Teetering on overtourism

Comment & Opinion

Westport is ignoring current warning signs of overtourism in its housing market at its peril.

Opinion
Eoin Holmes

It was one of those wonderful Westport everyday happenings. An ‘Ah howaya now?’ leads to a pair of pals stopping to chat, an ‘Is it yourselves?’ produces another participant, and soon, yet another. Before you know it, four or five friends are happily, joyously even, chatting away.
Happily, that is, until one of our number, out of desperation, raises their crisis. “The landlord is selling my home. I’m out on the street in a few weeks. An’ I have to tell ye, there’s NOWHERE to rent. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Our friend’s desperation and pain is palpable in the awful silence that follows. It’s as if there’s a collective shame – and perhaps a little fear. ‘I could be next’; ‘Where will my kids live?’; ‘What are we doing to ourselves?’. Increasingly ridiculous suggestions serve only to point out the hopelessness of our friend’s situation.
How has Westport come to the point where people like our friend, deeply committed to the town and the community, a volunteer, a contributor, a leader, a parent of young children, a working professional, suddenly finds themselves on the verge of homelessness at the prime of their lives?
On the day that that conversation took place, there were 147 ‘entire’ Airbnbs available in Westport, with sufficient room for at least two adults and two children. An ‘entire’ Airbnb property is a house, apartment or cottage, as opposed to a spare room in a home.
The average occupancy rate of a dwelling in Westport is 2.4 per dwelling. So, on the evening our pal received their eviction notice, Airbnb was potentially blocking up to 352 residents from having a home in the town.
Add to the above the 246 ‘Unoccupied Holiday Homes’* and 354 ‘Vacant (not ‘derelict’) Dwellings’* in Westport, and you get a grand total of potential housing for 1,792 people.
Something’s wrong, folks. Something’s very wrong.
Ok, so there’s a national housing crisis, we all know that. And we appear to have neither the politicians nor the senior civil servants with the will or backbone to take radical steps.
I contend, however, we’ve managed to make the housing crisis in Westport worse than the national crisis – the Best Place to Have a Housing Crisis in Ireland.
How’ve we done that? Overtourism.
But what’s ‘overtourism’? The United Nations World Tourism Organisation offers a definition: “The impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitors experiences in a negative way.”
The Responsible Tourism Partnership refers to overtouristed places as ‘destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. It is the opposite of responsible tourism, which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently.’
These ‘negative’ impacts of overtourism include the out-pricing of locals from buying or renting homes.
Overtourism also means the overcrowding of amenities such as beaches, roads, mountain walks, parks, streets, carparks and so on. It can also include pollution, litter, over-signage, and water shortages.
Overtourism leads to the migration of housing stock from long-term rental to locals to short-term rental to tourists. It can also lead to a decline in the number of shops and services serving the local community which in turn may be replaced by businesses primarily aimed at the tourist. But again, businesses like these are not to blame, they are just responding to demand. If a town becomes non-viable for the locals, businesses must respond to the opportunities that remain, in this case tourists. That’s what good business people do.
Tourism and the constant selling of Westport has already resulted in significant amounts of property moving from the long-term home rental market to the short-term tourist business.
It’s easy to blame landlords. That would be wrong. Landlords are business people. It’s not their fault that this country’s tax system incentivises landlords to move their property to the more tax-efficient short-term business. Think about that – in a housing crisis, our government, through the tax system, penalises long-term renting to families but incentivise short-term letting to tourists.
Do we have overtourism in Westport? Maybe not quite yet, but we do have the benefit now of some warning signs. Signs that we would be foolish to ignore. It would be a terrible shame if, in the untrammelled scramble to harvest the Golden Egg, we inadvertently killed The Goose.
I’m a renter. I have a business that relies heavily on tourism. I believe, with a little thought and planning, we can all share in, and benefit from, sustainable tourism, without making people homeless or turning our hometown into a hollowed out parody of itself.
I live in Westport. I live in Destination Westport, but more importantly, I live in Community Westport, Society Westport, Enjoy-Your-Friends Westport, Love-Life Westport. These are actually the Westports our much-valued tourists come to visit and experience.
The key is balance, we don’t need ALL the tourists, we need ENOUGH. We don’t need to house ENOUGH of our people, we need to house ’em ALL.

* CSO - Census 2016.

A guest contributor, Eoin Holmes is the founder and head distiller of Lough Measc Distillery.

 

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