By Sean MacRedmoinn
TOURISM is Ireland's
most important foreign currency earner. Even in its present far from fully-developed state the figures are there to show that no other gainful activity brings so much money into Irish pockets.
In an age when the rational economic mind is being constantly urged to think about exports and export markets it remains true that no other "export" can compare with the "invisible" ones that, every year, in the thin disguise of human imports, spend a few weeks in the greatest export market of all which is our own backgarden—Killarney, Connemara, et al.
If you have a market you should exploit it. The word is, of course, one of those which, while perfectly neutral in tone to the specialist user, assumes sinister overtones in more general usage. "Exploitation" conveys an aura of economic ruthlessness, social amorality, cultural insensitivity . . .
All this might be regarded as tolerable, provided one is not at the receiving end and, preferably, if the receiving end is comfortably distant and out of sight. But if the exploitation is at home, if it is a sort of selfexploitation, then, however great the immediate advantages, there must be a nasty feeling of discomfort somewhere on the edge of out consciousness.
In fact, something of this kind does mark the present Irish tourist campaign on the home front. By campaign I don't just mean the battle to bring the visitor to Ireland but the equally necessary struggle to convince the Irish that looking after him when he comes is a whole-time job demanding skill, taste and training as well as hard work.
It has to be admitted that the serious organisation of Irish tourism, as an industry, has been an omelette-making in which many eggs have been broken. I emphasise the word industry, and mean it in the modern sense : there has of course been a great deal of tourism in Ireland for a very long time, but it has only recently developed its technology. This has had important psychological and sociological implications.
The phrase "the changing face of Ireland" has in the last year or two graduated from being a TV series title to the stakes of super-cliché. Now the very obvious physical change which has been occasioned by the work of the planners (and the non-planners!) of our landscapes and townscapes, and which is going to go on for some time, is at once the complement and the partial cause of a whole complex of related social changes in the small towns, the villages and the farm-communities.
I am not suggesting that all this is "caused" by tourism, but tourism is undoubtedly one of the main factors which go to make these changes desirable or at least acceptable. It is indeed of some significance that the word "amenity" when used nowadays in the context of planning or development has almost come to be regarded as a synonym for the more oldfashioned "tourist attraction". This seems to be the case even when the amenity concerned would appear to be primarily of domestic convenience or gratification.
Now all this may be harmless or even necessary to the life of the community, but the danger is that change may mean loss, or even as we have suggested, distortion of identity. There are unfortunately all too many indications that the danger has become a reality in a number of instances. All too often modernisation means vulgarisation; the substitution of the glossy importation or worse, the second-rate imitation, for what was at least genuine and socially organic.
Unfortunately it can, I fear, be argued that this sort of thing goes deeper than mere bad taste. It reflects a fairly prevalent attitude that "what the tourist wants" is a sort of poor reflection of what he is imagined to enjoy in his own country. If we want to attract visitors from England we must offer them a mini-Blackpool: Americans will be unhappy unless we can make them believe that they are really in Atlantic City. And if we can provide them with these delights, the legend runs, they will only be too happy to be fleeced for the privilege.
I need hardly say that this is a lot of nonsense, and it would be quite wrong to imagine that the intelligent men who direct our tourist industry see it as anything but nonsense. Indeed, the State tourist authority Bord Faille has done and is doing a great deal to preach the gospel that when tourists come to Ireland it is to spend an Irish holiday.