Analysis: researchers spoke to Wild Atlantic Way tourism operators to assess how they felt after months of lockdown and restrictions

By Liam M Carr and Kineshia Nic Eiteagáin, NUI Galway

Few sectors have been as impacted by Covid-19 as Ireland's tourism and hospitality sector. According to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, approximately 70% of jobs in this 260,000 person sector are reliant on an active overseas market of 10 million visitors. The ongoing pandemic has reduced the numbers of overseas arrivals by 95%, contributing to a €6 billion drop in revenue.

This is especially poignant along the tremendously popular Wild Atlantic Way. Over the past six plus years, the project has been nothing short of a success story. The 2500 km long touring route, which celebrates the Irish culture nurtured within an undeniably attractive and wild landscape, has produced enjoyable and unique experiences for nearly 9 million foreign and domestic visitors. In doing so, the initiative and business creativity within communities along the route has reinvigorated and diversified their local economies. The pandemic and its aftereffects represents a lasting threat of the highest order.

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Our research was motivated by two related aspects of the pandemic: (i) how has resilience within the tourism sector affected by various restrictions meant to limit the spread of Covid-19 since March 2020 and (ii) what strengths and opportunities might businesses turn to as they begin to reopen.

We surveyed 154 businesses within the Wild Atlantic Way tourism sector in March and April 2021. The businesses, stretched across all nine counties, represent a broad slice of Ireland’s largely rural west coast. We received responses from 51 businesses that have been in operation at least 30 years, many of which are major tourist draws such as hotels, pubs, restaurants and golf courses. With their longevity, they have achieved considerable international recognition, and in turn are the cornerstones for some of the Wild Atlantic Way's most popular destinations.

At the same time, we also surveyed 40 businesses that are less than 10 years old. These start-ups included traditional hospitality and pub offerings, as well as outdoor recreational activities, guided tours, cultural demonstrations, and bespoke, tourist-centred enterprises. These businesses perhaps represent the promise of the Wild Atlantic Way the most clearly, having seen the opportunity to open along the route during its infancy and before anyone envisaged the spectacular success it has become.

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We tracked levels of optimism toward 'resuming pre-Covid business operations’ at key points throughout 2020. For example, businesses were evenly split between having a sense of pessimism (52%) and optimism (47%) when asked for their view when the first lockdown was eased in June 2020. But 127 businesses had grown pessimistic (82%), while only six businesses were still optimistic after the December 2020 lockdown,

Interestingly, levels of optimism shifted nearly uniformly across various sectors and wasn’t particularly unique to the age or location of the business. Where there was a sense of optimism over the past year, it tended to be shared the length of the Wild Atlantic Way. The lone exception to this trend was seen within the communities of Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo, where pessimists outpaced optimists by nearly two-to-one by March 2021. At the time, 53% of all surveyed businesses expressed a sense of pessimism about the 2021 tourist season.

Businesses were asked to list the three main reasons for optimism or pessimism. For the 69 optimistic businesses, they expressed confidence in a loyal customer base who would follow health guidelines, growing experience in their own ability to conduct business safely, and what they viewed as a successful launch of the vaccination efforts. On the other hand, the 82 pessimistic businesses worried about the return of international visitors, the pace of the vaccine rollout and a concern that a rush to ease restrictions would lead to further lockdowns and an otherwise avoidable lengthening of Ireland's pandemic through much of 2021 and beyond.

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This research adds to a growing body of evidence on the full range of impacts related to the pandemic and the effects of Ireland’s response to contain the outbreak and safeguard its populace and businesses. Covid-19 remains a policy and public health challenge, and one where one day’s solutions often becomes next day’s problems.

As one of the hardest hit sectors, the Wild Atlantic Way business community is looking for strength within their own ranks to weather the pandemic. We recently contacted 38 of the businesses who participated in the survey to ask if their level of optimism had shifted in the past 90 days. Despite the extensive debates surrounding reopening indoor dining and airports, expanding vaccinations and other priorities, Wild Atlantic Way businesses have remained firm in their views. 92% of businesses who were optimistic in March about the 2021 tourist season remain so today. In the more rural communities, especially those away from the major attractions like the Cliffs of Moher or the Ring of Kerry, concerns about their future remain unaddressed. This is particularly true throughout the northwest of Ireland.

The Wild Atlantic Way tourism community are a resilient and stubborn bunch. They have suffered a lot throughout the pandemic and are already beginning to worry about how to make it through the coming winter. To date, they have shown an ability to adapt to the unforeseen and are working to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever. A little bit of government care and the support of the wider community would go a long way to making sure that the Wild Atlantic Way does not lose its uniquely local charms.

We would like to thank the businesses who took their time to respond to the survey and share it within their own business networks and especially Donegal County Council, who promoted the research at their 2021 Marine Tourism Conference.

Dr Liam M Carr is a Lecturer in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Irish Studies and a member of the Whitaker and Ryan Institutes at NUI Galway. A 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar, he is the Course Director for the MSc in Coastal and Marine Environments. Kineshia Nic Eiteagáin is a recent graduate in Geography from NUI Galway. This article presents a portion of her dissertation.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