There are some things in Ireland that we are really genuinely good at. OK, so soccer isn’t one of them these days, but hospitality is.
The AA has been involved in the hospitality industry for 100 years. In those years it was important for early motorists to have a measure of the quality of the roadside inns that they stayed at. So we started inspecting them and we have been doing so ever since.
In fact the AA invented the one to five star scale for hotels that is now in use the whole world over. We inspect hotels and guesthouses and those that make the grade are accredited by the AA, which as those in the know will tell you means very high standards.
This week we announced our annual awards at a function in Dublin with yours truly doing the honours. While I would more routinely deal with Minister Varadkar in his capacity as Transport Minister, he was along on this occasion wearing his tourism hat to present the AA awards.
The AA Hotel of the Year is Knockranny House from Westport in Co Mayo. I’m personally delighted that the top accolade in the industry has been won by the west again this year. The hotel is run by husband and wife team Geraldine and Adrian Noonan. They put their heart and soul into making sure that Knockranny House is a consistently superb place for visitors to appreciate the west of Ireland.
This is of major strategic importance because those tourists spend some €5.3 billion in the country every year. As I said, Ireland is genuinely good at hospitality. We have a flair for it in the same way that Brazilians know what to do with a round ball.
And yet the hotel industry is in trouble, mostly not of its own making. It is a sector that has suffered more than most in the aftermath of the Tiger’s demise. At the height of the madness there was a tax-incentivised boom in hotel building as Ireland’s army of property developers decided that they could be hoteliers as well.
They were wrong. What we have been left with is a massive amount of debt and a large over-supply of hotel rooms. This in turn has put huge pressure on our long-established premises that have been the backbone of the tourist industry for generations.
According to a new report by NUI Galway economist Alan Ahearne, the scale of debts is staggering - approximately €113,000 per hotel bedroom.
Despite the mess the heart of the industry is fighting back. Ireland’s tourist product has been enhanced and the value on offer is now much better. We have become much better at cuisine and fine dining, and many of our visitors comment on what an unexpected pleasure our hotels and bed & breakfasts are.
Knockranny House for example has an outstanding executive head chef in Mayo native Seamus Commons. Its La Fougère restaurant has been showered with plaudits, not least by ourselves. Ireland has become a choice destination for foodies and that can only be good.
Next year’s tourism initiative under the banner of ‘The Gathering’ gives us a new chance to go out and sell Ireland to the world. Given the right support it is an industry that has fantastic potential to help Irish hotels and the Irish economy.
The AA’s hotel inspectors are in and out of those establishments every day of the year. Their reports speak of the passion, dedication and hard work of a sector in the economy that we probably do not appreciate as much as we should.
The AA Guest Accommodation of the Year award went to Heron’s Cove guesthouse in Goleen, west Cork. The special AA Courtesy & Care Award, recognizing superb staff, went to the Gougane Barra Hotel from Ballingeary, again in Cork.
We also have an award to acknowledge a sector that is very particularly Irish. The AA Bean an Ti of the Year is the delightful Teresa Browne from Clareville House, near Scariff in Co Clare.