The 2020 visitor season has clearly been an exceptionally difficult one for the national tourism industry and the visitor attractions sector, which embraces many different types of visitor venues right across the country has been especially hard hit. Many private sector attractions which have a significant outdoor element, in particular gardens and other types of open air venues where visitors can remain socially distant, have been able I think to rescue some of the season at least following the then Government’s decision to begin reopening society after 18th May last. Those which have primarily or wholly indoor spaces were however unfortunately presented with a very difficult situation, and of course these attractions continue currently to operate under significant constraints, assuming that they have been able to reopen at all.
It was against this background that I made the decision earlier this summer that most paid admission OPW sites would be available free of charge to visitors, understanding that, as the prime domestic visitor season arrived in August, it would be important to offer an added incentive to domestic visitors to start circulating and to try and get them spending in the tourism and hospitality economy again. OPW visitor sites have always been seen as not themselves primary generators of income, but as anchor attractions that draw people into local areas around the country, enabling private sector businesses to service the tourists they bring and driving secondary spending locally. This has always been a strong attribute of the Heritage visitor portfolio and the OPW sites around the country will I think continue to participate to drive and support local tourism enterprise in this way.
At this stage in the year, it is perhaps difficult to draw substantive conclusions about the season and the performance of OPW sites which we have managed to open. Some OPW sites remain open to the public year round and therefore continue to operate currently. Many other seasonal sites which would normally be closing at this stage as we draw to the end of September, are in fact remaining open for additional weeks in many cases to continue to try and incentivise any late traffic and extend the visitor season further. It is clear however that the pattern at OPW sites to date has largely mirrored the broader Private Sector experience. Outdoor locations operated by OPW such as Parks and Gardens have experienced extremely strong visitor attendances right throughout the period since March with record numbers reported indulging in walking, cycling and other outdoor activities. Indoor locations on the other hand, most of them opening later and only able to deal with restricted numbers of visitors, have fared less well and in all cases have fallen well below what they have previously achieved.
For the purposes of comparison we have taken a representative basket of 35 of the OPW’s ticketed sites which are primarily indoor locations but which have some outdoor facilities also and which were all open in the period from late June until the end of the first week in September. Comparing them to the equivalent period last year, we have calculated that there has been an approximate fall of 72% in overall visitor totals at those sites since the equivalent period in 2019. Within this aggregated average however, some individual locations have fared better than others: Garinish Island in Cork for example has experienced a 10.8% reduction in the season up to 6th September, but there were a number of weeks in August when weekly numbers were up by 20 to 25% over the same time last year. Scattery Island in Co. Clare is another such example; in the week ending 16th August, the site had 893 visitors, an increase of over 123% over the total of 400 for the same week in 2019. I know the Deputy will also be interested to hear that Portumna Castle in Galway, which experienced an overall drop in the period of about 36% nevertheless has had a similarly strong performance in August. In the week to the 16th August for example, the site had 2,169 visitors, an approximately 55% increase on the same week last year. All these 3 sites which I mention have a strong outdoor element which is obviously particularly prized by visitors currently and as such their performance, as I say, reflects the broader experience nationally.
Clearly, with only partial statistics available and many sites experiencing particular local constraints, it is too early to arrive at any definitive results for the year overall. I remain personally convinced however that making the majority of OPW’s paid admission sites available free of charge was a necessary and an opportune move and will have helped at a local level to sustain, even if only in a small way, many other attractions and tourism businesses through an exceptionally difficult period.