Can staycations drive a more sustainable Irish tourism industry?



The global tourism industry has experienced two major blows in the past 18 months - Brexit and Covid-19.

The narrative around Brexit was deemed to be shattering due to currency fluctuations and the lack of trade agreements. Brexit would undoubtedly impact the three million British tourists who contributed approximately €1 billion to the Irish economy annually.

However, little did we know what kind of catastrophe was lurking in the background. Having bounced back from the financial crisis in 2008 and the Icelandic ash cloud in 2010, the tourism industry globally was brought to its knees by the pandemic. But setbacks can provide opportunities to reset the barometer for development, so how can the Irish tourism industry recover from such major setbacks?

The need for a more sustainable tourism model is a longstanding debate on a national and international level. The industry has been on a rollercoaster of destruction based on unsustainable practices associated with burgeoning and somewhat uncontrolled mainstream tourism demand.

We have witnessed environmental damage due to overtourism, overcrowding, depletion of natural resources and host-guest conflicts resulting in a mounting anti-tourism sentiment. Tourism fatigue was evident in the protests that took place in Barcelona and Venice where thousands took to the streets to fight back against an escalating tourism industry.

The long-term viability of the tourism industry necessitates a step change. While Ireland's National Sustainable Development Policy in 2019 committed to help achieve certain UN Sustainable Development Goals, opportunities to implement such change has been slow moving. Of central importance was the commitment to more sustainable tourism industry and to improve the quality of life for all.

The Government's tourism policy, in particular, seeks to address environmental and economic sustainability. Although the tourism industry has been historically fraught with issues associated with non-sustainable practices, we are now presented with an opportunity to re-design our tourism landscape. Does Brexit and Covid-19 provide a pathway to formulate a new way of consuming tourism, an opening to create a more sustainable and resilient tourism model?

The easing of travel restrictions and the pent-up demand for tourism breaks is fuelling Irish staycations. Staycations - or holidaying at home - has been gaining popularity in recent years. The number of domestic trips in Ireland has been growing steadily since 2012, peaking at 10.9 million in 2018.

According to Tourism Ireland, Covid has helped accelerate staycations as Irish tourists chose safer travel options rather than grapple with the uncertainty of foreign travel.

Covid has played a role in getting us to reflect upon what is important on an individual level. We are more aware of how we spend our time, and the need to achieve a better work-life balance. Central to such considerations is the desire to spend more time in nature and quality time together.

Change is needed both systemically and in terms of consumers' thinking, and now the opportunity has presented itself. Not only is the domestic tourism market a primary source of revenue this year, but it is also an opening to reconsidering what kind of tourism industry we want to offer and how we can reframe a more progressive Irish tourism model.

Can staycations drive a more sustainable tourism industry? As Covid put a halt to much international travel, staycations have become our holiday of choice. The term "staycation" implies an experience that somewhat lacks alure, novelty and excitement. It is met with a sense of "the same old, same old" familiar experience. Such perceptions must be addressed to reignite the Irish pride, not only in what we have but in who we are.

Tourism and travel are often about seeing the familiar in unfamiliar ways, through re-discoveries such as those offered by the Hidden Heartlands or The Lost Valley. Tourism initiatives such as the UNESCO Geoparks have promoted the benefits of a more sustainable and responsible tourism for many years through engagement with the host communities.

But how can we make our somewhat "familiar" experiences exciting? Staycations need not be seen as a 'familiar' experience in an unexciting sense, but rather as a positive contributor to the Irish people in terms of re-engaging with our culture and heritage, our landscapes and our people.

It is as sustainable as sustainable gets. It allows the Irish people to play a part in shaping and reinvigorate our economy, generate a revival of our love for all things Irish and an opportunity to learn and appreciate our island through a process of rediscovery.

Such prospects emanate the principles of sustainability not only in terms of environmental stability (less emission due to no flying), but the fact that it supports local economies, promotes an appreciation of local heritage, and develops a sense of community among the Irish people.

At the heart of a more sustainable tourism model is the community and its well-being. It is not only about keeping our people in jobs and our economy rolling, but it is a collective sense of togetherness and a shared sense of responsibility.

Pre 2000, Ireland as a tourism destination was grounded in such intrinsic offerings as its people, culture and landscape. It was founded on a love for 'all things Irish’. It was a product that was characteristically unique. Irish people are core to the tourism offering. Perhaps a more sustainable and resilient tourism model for the future is one that has community at its heart and doesn't just concentrate on economic and environmental factors alone.