Ireland’s tourist trap

If Niamh Fitzpatrick thought the tobacco industry was tough, a whole new world of political stalemate and manoeuvring could be opening up to her when she joins the Dublin-based Irish Tourist Board/Bord Failte (ITB) in the new year as its international marketing director.

Within days of the announcement that Fitzpatrick was to join the ITB from John Player tobacco (MW December 3), talks on north/south cross-border bodies – for which tourism was a prime candidate – came to a grinding halt.

Most had thought the politicians would agree on the creation of a single body responsible for tourism in both the north and south of Ireland.

While the Ulster Unionist press office was confident of making an announcement “within an hour” last Wednesday afternoon, and after Tony Blair had flown in especially to speed negotiations, talks tumbled back to stalemate by Thursday evening. And by last Friday, David Trimble, first minister of Northern Ireland, was stepping on a plane to the US with no agreement in place.

This is the political quagmire Fitzpatrick faces as she takes up her role in the new year. She replaces Noel Toolan, who left the job a year ago after a highly publicised row over a logo with Minister for Tourism Jim McDaid.

The timing of her appointment is significant. It has prompted some to speculate that a deal on a north/south tourism body has already been signed behind closed doors.

Tourism is one of several candidates for north/south bodies, under discussion by the Irish and British governments as a result of the Good Friday Agreement.

For four years, the tourism bodies in Ireland – the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the ITB – have successfully co-operated through joint marketing. “Tourism is perhaps the least contentious of the north/south bodies,” says a spokesman for the Irish Department for Tourism Sport & Recreation.

But despite attempts to play down any controversy over the formation of a cross-border tourism body, the issue is contentious. President of Sinn Fein Gerry Adams is in favour of an all Ireland body but Unionists are nervous of any move that could undermine Northern Ireland as an entity. They feel the formation of any north/ south body would pave the way for a united Ireland “by stealth”.

“It depends on how you formulate the cross-border bodies,” says a spokesman for Trimble’s office. “If the [Northern Ireland] Tourist Board is subsumed then this is not something the unionists would be too keen on.”

The formation of a cross-border body for tourism could sound the death knell for Britain and indeed Ireland’s oldest tourism body, the NITB, which was formed in 1948. Some believe this body could eventually become a regional office of a single all-Ireland body. “It is significant,” says professor Eddie Friel, professor of the Scottish Hotel School at Strathclyde University, who has run consultancy projects for the cities of Cork, Limerick, Belfast and Tralee.

“The idea is that there should be one agency for the promotion of Ireland and this raises all sorts of issues. For example, does the NITB become one of the regional boards which will be part of Bord Failte (ITB)? And who will the board be answerable to, the North South Executive or the Irish government?”

The NITB and the ITO/Bord Failte are run as separate statutory bodies, maintaining separate accommodation grading schemes, communications and investment divisions. The bodies are funded from different sources, in the NITB’s case through the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Economic Development, and the ITB through the Irish government. As a result, and most significantly, tourism strategy for each board is set separately.

A more coherent strategy for the whole island is the most obvious benefit to emerge from a single body. One agency would result in economies of scale and a less cluttered decision-making structure. But while no one will say on the record that a single body will replace the two existing ones, a source close to the talks confirms: “Yes, this will eventually evolve into a closer-knit organisation. And I would have thought a merger would be likely.”

Another commentator explains that: “It’s become just a macho thing now. The principle of creating a single north/south body is easy, it’s the mechanism to do it that is difficult.”

The importance that the north and south attach to developing tourism in Ireland has been the driving force for closer co-operation. Tourism is one of the planks of the economy and accounts for 6.4 per cent of Ireland’s GNP and is now a 2.8bn industry. In the north, the authorities are pinning their hopes on the peace dividend and tourism revenue is targeted to increase from 208m in 1997 to 285m by 2001. In any case, recent findings of tourism research conducted by the ITO show many tourists do not recognise the difference between the north and south.

Former marketing director Noel Toolan, who worked for the ITB/Bord Failte from 1995 to 1997, says: “We found that people did not understand the differences between north and south in Ireland. People holiday to other divided countries such as Cyprus and don’t recognise the border.”

Toolan, now vice-president of corporate marketing at software company Iona Technology, oversaw the first combined marketing offensive promoting the whole of Ireland.

He worked closely with the Overseas Tourism Marketing Initiative (OTMI), which was formed in 1994 – an all-Ireland public and private sector partnership which includes members from the NITB, the ITO, Aer Lingus and Irish Ferries.

Its mission was to “create greater consumer awareness and accelerate growth in the overseas visitor market to the island”. And in commercial terms its success is obvious. The OTMI looks likely to achieve its target of generating more than 3bn a year in foreign earnings and to generate about 8.5 per cent of GNP by 2002.

But some are calling for a more strategic and co-operative approach to tourism, which can only be set by government. The Social & Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), which is in favour of an all-Ireland approach, criticises the fact that tourism strategy has focused purely on numbers.

“We realise that Ireland cannot stay cool for ever,” says a spokesman. “We’d like to see a more holistic approach, tying tourism in with sporting, cultural and business events rather than just creating beds. While there is successful co-ordination on marketing, there is little or no policy co-ordination.”

He believes that government should try to attract prestigious sporting events to Ireland, supported by building new sports stadia and improving the transport infrastructure.

Toolan would also like to see the ITB and NITB building on the success of the existing branding. He says: “You could take the brand and start customising it, and build specific areas such as golf, fishing and city breaks under the umbrella of the main brand.”

Fitzpatrick’s marketing plans should come to fruition at the end of next year. She would not be interviewed for this article, saying it was too early for her to comment.

Her role as international marketing director at ITB/Bord Failte could be one of the most frustrating or exhilarating jobs of her career. If the politicians decide to merge the two bodies – or even replace them with something new – the chances are that Ireland’s tourism strategy will be much clearer.

But creating an agency as a face-saving compromise will only increase bureaucracy in an already complex decision-making structure.

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