Monday, 22 March 2021
Covid-19 (Tourism): Statements
Táim an-sásta a bheith anseo inniu ag labhairt leis an Teach faoin turasóireacht. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad about the plans for supports and incentives for the tourism and hospitality industry for 2021.
In 2019, before the pandemic had wrought its affects on Irish society, tourism was worth more than €9 billion in total to our economy from overseas tourists and the fares they generated together with domestic tourism. The industry supported 260,000 jobs across the country both in remote rural areas as well as in our towns and cities. Since the advent of Covid-19, and the consequential and necessary public health measures, many of these jobs have been lost or are surviving with State support and income from the sector is a fraction of what it was in 2019.
I am very aware of the toll that the pandemic and the restrictions are continuing to take across the sector and, most importantly, on the people working in the industry. It was critical, therefore, that the Government recently extended the economy-wide supports for businesses and employees until the end of June. As Senators will be aware, the Government has also committed that there will not be a cliff-edge end to the supports that are currently in place.
We remain committed to supporting tourism through this difficult period, and to working towards reopening and recovery. In that regard, the Government will soon publish a national economic recovery plan, which will outline how we will help people return to work, support sectors that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and how emergency supports will be phased out. Crucially, as part of that plan, along with my colleagues in government, we will consider more targeted measures to help reboot those sectors such as tourism that will face particular challenges during the recovery phase when the economy reopens.
While we collectively continue to experience the dreadful impact of this pandemic on life, society and the economy, there is cause for cautious optimism as the roll-out of the vaccination programme gathers pace. Reopening tourism businesses and managing the recovery in a way that is economically viable, safe and attractive for tourists and local communities will require co-ordination at a level not seen previously. The roadmap to recovery will require flexibility, agility, investment, innovation, and a commitment to a strong collaboration with the industry. Horizontal support schemes such as the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and rates waiver have been worth hundreds of millions of euro to the broader tourism and hospitality sectors. Outside of that, I have allocated a record level of funding to tourism, which has allowed me to introduce measures specifically aimed at assisting the tourism sector, such as the €55 million business continuity scheme launched on 1 February by Fáilte Ireland to help strategic tourism businesses survive the pandemic and drive recovery. This scheme will contribute to the fixed costs of identified tourism businesses that are not eligible for the CRSS to support their survival. It will provide an equitable level of payment to the CRSS for qualifying businesses and the first phase will cover businesses such as tourism attractions, activity providers and caravan and camping sites. The VAT rate for the sector was reduced to 9% to help improve the competitiveness and viability of businesses. Two separate funds of €10 million each were introduced for coach tourism operators and the Ireland based inbound agents business continuity scheme in the last quarter of 2020. In addition, €8 million in restart grant funding was provided for bed and breakfast premises. Funding of €5 million has also been provided for upskilling training and to improve digital presence. A €26 million adaptation fund has been provided for the tourism sector to adapt their premises to meet Covid-19 safety requirements.
Survival is the first part of the Government's response for tourism. Recovery must come next. I will continue to keep all options open for supporting the recovery.
Last September, the tourism recovery task force submitted a recovery plan to me which set out a number of recommendations aimed at helping the tourism sector to survive and recover from the pandemic. The plan has been a very important input into my thinking on the sector and has influenced a number of the measures I have adopted.
I subsequently appointed the recovery oversight group in December to monitor the implementation of the recovery plan. The oversight group was ably chaired by Nóirín Hegarty and she presented the group's first report to me on 15 February. The report highlights a number of areas on which it recommends the Government should focus its attention. I brought this report to the attention of my colleagues in government to ensure they are fully up to date with the position on tourism as we prepare the national economic recovery plan. A number of the areas highlighted by the group have already been addressed in our new Covid plan, The Path Ahead. In addition, my officials will continue to engage with tourism agencies and colleagues across government in pursuing progress on specific recommendations. I will keep the content of the report under review, together with the initial recovery plan produced by the tourism recovery task force, as the situation evolves.
