Address by the Vice-Chairman

Elected members, Board Directors of Carlow Tourism, members of Carlow Tourism, ladies and gentlemen. You are all very welcome to tonight’s AGM which in itself is a sign for optimism for the tourism sector here in the county, given that face-to-face meetings have not been possible for almost 18 months.

I know from talking to members in the sector that the summer period was extremely busy and that business is still brisk as we enter autumn, with many anxious to catch up on lost time by reuniting with family and friends. Carlow has always been a county which has relied heavily on the domestic market, and the importance of that market has resonated so strongly since the pandemic first hit. If there are any positives to be taken from COVID I think that many new visitors have discovered Carlow as a holiday destination this year and last, and that they enjoyed really good value with the many and varied packages on offer from members – in contrast perhaps to other areas of the country whose prices got copious coverage in print and radio media. I think the value to be enjoyed here will stand to our providers in the coming months and years.

While all very positive, I want to recognise the really difficult circumstances that many businesses faced after an incredibly difficult and long closure period, during which many valuable team members left for work in other sectors and are unlikely to return. In some cases, businesses in the county have been unable to capitalise on available demand, due primarily to staff shortages. I know Fáilte Ireland is working hard to rebuild the image of tourism as one with excellent and exciting career opportunities to support the many businesses that are so critical to the recovery of our sector and our economy. I encourage all members to avail of the supports under the BePulse initiative and hope that the government will continue to allocate the necessary resources to ensure that tourism returns to its position as Ireland’s largest indigenous industry and biggest regional employer. We cannot forget that tourism can provide employment in parts of Ireland that other sectors simply cannot reach – we are all aware of many examples in Carlow and from amongst your own businesses.

While we are heavily dependent on the domestic market, overseas travellers can be the icing on the cake for many members, helping to offset the downturn which inevitably comes during the shoulder season periods. Pre-COVID and from an international perspective America was Ireland’s second most important overseas market, after mainland Europe. Therefore, the decision last week of the Biden administration to lift the travel ban on vaccinated Europeans entering the US is really important for the Irish tourism sector. While American visitors have been able to travel here since July, this decision is significant in that it allows airlines to start thinking about restoring connectivity, re-opening existing routes and planning new ones and connectivity as we all know is key to tourism growth. We are already seeing mainland European visitors returning, albeit in small numbers and look forward to 2022 when the opportunity for further growth will materialise.

You have all received a copy of our 2020 Annual Report which provides an in-depth account of the many and varied activities completed during the year. Highlights include the development of forty six interpretation panels providing valuable visitor information in association with Carlow County Council across a range of initiatives including the Carlow Garden Trail, Duckett’s Grove, Town and Village programme and the Columban Way.

I am particularly pleased that 2020 saw the progression of the Columban Way in Carlow, a 45km route through County Carlow starting at the Nine Stones on Mount Leinster with feeder routes from St Mullins and Bunclody. The route then travels to Myshall and along the Barrow Way to Carlow Town. It is really encouraging to see the upcoming launch of the route around Bangor in County Down where Columbanus founded his famous monastery and lived for 10 years. Even pre-COVID pilgrim routes were showing great signs of growth as visitors seek to reconnect with nature and their own selves. Heartiest congratulations to Myshall Muintir na Tire and Carlow County Council who in sourcing funding for this project, ensured that Carlow was the first of the eight counties, through which the route passes, to be completed. More recently the section around Bangor has been completed too and we look forward to the remaining six counties working to connect the start and end point of the Columban Way in the years ahead. There is no doubt that it is an initiative with huge potential with potential to link into Columbanus’ rich legacy in Europe, particularly in France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.  I look forward to the official launch of the Carlow section of the route on Saturday, October 16th as part of the Autumn Walking Festival and to the Bangor launch the following weekend.

Other highlights of the company’s activities in 2020 included the development of a new app and mobile kiosk for St Mullins and the hosting of two festivals despite COVID conditions – Snowdrop Month in February and the County Carlow Golf Classic in September. On the marketing front a reach of 1.1 million was achieved via our social channels assisted by funding provided by Carlow County Council under the COVID-19 Economic Response Plan alongside 76,000 unique visitors to the company website. These figures do however reflect a downturn of almost 50,000 on the previous year. We have continued to focus our efforts on the domestic market in 2021 and Eileen will give you more details in her report as part of tonight’s proceedings.

In moving forward, I encourage businesses to retain and foster the strong spirit of co-operation and networking that continues to develop particularly since the pandemic. In the same way that there has been huge support for our local businesses in the shop local initiative, there is a renewed understanding that the tourism sector must work together to retain its visitors within the county in the first instance.

As always our thanks to our principal funders including Carlow County Council who, through its annual estimates programme provided €125,000 to the company.

The significant fall off in Fáilte Ireland approved accommodation is worrying but we recognise the significant efforts of Carlow LCDC and Carlow County Development Partnership through the LEADER programme to support private promoters in this area, which will bear fruit in the near future.

We work closely with Fáilte Ireland in respect of Carlow Tourist Office and of course in respect of tourism initiatives and plans for the county.

The Department of Social Protection has four CE placements in our office which are invaluable in progressing our own objectives.

In mentioning the above I also want to recognise the many members who support the development and promotion of Carlow as a holiday destination both through their membership fee and the delivery of a high quality visitor experience – despite COVID and the enormous challenges faced by the sector our membership numbers remain strong and sponsorship for initiatives like the County Carlow Golf Classic from the membership remains constant.

In conclusion I want to thank our Chairman, Honorary Treasurer, Minute Taker, Chairs of our four sub-committees  and all Board members for their support and work throughout the last year and for their enthusiasm and belief in the strength of the tourism offering here. I want to thank you our members for your contribution, financially and in the daily running of your business in promoting and cross networking amongst other providers. Finally thanks to our staff for their work over the past year.