Jonathan O’Meara, founder of Mid Ireland Adventure, demonstrates stand up paddleboarding on the River Shannon.

Offaly tourism providers facing 'fragile summer season'

The cost of living crisis, soaring insurance costs, poor public transport infrastructure and up to 59% less tourism beds have left Offaly tourism operators facing into what's been described as “a fragile summer season”.

Having endured two years of Covid-imposed restrictions, which sounded the death knell for international visitors, many tourism operators across the county said they are facing a myriad of challenges on all fronts as they head into the peak holiday season.

With over half of all tourism beds across Offaly currently contracted to the government for the temporary accommodation of Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers, tourism operators said the lack of affordable tourism accommodation has resulted in many tourists “bypassing Offaly altogether”.

Jonathan O’Meara, who owns and operates an outdoor adventure company, Mid Ireland Adventures and Slieve Bloom Mountain Bike Hire, which is based in Banagher, admitted that the lack of budget hotel accommodation in Offaly is having “huge knock-on effects” for everyone involved in the local tourist industry.

On a personal level, he says bookings for the peak summer months are “nowhere near where they should be at this stage” which is “very concerning” for his own business and also for all other small businesses operating in the tourism sector.

“A lot of our business comes from tourists who are criss-crossing the country from Dublin to Galway, and vice-versa, and we find that more and more tourists are opting to bypass Offaly altogether because they simply can’t get anywhere to stay. With all the budget beds taken out of the equation, all we are left with are very expensive hotel rooms.”

Having already been hit by Covid, soaring insurance and energy costs and now the Ukraine war, which has resulted in a refugee crisis right across Europe, Jonathan O’Meara stated that his business has got “no breaks at all” and he forecasted “very challenging times ahead” for the tourism sector, particularly in the Midlands.

Christina Byrne, who has been operating the award-winning Ardmore Country House Bed and Breakfast at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Kinnity for the past 26 years, is also worried about the future of the tourism sector locally and says “an awful lot more” needs to be done around the whole area of promoting the county and the Midlands region generally.

“The fact that hotel rooms are so expensive nationally should be a positive for Offaly as we are located right in the heart of Ireland and our rates are much lower that the big urban areas,” she points out, “but tourists can’t base themselves in Offaly if they don’t know about us”.

As a Director of Offaly Tourism, Christina is passionate about promoting the county and she is critical of the way in which Offaly is marketed under the Hidden Heartlands branding by Fáilte Ireland.

“We really are hidden in the Hidden Heartlands,” she said, because "we have heard very little since we were moved in there well over a year and a half ago now”.

Christina relies mainly on overseas visitors, but admitted that if a big event is taking place in Offaly and visitors cannot find accommodation, this has “a very negative affect” on other tourism-related businesses such as local pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions as the tourists “simply can't come”.

Margaret Edgill has been operating an organic farm and providing country house accommodation and glamping facilities at Mount Briscoe Georgian house in Daingean since 2015, and conceded that her bookings for the summer season are “really down on last year and very slow so far”.

She said Offaly already had a very small supply of hotel rooms, particularly in the north of the county where she is situated, and if even a small percentage of these beds are taken off the market due to the refugee crisis, then obviously the knock on effects are “going to be felt by everyone, especially in a rural county like Offaly”.

Margaret Edgill, who runs an organic farm and provides country house accommodation and glamping facilities at Mount Briscoe in Daingean.

Having lived through three recessions, the foot and mouth crisis and Covid, Margaret Edgill said this year is probably going to be “one of the most challenging yet” for the local tourism sector.

“Dublin and the bigger urban areas are hopping with tourists, but it’s a very different story when you move out into the country, we have so much to offer but without a proper focus on marketing and promotion and a plentiful supply of affordable accommodation the challenges will remain,” she said.

The many challenges facing local tourism providers have been described as “the perfect storm” by General Manager of Birr Castle, Gráinne O’Malley, who admitted that the sector is heading into “a fragile summer season”.

“We all know there is a serious shortage of hotel beds, but we are facing many other challenges as well such as the cost of living crisis, high insurance costs, a weak enough public transport system in rural areas and a lack of affordable car hire, and we are seeing and feeling the impact of all these challenges right across the Midlands region,” she explained.

While visitor numbers to Birr Castle received a welcome boost after Covid, Grainne O’Malley says they are now “slightly behind 2019 levels” once again and she feels the sector has taken “a bit of a backward step” as a result of the many challenges, both domestically and internationally, which have impacted the tourist offering.

“We are not exempt from what is going on all around us, and while the footfall coming into the country this year is up on previous years, I would not be optimistic that this will result in more visitors to Offaly,” she predicted.

The issue of tourism accommodation availability for peak season was raised in the Dail on May 18 last by Sinn Fein TD, Imelda Munster who said nationally, the average use of tourist accommodation for asylum seekers is "a little under one third" and now stands at 34% when Dublin is excluded, as of earlier this month. However, she added that "in places like Longford, 71% of tourist accommodation is being used for asylum seekers" and the figures for Offaly and Donegal are "59% and 53%, respectively."

Deputy Munster said the tourism offering across the country, particularly outside Dublin, will be "seriously affected" as a result.