Last October, the Tánaiste and I convened the hospitality and tourism forum to provide a platform for structured engagement between the hospitality and tourism sector, the tourism agencies and relevant Departments. The forum enables the Tánaiste and me to engage with a wide spectrum of industry stakeholders to assess the continuing impact of the pandemic, help improve understanding and responses to the crisis and discuss ideas for recovery measures, thus assisting the Government in formulating its ongoing response to the crisis. I was pleased that the Taoiseach also attended the most recent meeting of the forum earlier this month to hear at first hand of the devastation this pandemic has brought to our tourism sector and the many challenges the industry now faces. I am committed to mapping a pathway for the recovery of the sector and I will continue to work with all stakeholders in that regard.
It is recognised that during periods of closure the tourism and hospitality sector is losing skilled staff to other sectors. The tourism recovery task force identified that retaining tourism jobs and skills will be vital to tourism's recovery and implementing an upskilling and reskilling programme can mitigate the significant damage the crisis is having on the sector. In this regard, supporting the retention will be assisted by measures such as the funding of €5 million provided in budget 2021 for upskilling training and to improve digital presence. The tourism and hospitality careers oversight group is a collaborative approach by stakeholders, including industry bodies, education providers, Departments and State agencies, to addressing skills shortages in the tourism sector. The group is finalising a new plan which includes input from members and a review of its collaborative framework, and takes into account recommendations from the tourism recovery task force. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister of State with responsibility for skills, Deputy Niall Collins, recently announced two new skills programmes to assist the hospitality and tourism sectors with Covid-19 challenges and ensuring they are ready for reopening.
Looking ahead to the summer, indications are that there will be a strong domestic demand for tourism services when it is safe to open up.Recent CSO figures show that almost 70% of people intend to take a holiday in the Republic of Ireland in 2021. While this news is encouraging, I am very conscious that the tourism sector relies heavily on international tourism. The industry wants certainty around when international visitors can visit, but it is not helpful to speculate on specific dates at this point.
The path ahead makes clear the criteria which are most important when considering the easing of travel restrictions. These are the prevalence of the disease and the attendant reproductive rate, reducing hospital and critical care occupancy to low levels to protect the health service and allow for the safe resumption of non-Covid-19 care, ongoing and steady progress in the vaccination programme such that the most vulnerable are protected through vaccination, and emerging information on variants of concern.
International travel is critical for tourism, with overseas visitors accounting for 75% of the revenue generated by the sector prior to the pandemic. At this point, the Government’s overarching and primary policy objective on inbound international travel is to minimise the introduction of new cases of Covid-19 to the State from other locations. A senior officials group continues to review the situation fortnightly. This group, having regard to the developing epidemiological in the State and internationally, the evolution of tests and technologies, and progress been made in the vaccination programme, will make every effort to reopen international travel at the earliest possible opportunity.
Unfortunately, inbound international tourism is not possible at present given how the pandemic has evolved. It is too early to say when it might resume, but I look forward to seeing people back visiting our country when it is safe to do so.
At a meeting of EU tourism ministers on 1 March I urged the European Commission to consider initiatives to facilitate the resumption of safe international travel. In that regard the proposal for a regulation on digital green certificates announced by the EU last week is a welcome development. It is vital, however, not to raise hopes about a quick return to international tourism. Most EU member states are still working hard on their domestic messaging to encourage citizens to stay the course with restrictive measures, many of which remain necessary pending the roll-out of the vaccination programmes.
The priority in Ireland is on regaining and maintaining control over the disease and preventing a further wave of infection later in the year until vaccination can offer a widespread population level of protection. The EU’s proposal of a common framework for the issuance verification and acceptance of certificates relating to vaccination, testing and recovery requires careful consideration. The proposal is expected to be discussed at the European Council meeting of leaders later this week and will be examined in detail by relevant Government Departments. It is too early, therefore, to comment in detail on that proposed framework.
I wish to assure the Seanad that I am fully aware of the great challenges faced in tourism and that I will continue to work with my colleagues in Government to ensure the sector is given every possible support to enable it to emerge intact from the pandemic and to build back in a more resilient, digitalised, greener and sustainable way. We will do that as we have done since I became Minister, which is in constant consultation with the stakeholders.