State Archives: Petrol vouchers were considered to boost tourism

The Government considered giving accommodation and petrol vouchers to visitors from Northern Ireland in a bid to boost tourism in the early 1980s.

State papers also show that an extension of the free travel scheme to pensioners and disabled people from Northern Ireland and petrol vouchers for all overseas tourists were also actively considered.

However, all three proposals were ruled out because of budgetary constraints.

Documents show Martin Mansergh, a senior adviser to several Fianna Fáil-led governments, was one of the key promoters in 1981 of extending the free travel scheme to elderly and disabled people from Northern Ireland.

When the proposal was reviewed two years later, officials from the Department of Social Welfare were opposed to the plan on the basis its costs were being underestimated.

There was also a fear that it could result in adverse reaction among voters in the Republic as the Government had recently decided to impose charges for school transport.

“The extension of the free travel scheme might evoke hostility rather than improve relations,” officials noted.

It was envisaged that accommodation vouchers of £10 per adult and £5 per child would be offered for the May-June period with a minimum stay of four nights. A voucher of £5 per person would be available for January-April and October-December but the peak holiday months of July-September were excluded.

Officials from the Department of the Taoiseach and Department of Finance opposed the scheme as it would have been open to serious abuse and would have been counterproductive from the goodwill aspect.

They also believed most of the expenditure would go on the segment of the Northern Ireland population which would visit the Republic anyway.

The Minister for Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism, John Bruton said tourism transports costs were constantly being reviewed including examination of a possible petrol voucher scheme on a number of occasions.

However, Mr Bruton said there was no evidence to suggest that such a concession would result in significant increases in tourist traffic which would justify the substantial costs in operating such a scheme.

Over 40% of all overseas tourists to Ireland in the early 1980s travelled by car. At the time the cost of petrol in the Republic was about 20% dearer than the EU average.

It was estimated that a scheme which would allow for a £1 reduction in the price of a gallon of petrol for all foreign tourists using cars would cost up to £6m per annum.

In fact, Mr Bruton said it was clear that the introduction of petrol vouchers would “attract serious attempts at abuse and would be extremely difficult to control”. Documents show transport officials said Irish residents including people from Northern Ireland would have to be excluded which would inevitably lead to some criticism.

They also felt the introduction of a petrol voucher scheme could focus attention on the general high cost of living in Ireland compared to most other European countries.

In addition they noted that the higher cost of petrol in the Republic would add about £10 to the cost of a motoring holiday — approximately 1%-2% of the overall cost.

An alternative scheme of selling duty free petrol at ports was also ruled out for a number of reasons including the fact that it was not commercially viable to construct and operate garages which would rely solely on traffic from ferries.

Official also worried Irish motorists would take day trips on car ferries in order to fill up their tank in a similar fashion to the way people were already making the same trip for buying alcohol.

“The introduction of a petrol concessionary scheme is unlikely to have a significant effect on tourism revenues, would be expensive and could lead to serious problems regarding control,” said officials from Mr Bruton’s department.

They argued an increase of £6m in Bord Fáilte’s promotional budget would achieve a much higher return than a petrol voucher scheme.

Because of Ireland’s high cost of living they also felt a general reduction in the rate of VAT on tourism services would also be more beneficial.

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