The bank holiday weekend brought a renewed sense of optimism within Ireland’s tourism industry that we are finally moving from the survival to the revival phase for businesses after the ravages of the Covid pandemic.
Last month’s announcement by An Taoiseach included a number of constructive developments for Ireland’s tourism industry, the country’s largest indigenous sector and biggest regional employer.
It contained a number of positive, if far overdue, initiatives including a crucial roadmap for how international aviation can recommence and a timeline as to when indoor hospitality can resume.
Let’s be under no illusions, though, that what’s left of this year will be long and challenging.
Closed for the first half of the year, and only trading with limited capacity and stunted demand for the latter six months, the 20,000 businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector will need ongoing financial support from the Government to get through this existential crisis.
The scale of the crisis cannot be overstated.
Figures compiled by the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation point to a 90% decline in revenue during the Covid period and a staggering 160,000 job losses.
The Government’s Economic Recovery Plan, published last week, did acknowledge tourism’s mammoth challenge and included measures that will benefit the sector, including the extension of the wage subsidy scheme and the 9% Vat rate.
However, such measures will not be enough, on their own, and a new tranche of business continuity funding will be required to support viable but vulnerable tourism enterprises.
If Irish tourism and hospitality businesses are to survive beyond the summer season, we desperately need to see the return of international tourists.
A whopping 75% of Irish tourism is dependent on international visitation and, thus, the domestic market on its own will never be big enough or strong enough or robust enough to sustain the sector.
Opening up inbound markets is vital to tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses.
In this context, the North American market is of crucial importance and, regrettably, just as we can see a post-Covid future, Ireland’s west coast no longer has direct access from the US or Canada.
At its peak back in 2018, there were as many as 24 inbound flights each week into Shannon and Cork across six different airlines operating from seven different North American cities.
Sadly, due to months of the harshest aviation restrictions across Europe, carriers have, one after the other, pulled out.
In pre-Covid times, the North American market spent a whopping €1.7bn annually in Ireland, €400m of which went through the tills of Cork and Kerry hotels, restaurants, pubs, and attractions.
The climb back to this sort of level of expenditure will be directly related to connectivity and restoring as many direct routes from the US and Canada as possible.
A Herculean task is ahead for industry, agencies, diplomats, and politicians to get airlines to recommit to Ireland in what will be a hyper-competitive world once Covid dangers have passed.
Thankfully, albeit belatedly, the road to recovery has begun with Ireland adopting the digital Covid certificate from July 19, allowing for intra-EU travel.
The Government must go further though. The Common Travel Area, which has been in existence since the 1920s, should operate in full, allowing free and unfettered movement between Ireland and the UK, the latter being well ahead of our own vaccination rates.
What is evident is that even with international tourism to recommence in July, the recovery will be slow and it is incumbent on the Government to maintain and increase supports for Ireland’s tourism and hospitality industry right into the first quarter of 2022.
In light of slow recovery from international markets, there is an onus on Tourism Minister Catherine Martin to maximise the domestic tourism season as much as possible.
A new, redesigned, consumer-friendly staycation scheme for the autumn period should be put in place to incentivise home holidays and lengthen the short tourism season beyond the summer months.
This would both stretch the domestic tourism season and reward a hard-pressed public.
Ireland, with just nine such holidays, compares unfavourably to the rest of Europe in this regard.
We need to use every initiative we can to support this key indigenous sector that provides employment in parts of regional Ireland no other industry can reach.
- Eoghan O’Mara Walsh is chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation