Tourism in Trinity: how the pandemic is changing a staple of Trinity’s identity

With changing audiences and shifting restrictions, tourism in Trinity looks very different this year

Though Trinity has long attracted visitors from all over the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has precipitated a dramatic drop in international travel. College authorities have had to completely reappraise how they market themselves whilst ensuring the safety of students and visitors alike.

Trinity students and tourists tend to hold “never the twain shall meet” as an instructive maxim to live by. They are two groups that really only seem to crossover when somebody needs directions to the Book of Kells or indeed when a tourist is savvy enough to know that entrance to the exhibition is free with an accompanying student and are then plucky enough to ask a loitering student to go along with them. However, the attractions on campus that appeal to tourists – the Book of Kells, the Old Library, the Science Gallery and the Douglas Hyde Gallery – have been left in a precarious position as Covid-19 restrictions change. 

The well-shuffled path

When it comes to appreciating the beauty and history of Trinity’s campus, the majority of students are pretty jaded. However, College has long been an extraordinarily popular attraction and its marketing team has proven itself to be especially canny in how it presents itself to overseas visitors. On the official website, the Book of Kells is described as “Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure”, whilst the Long Room is touted as “one of the world’s most beautiful libraries”. Such claims are certainly effective, with 2018 being the first given year that over one million people visited the 9th century manuscript. The one millionth visitor was Cassie Clemans, who with her husband had travelled to Dublin from Bend, Oregon to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.  

This bookshop-owning Oregonian couple reflects the general makeup of visitors to Trinity, where visitors from the US account for 36% of the total share of visitors. Whilst it has long been known that Trinity holds a special appeal to the American tourist, since the reopening of the College to visitors in August 2020, this has changed dramatically.  The pandemic has demonstrated that domestic tourism is less vulnerable to external shocks than international travel. Accordingly the College has repositioned itself and put social media campaigns in place to attract an audience wherever possible. 

Early ticket sales data for the Book and Old Library exhibition suggests that the domestic market now accounts for the majority of visitors to the exhibition. Hazel Davis, a Marketing Communications Executive at Trinity. pointed out that this is a significant change to previous years. For example, in 2018, just 11% of visitors to the Book of Kells and Old Library exhibition came from the Republic.

Going digital

Trinity is currently exploring opportunities to develop a range of virtual visitor offerings to bring over 400 years of history to life online. Such offerings include a conservation video series designed to highlight the wealth of academic expertise at play behind the scenes at the Old Library, as well as the figures who ensure that both the Book of Kells and the Old Library’s  collections are preserved for future generations. The series features 17 videos in total, all of which can be viewed online. Similarly, those that are disappointed they cannot visit the campus in person can now view the Long Room in a virtual 360° panoramic view. The College’s battle to retain its popularity is faring well, as this video content has received over 177,000 engagements on Facebook to date. Trinity has not only shifted online in how it markets itself to visitors but also to prospective students as Trinity’s Open Day, taking place on November 7, will also be entirely virtual.

Safety considerations

 “[We want to] make each visitor’s time with us as pleasurable as possible, while limiting the spread of Covid-19 on campus” 

When it was initially announced that tourists could begin visiting the campus from August 10 onwards, students and researchers were eager to see that this access would be strictly regulated and controlled. According to Davis, College has been working rigorously to enforce regulations on those visiting the campus in an effort to “make each visitor’s time with us as pleasurable as possible, while limiting the spread of Covid-19 on campus.”

Visitors were required to book in advance, with entry being on a timed basis at a maximum of 25 people per half-hour. After booking, visitors receive information to ensure they have been made aware of all safety protocols. Campus security monitors the established one-way system to ensure visitors do not access other areas of campus.  In many ways College is following the codes and conduct of “the new normal”: social distancing is carefully monitored, contactless payment is advised, hand sanitiser is regularly provided, and face coverings are mandatory.

However, when Dublin was placed under Level Three restrictions in September, the landscape of tourism in Trinity shifted again. The Book of Kells exhibition closed the following day, tweeting: “The welfare of our visitors, students and colleagues remains our one priority. We look forward to reopening when it is safe to do so.”

Funding concerns

Tourism is undoubtedly a critical source of revenue for the College. Chief Operating Officer Geraldine Ruane has previously said that funds generated by ticket sales [to view the Book of Kells] go directly to supporting the University, including the maintenance of its historic campus and most importantly the overall academic mission of teaching and research”.

It’s no secret, however, that third-level institutions are deeply mired in a funding crisis: state funding per student now stands at 40% less than it was a decade ago.  In 2019, Trinity expected to generate €50 million in commercial revenues.  In that same year, the Book of Kells and its gift shop alone helped generate over €12 million.  Indeed, it isn’t cheap to see Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure, with adult tickets costing €14, and €12 for children.  With national Covid-19 case numbers remaining at high levels and the threat of restrictions being reintroduced ever-present, the College is finding it difficult to predict how accessible the campus can remain to visitors.

However, there are small notes of optimism to be sounded from the decreased traffic visitors bring, namely the preservation of the campus.  The general depreciation of Trinity’s historic surroundings brought on by high volumes of visitors was flagged as early as 2017. In response, the College Board released a brief policy document which outlined plans to clamp down on the “significant growth in unauthorised tours…which place undue wear and tear on facilities”. Authenticity Tours Limited, working under the trademark Trinity Tours, now holds the sole right to give tours of the College. Alongside goals of conservation, the Board’s stated aims included an “increase [in] revenue for the University” as well as “optimizing the health and safety of visitors, students and staff”.  

“[A] wonderful time to visit, providing a more relaxed opportunity to see some of the Old Library’s gems” 

One thing is certain: Trinity will remain perennially popular amongst visitors of all descriptions and continue to attract the culturally curious amongst us.  Indeed, Davis assured that with more stringent restrictions in place, when the exhibitions are allowed to open, it is a “wonderful time to visit, providing a more relaxed opportunity to see some of the Old Library’s gems”.