Irish Examiner view: Future of tourism relies on long-term thinking

Shortages in accommodation and staff, along with spiralling costs, threaten the vitality of a sector vital to Ireland’s economic wellbeing
Irish Examiner view: Future of tourism relies on long-term thinking

A deserted check-in area at Cork Airport terminal building during the pandemic. Picture: Larry Cummins

Reports that some four-star hotels in Dublin are quoting prices of nearly €400 for a one-night stay might mislead us into thinking we should let the good times roll. But we would be mistaken. If we add hugely disproportionate charges to a recovering tourist market, we might do well in the short term. But in the long term, they will come back to bite us.

Certainly, there is pent-up demand among visitors to enjoy everything Ireland has to offer but accommodation prices, car hire shortages, car hire prices, and the perpetual difficulty of finding staff represent a four-way threat to the vitality of a sector central to the country’s economic wellbeing.

A report from the Tourism Advisory Group, established by Fáilte Ireland, warns that tour operators are “scrambling” to find beds, with pricing proving a major challenge, particularly around weekends.

Capacity issues are exacerbated by the need toaccommodate refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine, with many three-star properties, in particular, committing to three- and six-month contracts providing emergency accommodation.

40,000 staffing vacancies

A Fáilte Ireland report earlier this year estimated there were 40,000 staffing vacancies across the tourism and holiday sector and that staffing and skill shortages were unprecedented. Many key vacancies exist for middle and front-of-house management. Such posts require a level of experience, interpersonal skills, and business knowledge that is often underestimated and is in demand right across Europe.

For many years, the tourism industry has often relied on “casual” employment with no well-defined career structure but, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is such short-term and opportunistic thinking cannot carry us forward.

Now, despite the sector offering increased salaries, progression opportunities and flexible work patterns, and targeting retirees, parents, and younger people as potential recruits, it is struggling to fill jobs.

A shortage of chefs is a particular problem for Ireland's tourism industry.
A shortage of chefs is a particular problem for Ireland's tourism industry.

A shortage of chefs is a particular problem and, though work permit delays for critical skills and intra-corporate transfer employment permits have fallen to six weeks, general employment permit waiting times are close to 22 weeks. 

No one can imagine that this is acceptable.

Adding to price pressure on holiday plans, the cost of escaping overseas is set to increase with Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary warning that he expects airline flight prices to rise by a “high single-digit per cent”.

Increases in passenger numbers are helping his company recover from the pandemic with annual losses of €355m for year ending March 2022, down from a loss of €1.02bn the previous year, and he hopes the airline will return to “reasonable profitability” in the current financial year.

Ryanair carried 97.1m customers in the financial year 2022, up from 27.5m the previous year, thanks to the lifting of restrictions, and it is forecasting passenger numbers of 165m people this year, beating its pre-Covid record of 149m. One reason Ryanair is weathering staffing problems better than other operators and airports, is the carrier retained staff during the coronavirus crisis, pushing pay cuts over job losses.

Mr O’Leary said: “I think prices will be low next winter. But it’s too early to say, there’s clearly going to be an economic downturn, there’s ... fear of recession and, in a recession, the lowest-cost provider, [Ryanair] in the UK and in Europe, will do better ... because we can sustain lower prices.”

Another cloud

While this provides a certain optimism for many potential tourists, there is a further cloud, literal as much as metaphorical, on the horizon as holiday makers may face the “blood sky” phenomenon on continental beaches.

A significant aerial sand deposit from the Sahara Desert is set to reach Western Europe, the latest in “an extraordinary year for the dust cloud cycle”, according to the EU’s Copernicus climate monitoring service. South-east England could be hit, as well as large swathes of France, Spain, and Portugal.

At its worst, affected areas can expect red skies, cars, and buildings, and health warnings on outdoor activities due to air quality. Further reason, perhaps, to protect and ensure the continued viability of our own native tourism sector.

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