Wexford’s hotels and attractions prepare for easing of Ireland’s Covid lockdown

The shuttering is almost at an end, but as hotels reopen on 2 June, how will the county cope with domestic-only tourism?

Ireland has endured one of Europe’s longest lockdowns, so its hotels have been busy blowing away cobwebs, training staff and restocking the kitchen as they prepare to reopen today.

As with other Irish hotels, the Ferrycarrig on its south-eastern tip is hoping this landmark day will signal the beginning of a rebirth of a devastated tourism industry.

Ireland map, showing Wexford town and Ferrycarrig and surrounding south-east area.

“Customers are itching to get back in to see us. Bookings are chock-a-block,” said Derek Coyne, the general manager.

Covid-19 restrictions will mean masks in public spaces, social distancing, sanitising stations, screens, reservations for the restaurant, gym and pool, he said. “The message is that it’s a safe place to come.”

The four-star Ferrycarrig, which has panoramic views of the River Slaney estuary in County Wexford, is using 17 of its 102 rooms to store personal protective equipment and to quarantine any staff member who falls sick, leaving 85 for guests. Coyne predicts a bumper, extended season – which will be virtually 100% domestic tourists.

The Irish government advises against non-essential travel to Ireland. Everyone arriving in Ireland from abroad, with the exception of Northern Ireland, must complete a passenger locator form and provide evidence of a negative or “not detected” RT-PCR test result. People from countries deemed high-risk must quarantine in a designated hotel for 14 days. Those from other countries, including Great Britain, are advised to self-isolate for 14 days.

Bedroom at the Ferrycarrig Hotel, Wexford, Ireland.
Bedroom at the Ferrycarrig Hotel Photograph: PR

Travellers going the other way, from Ireland to Britain, face no such restriction. Ferry companies are urging the Irish government to fully reinstate the Common Travel Area and open a de facto “bubble” with British travellers.

Meantime, Wexford is relying on natives and foreigners who live in Ireland. At the Irish National Heritage Park, a mile from Ferrycarrig, the costumed tour guides who carry two-metre long spears, have discovered a modern use for their replica weapons. Tilt them horizontally and, voilà, precision social distancing.

“It’s done for fun but it gets the message across,” said Derek O’Brien, who wears a tunic and directs visitors to pre-historic, early Christian and medieval-style settlements dotted around the park’s large areas of woodland.

Derek O’Brien, a tour guide at the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford.
Derek O’Brien, a tour guide at the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

It is a bucolic wonder, but even here staff wear face visors, hand-sanitiser pumps are attached to trees and ubiquitous yellow signs remind visitors about coughing etiquette in the era of Covid-19. The park has a section on the “age of invasions” (Vikings, Normans, Anglo-Saxons, English), a quaint concept since foreign travel has dwindled to a trickle. The pandemic’s ramparts are only slowly inching down.

Before Covid-19 the park hosted about 600 people at any one time. Covid rules capped the numbers but the park operated at that capacity last summer. People feel safe because of the outdoor space and protective measures, said Bell, citing the €530 a week spent on sanitisers. Spontaneous visits are not recommended. The advice is to book online, preferably well in advance because with reduced capacity tickets go fast.

View across a lake to Johnstown Castle, County Wexford, Ireland.
View across a lake to Johnstown Castle. Photograph: Alamy

It is a similar story across Wexford. The big buses, babble of languages and brightly coloured anoraks of a normal tourist season have been replaced by carloads of families from across the island. They quickly learn to book in advance – restaurant tables, castle tours, hotel swimming pool slots, strawberry-picking.

Wexford is part of the “sunny south east”, a group of five counties (the others are Carlow, Kilkenny, South Tipperary and Waterford) that boast more sunshine than the rest of Ireland. It is a lovely, largely unsung region. Wexford does not stop the heart like the sublime landscapes of Kerry or west Cork, where jagged peaks sweep to the foaming Atlantic. Wexford is more fields, hills and the Irish Sea. But there is splendour in its rivers, forests and Hook peninsula, allure in towns such as Duncannon and long golden beaches like Curracloe, where the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan was filmed.

Curracloe beach, where scenes from the film Saving Private Ryan were filmed.
Curracloe beach, where scenes from the film Saving Private Ryan were filmed. Photograph: Alamy

The county brims with history, round towers and ruins. Humans have lived here at least since the Neolithic period. Vikings settled Wexford town in the ninth century. Normans landed in 1169, their first Irish conquest, followed by Oliver Cromwell’s rampaging troops in 1649. Wexford was the crucible of the 1798 rebellion.

A more prosaic but important draw is the fact that Wexford town is less than two hours’ drive from Dublin, a straight shot on an excellent motorway, and that the county hosts Rosslare port, with ferry sailings from Pembroke, Fishguard, Cherbourg, Roscoff and Bilbao.

Tourism usually generates about €200m a year in Wexford, supporting 6,000 jobs. With international tourism on hold, domestic tourists wary and Covid-19 rules and restrictions evolving, the county has had to adapt fast to salvage the season. Places like Johnstown Castle have it easy – nearly 50 hectares of space means no need to pre-book for gardens where you can stroll around lakes and feed peacocks. “For cocooners it’s ideal,” said Brenda Comerford, the manager.

Dunbrody Famine Ship, New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland.
Visitor attraction the Dunbrody Famine Ship at New Ross. Photograph: Danita Delimont/Alamy

In contrast, the Dunbrody famine ship at New Ross, a replica of an 1840s emigrant vessel, had to cut tour group sizes and pivot from its usual reliance on international visitors. A potentially hard sell: would anyone want to explore the dark belly of a wooden ship that evokes claustrophobia and disease? Actually, yes. Last summer it continued to draw 140 to 150 people daily, just shy of capacity.

“It’s so sad but really interesting,” said Mary-Louise Fellowes, 39, who visited with her husband and two young children. From Northern Ireland, the family considered holidaying in Scotland before plumping for Ireland’s south-east. The trick, said Fellowes, is to research and book in advance. “Some towns have been very quiet with nowhere to eat. We’ve enjoyed it, and felt safe. Things feel much more under control here.”


Rory Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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