By Caroline Cleland

GALWAY, Ireland – For many visitors to Galway, that first trip often becomes a permanent stay.  

 “It’s a bit like going to Mecca,” said Declan Varley, group editor for the Galway Advertiser newspaper. “People have long been drawn to Galway and drawn to the west coast of Ireland. You might find nuclear scientists who came to Galway for a weekend in ’78, and they’re still here painting or something.”

Declan Varley is group editor for the Galway Advertiser, a leading newspaper in Galway.

As evidence of Varley’s observation, according to the World Population Review, 20 percent of Galway’s 84,000 residents are non-Irish immigrants. Many locals of Galway, therefore, are not local at all, but rather visitors who could not bring themselves to leave.

“Galway is built by and made up of people who come here to visit and then chose to stay,” said Eilish McCarthy, a tour guide with Tribes Tours Galway.

And those who visit Galway come in waves.

Galway’s tourists outnumber local residents of Galway County by a nearly 15-to-1 ratio, based on numbers from the Galway County Development Plan. An area with about 258,000 people, Galway County welcomed more than 1.7 million international visitors in 2018, generating more than 626 million euros in revenue. This compares to approximately 1 million domestic visitors spending 175 million euros, according to the Development Plan.

These numbers paint a picture of Galway that relies on tourism for its economic wellbeing.

Tourism is “one of the key sectors for us,” said Ruairí Lehman, the tourism officer for the Galway City Council. “It is vitally important to the city.”

One way the city relies on tourism is employment. Between 12 and 14 percent of businesses in Galway are involved with tourism. Because of this high percentage, about 21,000 jobs can be directly attributed to tourism, according to the Development Plan.  

Tourism is so prominent in Galway that at least one of the churches in the city’s center employs its own tourism manager.

Michelle Moore-Temple handles tour groups, organizes children’s programs and manages the front desk of St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church.

Michelle Moore-Temple holds that title at St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church. The money from tourists who visit the church contributes a large portion of the church’s revenue, she said. In fact, the church’s maintenance and preservation are fiscally possible only due to the income from tourism, she said.

This financial dependence on tourism is true for most of Galway’s businesses and churches.

“Tourism is probably our primary source of revenue in Galway,” she said. “The arts festival basically took us from being a very small town that no one talked about to actually being on the map.”

City of festivals

Galway’s international arts festival started in 1978. Since that first, very modest festival, tourism has “caused us to expand to the point that we have a huge, booming population now that we never would have had before,” Moore-Temple said.

Galway County numbers approximately 258,000 residents, according to the World Population Review.

Since the inception of the Galway International Arts Festival, the city has garnered a reputation for being the festival capital of Ireland with 122 festivals every year, according to Galway Tourism.

Though festivals dot the calendar year-round, most of the major events are held during the summer months, including Trad on the Prom, Galway Film Fleadh, Galway Races Summer Festival and Galway International Arts Festival,

The Galway International Arts Festival is one of the city’s biggest festivals, selling 200,000 tickets annually, according to to the Galway Cultural Institute.  

Shop Street in the heart of Galway features gift shops, clothing stores and restaurants.

Overcoming adversity

Galway’s touristic trade, like Ireland’s as a whole, has boomed only because of the relative calm in the north. During what Ireland calls the Troubles, when Catholics and Protestants fought in the streets of Belfast and organized paramilitary groups, Ireland found it difficult to attract international visitors.

“Back in the 1970s and the 1980s, from my memory of it, it always felt like it was raining,” Varley said of the Troubles. “It always felt dark and gray. There wasn’t much light really.”

Through all of this, however, “Galway always seemed like a beacon,” he said, because even in the depths of Irish turmoil, Galway invariably managed to be a place of comfort. A big part of this has been Galway’s commitment to arts and culture.

This commitment was recognized in 2020 when the European Union named the city one of the European Capitals of Culture. This distinction awarded by the European Commission is intended to, among other things, highlight European cities, their culture, and their membership in the broader European community, according to the European Commission.

“The city itself has great character and buzz,” Lehman said. “The people in particular are one of the big selling points. It’s regarded as one of the friendliest cities in the world.”

Lehman is right, at least according to the 2020 Conde Nast Traveler Reader Awards, which voted Galway as the friendliest city in all of Europe, the Irish Independent newspaper reported. Dublin came in second.

Another reason Galway proves so popular among travelers, in addition to arts, culture, and hospitality, is physical beauty. Western Ireland destinations such as the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands and Connemara all are within striking distance.

The 700-foot-high Cliffs of Moher are among Ireland’s most popular sights for international and domestic visitors alike. The Aran Islands consist of three islands off the west coast of Ireland. The largest of the islands, Inis Mór, includes prehistoric forts, including Dún Aonghasa. And Connemara is prized for its natural scenery, including blanket bogs, mountains and coastlines. 

These attractions helped make Galway the second-most visited Irish county by international visitors, second only to Dublin, and the third-most visited by domestic visitors in 2017, according to Fáilte Ireland. 

Battling back from Covid

As strong as Galway’s touristic trade has been, Covid not surprisingly cost the city millions. The EU’s European Capital of Culture distinction basically became empty because of the pandemic, despite the heavy investment by the city to take advantage of the award.

In fact, prior to the pandemic, tourism in Galway was at an all-time high, Lehman said.

“We were having record numbers,” he said, with 2019 “probably a record number for visitors into Ireland. Tourism was on the up, and Galway would be quite high on that list.”

But, Lehman said, Galway was more fortunate than a lot of Irish towns and cities because of its status as a domestic holiday destination. When restrictions permitted, domestic travel brought in revenue and helped fill occupancies, he said.

Now that restrictions have lifted, Lehman said he is seeing a resurgence in tourism.

“Our visitor numbers and occupancy level are good again,” he reported. “Tourism is going well this summer. There are a lot of tourists domestically and internationally again.”

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