“About 35-40% of our trade comes over the border and we are hurting”
Photographs just don’t prepare the first-time visitor for the sheer, stunning magnificence of the Slieve Russell hotel near Ballyconnell, Co. Cavan. No wonder this fairy-tale structure set amid the green fields is the backdrop for about 160 weddings a year.
Manager Tony Walker met me in one corner of what looked like half an acre of foyer. “About 35-40% of our trade comes over the border and we are hurting on the fall in sterling. We can offset to a limited extent on the purchasing side by buying supplies in sterling, but no matter how hard we work the fact is that our revenues are down.”
Ireland as a whole has just had its best tourism year ever – more than nine million visitors to the Republic. Not too many of them made it to this particular corner of north-west Cavan.
“Our international trade is barely five per cent of turnover. We’re too far from an airport and we have no Cliffs of Moher or Giant’s Causeway and despite improvements our roads are unlikely to attract too many bus tours. But we have really good facilities for golfers who generally don’t mind coming the extra few miles out of the way if the course is good enough, and ours certainly is.”
We discuss overall tourism strategy and how well it is working at the macro level. There is the sheer wonder of the Wild Atlantic Way, which seems to consist of a great number of road signs, a relatively modest budget and a massive injection of sheer imaginative genius on somebody’s part. The Ireland’s Ancient East seems a bit like an afterthought. What’s left is a sort of nameless middling zone and Ballyconnell sits at the extreme northern tip of it.
It is a source of considerable bemusement along the border that Fáilte Ireland and Tourism NI cooperate all around the world through the mechanism of Tourism Ireland, but not at home. Beween Donegal and Derry, Ballyconnell and Derrylin or Dundalk and Newry, these state agencies are strictly competitors.
“We have had several years of steady growth in tourism across a number of markets, since as far back as 2013,” says Tony. “But one has to be cautious about the UK market now, not just because of the currency effect. The whole climate of uncertainty around Brexit is definitely having an impact on confidence at a number of levels.”
He describes the Slieve Russell as a destination hotel mainly for the domestic market north and south. “The great fear here, not just for us but for anyone operating any sort of hospitality business anywhere near the border, is that crossing it might once more become a bother, a nuisance, an unpleasant experience as it used to be. We hear promises about the Common Travel Area which is fine; we take it that the two governments want to avoid any kind of formal people controls along the border. Then we learn that if the UK leaves both the single market and the customs union, as seems probable, there will be some form of customs control. Nobody can tell us how that will work or what it will look like. If there’s a long queue of lorries on the road from Enniskillen it’s a poor inducement for a family to drive over here for lunch.”
It is difficult to plan amid this kind of uncertainty, difficult to know where to put in a marketing effort. “There is a strong tradition in all the border counties of the north that people come across the border to celebrate major events in their life, and above all for weddings. If we had a stable currency situation again and if other things were equal, the most logical thing we could do to expand our business would be to run a sustained marketing campaign at local level in the north. Right now we have no way of knowing how that would work.”
While we talked, two more couples strolled around the foyer, wedding brochures in hand, perhaps imagining photo opportunities on the sweeping staircase. Outside, on a quick count more than half the cars in the car park had yellow rear number plates.
The Frontline Project was carried out by Brexit Border Blog on behalf of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and Chambers Ireland