Grainne Popen considers whether Ireland’s tourism industry is on track for sustainability.
Sustainable tourism may seem to be an oxymoron, but developments following the pause to global travel indicate otherwise. Prior to the onslaught of Covid-19, the tourism sector in Ireland was growing steadily– as were its negative impacts.
Countless testimonies attributed to the disadvantages of Irish tourism which included deforestation, water overuse, urban problems, threats to ecosystems, and pollution. These were only a few of the pressing issues associated with the rising tourism industry. The dangers of tourism are certainly not limited primarily to the environment. The field of tourism had threatening intersections with a variety of other fields, including homelessness. Deputy Imelda Munster noted in a 2019 Dáil Éireann debate that, although there were over ten thousand homeless citizens in Ireland, the city of Dublin decided to build hotels for tourists rather than affordable housing. Jim Deegan, Director of Tourism Studies at the University of Limerick, warned The Irish Times in 2019 that Dublin was exhibiting measurable symptoms of over-tourism.
Other areas of the Republic were also suffering similar consequences. According to Tourism Ireland, a record 11.3 million travellers visited Ireland in 2019. This number spiked from 2018, where 100,000 fewer tourists visited. These tourists brought 5.9 billion euros in revenue, but those profits generally went to the travel industry– not to the communities hosting the visitors. Those communities which were receiving a disproportionate amount of the negative impacts were not seeing their fair share of the benefits. It was evident that Ireland was evolving into a major nexus for tourism, with the 2009-2018 trend of consecutive growth continuing uninhibited, while the damage dealt to local communities was ignored.
When Covid-19 swept over the globe, travel was immediately halted on an international scale, with Ireland enforcing some of the most restrictive travel guidelines. As of September 2021, the tourism industry still hasn’t recovered from ongoing Covid-era difficulties. Although the abrupt collapse of the tourism industry caused innumerable problems, it has also shed light on solutions to the issues that plagued the tourism industry pre-2019. Covid-19 allowed the Irish government to re-envision tourism, and fundamentally transform the business models tourism relies upon. The reopening strategies set forth by leading tourism agencies emphasize empowering communities and advancing sustainability goals.
The Irish tourism industry is in the most nascent stages of recovery. The amount of international travel occurring is still low, meaning that commitments to sustainability remain mostly rhetorical. While recovery plans and task forces have been implemented by the government, there is no proper litmus test to determine if the tourism industry is truly prioritizing sustainability during its convalescence. However, progressions in Mayo could suggest an optimistic future for Irish tourism, both domestic and international. They have expanded sustainable nature tours while emphasizing the importance of preserving the beauty of the land. Furthermore, Sustainable Travel Ireland launched an island-wide program that aims to educate and certify businesses in sustainable practices. As the government begins to launch new programs to revitalize international travel, it is evident that sustainability will be at the forefront of discussion, rather than the tail end. Finally, the Irish tourism industry has a chance to ‘do it right.’