EU commissioner for tourism?: Office would help sustain €6bn sector

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s suggestion that it will cost €50bn to make all homes energy efficient and another €30bn to replace petrol and diesel cars put a figure, no matter how elastic, on climate costs.

Had he added a-plucked-from-the-sky-guess at what it will cost to build tidal barriers to protect Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway his estimate would be far closer to €100bn.

In a country that, in 2017, had to borrow €1bn despite an income up by 3.9% to €76.5bn these are significant numbers. They do show that, at last, the issue is moving towards the top of the political agenda and that the psychological softening needed ahead of major cultural change has at last begun.

This is more than welcome even if we still still cling to the apron strings of unsustainable practices. This era overlap has highlighted last week when Climate Action Minister Richard Bruton warned we face fines of up to €150m next year over missed emission targets.

Despite that, €100m in subsidies for the beef sector, one of our primary sources of carbon dioxide, was announced the next day. The contradiction is obvious and unsustainable no matter how loudly the farm sector bleats.

The sector is concerned and has said it is the subject of undue attention on pollution. It responded through the IFA, declaring it will not “be dictated to by keyboard warriors”. That apprehension is natural and justified but the sector is not alone. In recent days, Virgin Group chief executive Josh Bayliss suggested limitless leisure-based air travel may no longer be justifiable.

“Every one of us should think hard about whether or not we need to take a flight,” said the boss of a company with holdings in the Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia airlines. Low-carbon aviation fuel will be used eventually, he predicted, but until it was, every flight would burn climate-warming fuel, so it is time to ask:

Do I really need to travel? If so, how am I going to go about doing that?

For an island nation dependent on an open economy that is a significant shift in perceptions. For an island so dependent on tourism it is every bit as chastening as the challenges facing farmers.

Tourism is a plank in our economy, employing more than 300,000 people. Last year tourism was worth more than €6bn, a 10% rise on 2017. Visitor numbers climbed beyond 11m representing 6% year-on-year growth.

This record year contributed almost €2bn to the exchequer last year — maybe enough to build one or two modest tidal barriers. These figures are behind the call for an EU commissioner dedicated to tourism. The Restaurants’ Association of Ireland joined European national hospitality groups and called for a commissioner to prioritise tourism.

Tourism is the third socio-economic activity in Europe, and one of the cornerstones of the EU economy, supporting more than 13m jobs. There is no sign that tourism growth will slow down so it seems reasonable to establish a dedicated portfolio — but only if that office is not an industry lobby and recognises that tourism is increasingly questioned in over-run destinations and has a significant environmental impact.

Indeed, such an office might be the very initiative to balance these needs and ensure that the golden goose survives — and indeed thrives.

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