Galway's festival season began in earnest this week, and the next couple of months will hopefully prove an economic driver for our local economy.
Tourism, which is Ireland's most significant native industry, has taken a beating in the last two years, but there are expectations that Ireland is "turning the corner" as the sector regains some optimism. There is a long way to go, but Galway can be thankful for festivals such as the Galway Film Fleadh, the Galway Arts Festival, and the Galway Races for providing a much-needed fillip, both economically and spiritually, to a tired and often exasperated population.
The arts sector, which relies more heavily than most on sponsorship and funding, has been feeling the pinch - like us all - yet the film fleadh and arts festival continue to break boundaries, maintaining their professionalism and showcasing both home grown and international talent to an increasingly discerning public. Fleadh director Miriam Allen commends the local Galway businesses "who realise the worth of the fleadh to the local economy”. One wonders how much more ownership Galway could enjoy of their own festivals if those businesses which directly benefit - pubs, restaurants, hotels, and retailers - all contributed.
The fleadh is worth an estimated €5.2 million to the Galway economy; the Galway Arts Festival some €19 million; and the Galway Races a galloping €50 to €70 million. And with a year to go before the Volvo Ocean Race returns to Galway, the organisers are understandably pushing the "corporate" element to promote Galway on the global stage. “Never before,” they say, “has Ireland had such a need or desire to renew and change the way we present our nation to the global market.” And there is no better time or occasion when up to three billion viewers will be tuned to our city to capitalise.
In recognition of the importance of the tourism industry the Government has moved recently to reduce the VAT in this sector, which, according to Tourism Minister Leo Varadkarl is " an opportunity to really save many industries, but also to build an indigenous economy that will create jobs and provide growth and opportunities for people”. Of course that must also be balanced by reducing the costs for those service providers - business rates, electricity, rents, telephone, insurance, heating, and of course wages, as over the last four years hotels in particular have progressively been forced to drop their prices to survive. There is a growing push to review the Sunday rates, which will be resisted in some quarters, but in our increasingly pluralist society, the arguments to preserve the "day of rest" are diminishing.
But festival time in Galway is not just about economics. We can celebrate the summer, celebrate diversity, celebrate our community, and take ownership and pride of our own environment. Post World War 11 festivals produced some much-needed vibrancy at a time when much of Europe’s cultural and architectural heritage lay in ruins. There is no better time for Ireland than now.