, we're listening to our customers. We've conducted thousands of interviews around the world and asked people. when they might travel again, where might they go, and what are they looking for? People are saying it is the time to get back to Ireland. There's pent-up demand there, no question about it. They want to go back to destinations that are familiar.
‘If I was having this conversation with you two years ago, people would have been looking for new destinations, places that they could brag about to their friends; (now) that's what people have been telling us. They want to get back to visit their friends and family. They want to get back to the destinations they've been to before. And they're looking for the familiar now. And I think that's where markets like North America and, you know, talking to an audience like you, it's going to be so important that we can connect with those people who want to come home.
“The second thing we've been looking at is connectivity because having the pent up demand is great, but if you can't get here it's academic - and air access is a key component of the Tourism Ireland strategy, and never more so in North America where we used to only have seven gateways traditional ones like New York, Boston, Chicago, we saw that expanded into Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Charlotte, but over the last number of years into places like Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles.
And we've been talking with the airlines and airports over the last while to make sure they are all going to come back to Ireland and come back at the same or greater volume than they did before. I don't think it will be as big in the initial instance as it was, but (we are working) very hard in that space because it's that critical factor for people trying to get home. It then is supporting our industry here at home.
“The Irish tourism industry has a very small number of big players like Aer Lingus and Ryanair and Irish Ferries, but it's actually 20,000 plus small enterprises, mom-and-pop enterprises- the caddies on the golf courses, the guys that bring people out fishing, or provide the taxi services, the concierge services- there are almost 325,000 people that work in our industry and they’re anxious to get back to work.
So they're the three big things for us, how the consumer feels, how do they get here and how we support our industry to connect with the marketplace. And I think the diaspora, our family of 70 million people around the world are going to be a cornerstone of the economic recovery. I'm very confident.
“I’m asked all the time when will we travel again? We don’t expect any recovery now, in the first half of 2021. We'd like to think that things would start recovering in quarter three. And a lot of that's going to come down to two things: first, the speed and success of the vaccine roll out, and secondly, how fast air connectivity gets reestablished. I've no doubt when those two things do get going, that it will start to flow again.”
Currently, the only Boston flights to Ireland land in Dublin, and the popular routes to Shannon were cancelled almost a full year ago. Gibbons was asked about the current airline connections. “The situation is very fluid at the moment, “ he said. “I was talking with Aer Lingus & Delta the other day, and Delta (has suspended service) this summer, but I hope will come back in 2022. Aer Lingus has expanded their fleets, they've got five new planes coming in and they have applied for landing rights in Manchester for a transatlantic service. And what's happening there is that they're filling a gap that has been created by the collapse of Virgin Atlantic. Aer Lingus is still very committed (to Ireland)- I have spoken to some of their board members, and they’re very keen to come back this summer, (but) it's unlikely to be the same as what it was, and we're really looking hopefully to a bigger season in 2022.
“Norwegian is another airline that's in big, big trouble. It looks like at least some sort of bailout assistance from the Norwegian government. And I'm not sure we’ll see that Cork service coming back- there’s no line of sight right now in relation to a transatlantic service from Cork. I think the priorities will be restoring into Dublin and Shannon in the first instance and Cork would come after that.”
Gibbons says he remains hopeful, and offers a simple message: “We can't wait to see you. That's something that I put out on social media over here, and it's very interesting. Sometimes the Irish can be very cynical about their own campaigns, but funny- that simple message, ‘We Can't Wait to See You Again!’ did strike home.”