Swift action needed to increase tourist numbers

TOURISM businesses have warned they face disaster if they don’t see an increase in visitor numbers this year.

Unveiling a four-year recovery plan for the industry, a coalition of business interests said immediate action was needed to regain the 2.2 million visitors and €1.7 billion lost annually since 2007.

“Crisis is not too strong a word. We have lost a third of our business in three years,” said tourism and transport consultant Noel Sweeney who researched the plan. “If we have another bad year in 2011, it would be pretty disastrous. There are many businesses on the brink.”

One of the immediate aids to recovery identified in the plan is a state-backed bank loan guarantee scheme to encourage banks to provide short-term credit to tourism operators.

Paul Gallagher, president of the Irish Hotels Federation, said many established and viable businesses were under threat because they could not get access to cash at critical times.

“Traditionally, many businesses rely on overdrafts to get them through the winter which they then repay during the busy summer months, but that facility is not so available now.”

There is also a concern that businesses cannot get loans for refurbishment works to keep their premises and facilities up to standard. The proposed credit scheme would guarantee 50% of each loan, with borrowers paying a 2% premium to support it.

Other measures identified by the Tourism Opportunity coalition, which is backed by the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC), employers group IBEC, Chambers Ireland and the Irish Farmers Association, include stronger marketing of Ireland as a tourist destination and a greater focus on providing value for money.

The over-50s, who are driving tourism growth internationally, are considered an important target, as are tourists who seek themed holidays based around events, culture or sporting and leisure activities.

With no improvement expected in the number of stay-at-home holiday-makers, they say the recovery of the British market — which has halved in the last few years — is essential to the overall health of the tourism industry here, but they also want renewed efforts made to attract more visitors from other key markets such as the United States, Germany and France.

Eamonn McKeon, chief executive of the ITIC, said the recovery plan aimed to have eight million visitors to Ireland by 2015 — a level of business that would generate €6.2 billion in revenue and 20,000 extra jobs while sustaining the existing 180,000 jobs in the industry.

He conceded that this would require more than twice the rate of growth generally considered likely for European tourism as a whole, but said there was no point in aiming any lower as that would at best put the industry back where it was in 2007.

“We have got to stop selling ourselves short. We have to stop looking backwards. We have a fabulous product. We have a fabulous country,” he said.

He hoped for a speedy resolution to the Aer Lingus dispute which has caused flight cancellations over the past week.

“I can’t say it’s causing any damage to business at the moment but if it were to be protracted, we would be nervous.”

The report is available at www.tourismopportunity.ie

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