Few are better placed to provide an overview on tourism and hospitality in Donegal than Noel Cunningham. Possibly the only thing he is more passionate about is our wonderful county. Here Donegal Noel, as he is affectionately known by many, talks Donegal tourism and hospitality, the challenges and opportunities the last year has presented and what the future holds for one of Donegal’s most important and best loved business sectors.
Noel has enjoyed a lifelong career in hospitality, starting as a youngster learning his trade in his native Kilcar, travelling further afield in 5-star hotels and luxury cruise ships around the globe, before returning to his beloved homeland. For the past decade Noel worked with Harvey’s Point on the shores of Lough Eske, he is now Ambassador for the renowned Hotel and a lead figure of tourism in the county. As well as a guru of the industry, Noel was named Donegal Person of the Year in 2019, has a successful media career and recently penned a book titled ‘Noel’s guide to modern Irish manners’.
He thinks for a moment before answering with assurance when asked what is Donegal’s unique selling point.
‘’It’s our people, the quality of life you have whether living or visiting here and in terms of setting we’ve got it all from blue flag beaches to sea cliffs, mountains and lakes.’’
Ultimately it’s a combination of those factors in Noel’s view that makes Donegal a place that few can rival. Last summer saw a huge influx of tourists from all corners of the island rediscovering and connecting with Ireland’s most northerly and beautiful county as staycations became a more positive buzzword for 2020.
‘’I think I’m so passionate about Donegal because previously I always felt we were a little short changed nationally. I’ve made it my mission to alter myths of Donegal as a remote place and highlight just how easy and worthwhile it is to visit Donegal. The opportunities Donegal presents from a business, social or educational perspective or to make it your home are enormous, continuing to grow even in the past 12 months.’‘
However the past year has also been a huge challenge for business and hospitality in Donegal.
‘’There was a quietness and sadness around our towns and communities where traditional hospitality work was simply not available, the pandemic stopped us in our tracks. But it also led to a resilience with many providers looking at new ways of doing things, from going online and offering delivery services to establishing food trucks operating at a gourmet cuisine level, which have all led to a positive tourism and hospitality experience.’’
Noel adds that ‘’the greatest challenge is faced by freestanding pubs and restaurants currently unable to open if they don’t have external spaces. I urge people to support these businesses when they are once again operational, which we hope will be soon. They are in many instances the heartbeat of our communities across Donegal, providers of much more than just a meal or beverage.’’
In Harvey’s Point like many other bricks and mortar providers, they made physical changes to adapt and enhance visitor experience. Terraces have become more utilised and moveable awnings have been installed so guests can comfortably enjoy outdoor spaces, regardless of the weather. Noel believes that the challenges of Covid will assist hospitality businesses in the long term.
‘’Operators have dissected their current business model, understood they needed to change, received supports and now many are in a stronger position that pre-pandemic. In the past couple of weeks as hotel, restaurant and bar doors have reopened we see the buzz returning to our towns and communities. Everyone is just thrilled and appreciative to be back and I think many have a greater appreciation for what they have and what they can offer visitors, whether it’s a pub, restaurant or hotel’’.
Noel is extremely optimistic about the future of hospitality and tourism in Donegal.
‘’We are on the cusp of greatness. It’s hugely important that we harness the positive new image of Ireland, the West and Donegal. Staycationing is in vogue and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. We in Donegal all have our part to play in maintaining this by ensuring our quality of service and offering is as good as it should be. This coupled with our natural assets and the warmest welcome in the world provides enormous opportunity for the entire sector in Donegal and this makes me continue to smile’’.