Thursday, 19 November 2020
10. To ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the supports from a tourism perspective that will be provided to a company (details supplied) in order to help it keep its key tourism sites in the mid-west open from 1 January 2021 onwards. [37157/20]
Yet again, there is huge uncertainty in the mid-west pertaining to the Shannon Heritage sites and whether they will be open or closed in the new year. I would very much like to know what proposals the Department has to engage with the Shannon Group to ensure these sites do not close and that jobs are not lost there.
The management of Shannon Heritage sites, including their opening arrangements, is an operational matter for Shannon Heritage and Shannon Group plc, which is a commercial State body under the aegis of the Department of Transport. As Shannon Group operates in both the aviation and tourism sectors, it has been severely impacted by Covid-19. With regard to tourism, budget 2021 included a number of substantial measures to support and strengthen the tourism sector and they are supplemented by the economy-wide business supports and social welfare measures. The total funding for the tourism sector will increase in 2021 by more than €59 million, or 36%, over the initial 2020 allocation in budget 2020 to €220.9 million. Combined with other measures such as the Covid resilience support scheme, CRSS, and the rates waiver, the Government is helping to sustain businesses that have been most severely affected by the necessary public health restrictions.
As part of the budget package of measures, €55 million has been provided for business continuity schemes for strategic tourism businesses to help them survive through the pandemic and be there to help drive the recovery. This funding will be administered by Fáilte Ireland and focused on those strategic businesses. Fáilte Ireland is currently engaging with those tourism sectors in the design of funding schemes, taking into account the effect of other horizontal funding measures, such as CRSS.
The VAT rate for the sector is reduced to 9%, which will improve the competitiveness and viability of businesses. Funding of €5 million has also been provided for focused upskilling training to support business survival and recovery in the sector, and for the improvement of the digital presence and e-commerce capability of tourism businesses. Investment in the tourism marketing fund has been maintained to ensure that Ireland is in a position to recover quickly, when it is safe for tourists to return from our key markets.
In response to the impacts of Covid-19, the Government has put in place a range of supports to help business and our citizens face the challenges presented by this global pandemic. I would encourage the entity responsible for the management of the sites concerned to liaise with Fáilte Ireland on what State supports might be available. Horizontal supports include the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the rates waiver, VAT warehousing and CRSS.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
The tourism recovery task force undertook a comprehensive analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on the sector and drew up a recovery plan containing more than 30 recommendations across a number of areas, designed to help the sector to survive and recover from the crisis out to 2023. Its short-term recommendations informed the sector-specific measures adopted in the budget. To help inform my ongoing response to the pandemic, I will shortly appoint an oversight group which will monitor the implementation of the recovery plan, as well as the recovery of the tourism sector in general.
It is very much a case of déjà vu or Groundhog Day, call it what one likes. Once again, the management of Shannon Group is saying that, due to the downturn in international tourism and ongoing loss-making, it will be forced to close iconic sites such as Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle from January onwards, and that these sites will remain closed until the start of the summer season. Bunratty Castle dates back to the 15th century and King John's Castle to the 13th century. The combined Shannon Heritage sites in the mid-west employ some 350 employees, with 145 of these working on a 12-month, all-year-round basis. They are of strategic importance in the mid-west region and both sites enjoyed a bumper season of domestic tourism this summer. If we close them, what chance are we giving our region? If we close them, we cause immeasurable damage to the supply chains of the hotels, restaurants and bars which are already struggling.
The Department proposes to bring forward proposals to Cabinet on how Shannon Heritage sites can be run and managed in the near future. The threat of closure gives added urgency to this, given we do not know what the future holds for Shannon Heritage. We also need to know what will happen at Craggunowen Castle, Dunguaire Castle and Knappogue Castle.
With regard to Shannon Heritage specifically, a commitment was made by the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, to provide funding to ensure that Bunratty Castle and Folk Park and King John's Castle, which were due to close at the end of August, could remain open until the end of 2020, subject to public health measures. It is open to Shannon Heritage to explore further the various support mechanisms now available to it, and I would encourage it to liaise with Fáilte Ireland on what State supports might be available.
I know this is something the Deputy raised with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, earlier this week. If there is funding available from his Department, that is a matter for him, and I know he has spoken on this issue and is aware of the challenges the company faces. As part of the budget package of measures for various strategic tourism businesses, €55 million has been provided for the business continuity scheme to help businesses survive through the pandemic and be there to help drive the recovery. I would encourage Shannon Heritage to explore further the various support mechanisms now available to it from Fáilte Ireland. However, it should be noted that as a subsidiary of a State company, this may impact on its eligibility.
The Minister is correct that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform awarded €2.6 million to keep the sites from closing last August. However, it subsequently transpired that the net figure in terms of meeting operational costs and averting closure from August to December was €550,000. If these sites were closed again in January, it would cost the State in the region of €1 million to keep the employees supported on unemployment payments. As the cost of keeping them open is €550,000, it does not make economic sense to close them. There should already be a pot of money available to the Government to facilitate this. The Government did the right thing to save jobs and avert closures of these iconic sites last August. I again appeal to Mary Considine and her management team at the Shannon Group to engage with the Government, as the Minister has invited them to do, and once again strike such a deal.
I will conclude by referencing the motto emblazoned across the Clare County crest - dílis dár n-oidhreachta; loyal to our heritage. For the sake of workers, for the sake of tourism and for the sake of the mid-west region and its economy, we have to be loyal to our heritage sites at a time of need.
I point out the management of Shannon Heritage sites, including their opening arrangements, is an operational matter for Shannon Heritage and the Shannon Group, which is a commercial State body under the aegis of the Department of Transport, not the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Within my remit, I can point to the extensive supports that have been introduced economy-wide and specifically within the tourism sector to support businesses, and which Shannon Heritage can avail of. This is a very difficult time for Shannon Heritage and I am very aware of that. I will liaise with my Cabinet colleagues to see how best they will continue the engagement.