Michael McDonnell says lack of tourism accommodation is causing problems in the region.

Local tourism operator says business "down by 60%"

The lack of affordable hotel accommodation across Westmeath is being cited as one of the reasons for a sluggish start to the summer tourist season, with one local tourism operator estimating his turnover so far this year is down by “at least 60%.”

Michael McDonnell, who is known locally as 'Viking Mike', says the lack of affordable accommodation in Athlone and across the Midlands region is having “huge knock-on effects” for all tourism providers at the moment and says government policy needs to change around the use of hotels for the accommodation of refugees.

As the proprietor of the hugely-popular Viking Boat tours, which he established in Athlone in 1999, Mr McDonnell says it is “ironic to think that the hospitality sector could end up ruining itself due to the huge prices they are charging, but that's what's happening, it's cheaper for a family to go abroad than to holiday at home.”

With up to 32% of all hotel beds outside Dublin now contracted to the government for the housing of displaced Ukrainians and asylum seekers, and some counties losing more than 50% of tourist accommodation, tourism industry chiefs estimate that more than €1 billion in tourist revenue could be lost during the 2023 season.

CEO of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC), Eoghan O'Mara Walsh, expressed concerns about the shortage of hotel rooms during an address to the Oireachtas Committee on Tourism in March when he said the lack of supply would have a serious impact on price as demand and supply will be "completely out of sync.”

While acknowleding that tourism operators are prepared to play their part in addressing the current humanitarian crisis, he said they "cannot be asked to be the primary accommodation provider to the detriment of a broad industry."

Athlone Golf Club is just one of the local leisure businesses which has been affected by the shortage of hotel accommodation across Westmeath. Chairperson of the club's management committee, Gerry McInerney, confirmed this week that they have had “a number of cancellations” by golf societies already this year because of the lack of available accommodation.

“A couple of months ago we had a group of 30 golfers who were forced to cancel their booking due to there being no hotel rooms,” he said, “and when we hosted the inter-club All-Ireland Finals in September of last year accommodation was also a big factor back then.”

While he says everyone is “hugely empathetic” to the plight of refugees fleeing war and persecution, and of the obligation for Ireland to provide safe haven, he feels that “hotels are not the answer” and the government needs to come up with “a long term plan” to address the issue.

“If 30 people book a two-night golf trip away they would maybe budget it at €500 per head and a lot of that money would be spent in local restaurants, bars and attractions as well as in Athlone Golf Club, so the loss of even one of these bookings is a big loss to the local economy.”

Athlone Chamber of Commerce has also called for a comprehensive long-term plan to be drawn up by the government for the housing of refugees and asylum seekers, with CEO, Tommy Hogan, saying the lack of hotel accommodation in the town is having “very significant knock-on effects” for ancillary services.

“We would very much welcome any solution the government can come up with that is not hotel-based,” said Mr Hogan, “because it is beyond time we moved past what was only ever supposed to be a short-term solution after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine."

Like Gerry McInerney, the CEO of Athlone Chamber is quick to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis and the moral obligation of Ireland to play its part in providing accommodation to those seeking refuge, he said the local Chamber would “encourage” the government to come up with “a long-term strategy” to address the issue.

Award-winning local chef, John Coffey, who has been running Thyme restaurant in Athlone's Custume Place with his wife, Tara, since 2007, says the shortage of hotel accommodation in the town has been a factor “for many years, and particularly so at weekends”.

While his clientele is drawn from all over the Midlands, he says he has had a number of cancellations over the years due to potential customers being unable to source hotel accommodation in the town.

“I have always held the view that Athlone does not have enough hotel beds, especially at weekends when there are weddings, stag and hen celebrations and various entertainment offerings, so I would like to see more hotel rooms being brought on stream,” he says.

Thyme employs 14 full and part-time staff, and opens five days per week. John Coffey describes their trade as “stable and steady” throughout the year but adds that energy costs have spiralled in recent months which has added to the pressures already being experienced by many businesses in the hospitality sector.

Richie O'Hara, proprietor of Ireland's biggest inflatable water park, Baysports in Hodson Bay, says his customers are drawn from a very wide radius, but he admits that Athlone does have “an accommodation deficit” which needs to be addressed in order to maximise the tourist potential of the entire Midlands region.

“A lot of my customers would stay in self-catering accommodation, but even that can be hard to source in high season,” says Richie, “so I would like to see Fáilte Ireland encouraging new entrants into the self-catering market, because staying in hotels is not an option for most families.”

He says Athlone is “a fantasic location” and has much to offer tourists, but with the current humanitarian crisis coming “on top of the housing crisis” the need for strong co-operation between all the stakeholders in the local tourism industry has “never been greater.”

Richie says the tourist industry has to “remain competitive” and the only way this can be achieved is if the various stakeholders “pull together” but Michael McDonnell from Viking Boat Tours says the reality is that more and more family groups are looking at going abroad on holidays because the Irish tourism offering is “totally uncompetitive” at the moment.

“The seeds of the current housing crisis were sown 30 or 40 years ago and now we have a humanitarian crisis,” he says. “Government policy needs to change, but how long is a piece of string?”