For the last four or five years of An Sionnach Fionn I have been promoting the potential benefits of “language tourism” for Ireland’s economy. The indigenous culture of this island nation represents a largely untapped source of prosperity for the national economy, and not just the education sector or the Gaeltachtaí. As I stated in the second month of ASF’s existence, way back in June of 2011:
“Tourists coming to Ireland want to experience something different from what they left behind at home (as I pointed out before). If you are an English-speaking tourist from England, Wales, Scotland, the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand you don’t want to visit a country where the people pretty much speak the same language as you do and with pretty much the same culture too.
You want different. So what does Fáilte Ireland offer these people? More of the same!
And what if you come from a non-English speaking country (like 94.5% of the planet!)? Do you really want to visit a pale imitation of Britain or the United States? If you want Cool Britannia or Americana then you can easily visit the real thing. They come to Ireland to experience something different from those two offerings.
Language tourism, Irish language tourism, is the great unrealised ‘wow factor’ of Irish tourism. By emphasising what we are (not what we are sort of like) we have the potential to open up and explore new and unexpected areas of tourist growth and development – while simultaneously contributing to the growth of our own native language and culture.
We want repeat visitors, the regular tourists that are the bedrock of any self-sustaining tourism industry, not the occasional fly-by-night, here-today-gone-tomorrow never-to-be-seen-again visitors of yesteryear. We want tourists who come to Ireland and then come back again – many times over. It is only by offering something unique that we will win the hearts and minds of these people and lure tourists here from the sunnier, technicolour delights of the Mediterranean or Caribbean and beyond. Let us be honest. We don’t do glorious sunshine (really) or 24-hour bars and clubs. We’re not some North Atlantic Ibiza (thank God) or off-shore Los Vegas (yet).
We do a unique culture, ancient history, unspoiled nature and all the elusive stuff that tourists can’t quite get elsewhere (call it craic if you wish, old done-to-death cliché that it is). We appeal to the late teens and early twenties, and then jump to the middle aged. We appeal to the tens of millions of people around the globe of Irish descent. They want to visit something different, something not quite like anywhere else in the world, an Ireland of the myth as much as the reality. They want Irish and Gaelic and Celtic. All the things some here disdain but which make us unique, make us stand out from the crowd.”
The Atlantic has a lengthy article by Lila MacLellan examining the importance of linguistic distinctiveness in an increasingly homogenised market which touches upon both the benefits and difficulties it presents:
“In Christmas markets in Europe, vendors hire Franco-Canadians to sell maple syrup or apple cider from Quebec, because as Heller, who is also the president of the American Anthropology Association, told me: “The accent is important. People will come and a person will say, ‘Where are you from? Let me hear you talk. Let me tell you about my holiday in Quebec,’ and then turn their attention to the actual objects for sale.
“For [the customers] it’s as much the experience of talking to a real Franco-Canadian, a real Quebecois, and they want the accent,” she said. “The sellers want to provide that as part of the experience. It’s called value-added.””
Ireland of course also gets a mention:
“For example in recent decades the Irish language, once viewed among some as a marker of the backwards and uneducated, has become fashionable, especially among Ireland’s urban middle-class. Still, the actual use of Irish appears to be on the decline.
In a 2011 census, 41 percent of the population claimed they had some ability to speak Irish. A closer look at the numbers, however, shows that less than 2 percent of citizens speak Irish daily outside of the education system (where it is compulsory). That figure jumps to 35 percent in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking counties along Ireland’s western and southern coasts. Here, where use of Irish is strongest in older generations but slipping among young people, it has lately become a source of revenue.
Every year, businesses that sell three- or four-week language learning vacation packages (cleverly combining edu-tourism and heritage tourism) attract thousands of international travelers to towns in the Gaeltacht, promising “immersion.” And the staff at local pubs will speak to travelers in Irish, “because they see you as part of this package that’s bringing money to the area, so it’s part of their job,” said Bernadette O’Rourke, a socio-linguist at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.
To O’Rourke, the situation becomes problematic when those running the tourism enterprises are operating on a seasonal basis and not reinvesting in the community, which is often the case. As such, she asked, is it the local people themselves who become the commodities?
In the West Coast town of Ennis, the situation is even more curious. Ennis is near but outside the Gaeltacht; nevertheless, language advocates there are promoting the use of Irish in stores and hanging bilingual signs. “They’ve got local business people on board with Irish as a form of branding. But a lot of them are passionate about the language and feel a little bit guilty about using Irish as a commodity and getting money from it.””
An especially interesting example is that of the once bilingual state of Louisiana. In 1968 over one million people in the region were native French-speakers. By 2011 it had shrunk to well under 200,000. But things may be changing:
“In Louisiana, a similar branding project is now underway, led by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL.
The organization hopes to have its first Zagat-like “FrancoResponsable” (“French-friendly”) stickers in the windows of restaurants, shops, and hotels in New Orleans and Acadia within a month. The stickers will be color-coded to indicate the level of French service that’s available to customers. Green will mean the business offers some effort to reach French-speakers—maybe the menu is bilingual, for example. Silver will mean that service is spotty—perhaps the one francophone person on staff is not always working, so call ahead. A gold award will indicate that interacting entirely in French is always an option. CODOFIL staffers plan to personally verify the Frenchness of businesses before awarding any stickers at all.
The agency once focused solely on French-language education, so this commercial venture signifies a departure. The goal is to bump up the already sizeable population of francophone tourists who visit Louisiana, and to validate the French language in a public way.
Promoters of the campaign and others like it say they recognize that inviting outsiders to experience Louisiana’s French dialects may sometimes put locals in awkward positions. In Louisiana, French has been stigmatized and repressed; “My French is bad,” is a common response from Creole or Cajun French-speakers to a foreigner’s bonjour.
However, according to a spokesperson from CODOFIL, French businesses are already excited about the FrancoResponsable program, which may one day be extended to doctor’s offices and other non-tourist locales. What’s more, it’s designed to support all forms of French in the state—regional, Haitian, European, or African. It’s also hoped that young Louisianans will see that French is connected to the job market, so they’ll have an incentive to master the language. In the 1960s, about a million people spoke French in the state. Today there are about 175,000 native speakers.
Already, francophone visitors bring $250,000 in revenue per year to just one site, the Laura Plantation…”