Westport tourism’s gold-laying goose

County View

County View
John Healy

For many regions across Europe, tourism has proved to be an economic lifeline, a money spinner of unlimited potential, a self-sustaining industry from which the benefits are many and diverse. But everything has its downsides, and there are negative side effects to tourism that are as unexpected as they are unwelcome.
In a thoughtful piece in this paper some months ago, Eoin Holmes drew attention to the connection between the housing crisis in his place of residence, Westport, and the surging popularity of the town as a tourism destination. His fear that the growth in tourism was leading the acute shortage of living accommodation for local people is a concern that is not confined to Westport.
St Ive’s in Cornwall is one of Britain’s most popular tourist destinations. A town of just over 10,000 population, it was voted the best UK seaside town in 2007 by the Guardian newspaper, an accreditation that was repeated in 2010 and 2011 in the British Travel Awards. All well and good; but that did not mean that its popularity did not bring other problems. Apart from becoming the most expensive seaside resort in Britain a year later, the most pressing problem became the lack of affordable housing in the town and its environs.
In 2021, St Ive’s had around 1,000 properties available for short-term holiday letting, but only one single house available for long-term rent. House prices had soared to £350,000, well over the regional average. The residents, deciding enough was enough, took a ballot and voted to ban second-home owners from buying up new build houses in the town. How effective has the measure been is debatable, since the law of supply and demand will always find a way to connect a seller with an eager buyer.
All of which brings us back to Westport and Eoin Holmes’s dismay on discovering that a friend was about to become homeless, the landlord opting to sell the property he had been renting. In that same week, according to his article, there were 147 entire (meaning complete, rather than partial, houses) Airbnbs available in Westport. There were 246 unoccupied holiday homes, together with 354 vacant properties. Enough, according to the writer, to house 2,000 long-term Westport residents. And yet, there was not a single long-term property to be had.
Little did anyone imagine, 20 years ago, that ‘overtourism’ was a term that might be applied to Westport. But one of the early symptoms of that condition is where rising visitor numbers begin to impinge negatively on the quality of life of local people. The downside of overtourism is the out-pricing of locals from buying or renting homes; where housing stock shifts from long-term renting to locals to become short-term letting to tourists, reflecting a lack of balance between visitor and local needs. According to World Tourism, it leads to a situation where locals begin to view tourists as a disruptive influence on their daily lives, and when visitors in turn (ironic as it seems) come to regard high tourist numbers as an annoyance. And at that stage, tourism begins to be a lose-lose exercise.
Eoin Holmes’s warning that Westport may be in danger of killing the goose of the golden egg will not, however, be met with uncritical welcome. There are many who believe in the maxim that it is best to continue to make hay while the sun shines. For every frustrated local motorist caught in a two-mile tailback on the Castlebar road there will be others to judge it a small price to pay for another bumper tourist season.