Monday, 22 March 2021
Covid-19 (Tourism): Statements
In welcoming the Minister - cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire - I would like to endorse everything my colleague, Senator Dolan, set out so eloquently about the beauty of the area in which we live, namely, that of Roscommon-east Galway. I frequently walk and run around the back roads of my own place, sometimes bringing the dog, but I am always struck by the natural beauty of our place. I say that as somebody who has walked a lot on the Continent, particularly on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. What one sees there is a beautifully developed infrastructure rooted in history. So much of the beauty that I have seen when abroad I see in my own place as well, but I also see a huge need for investment in order to develop it to the point where we can then show it to people all over the world and invite them to come among us. The beauty is in the simple things - the old houses, the placename that has a special history that tells of something and the quiet relaxation that is to be had. There are so many amenities on our area, as in other parts of the country, but it is so important that the investment is put in place to support the enthusiasm and the willingness that is there among the people to develop the tourism potential of the areas in which they live.
Over the weekend, I spoke to a restaurant owner and asked him what the State could do to assist when the hospitality and tourism sectors eventually begin to open. His answer was simple and emphatic. He said, "Anything that gives some level of certainty so that we can plan properly." That sums it up. Businesses, as well as the public at large, have had to grin and bear it through a lot of chaotic, ad hocpolicymaking over the past year. Indeed, the latter is continuing in the context of to the duration of the lockdown. What people need and, indeed, crave is certainty and an ability to plan ahead. It is not easy to give that certainty but we must attend to that particular problem because it is acute.
The intention in the context of reopening is surely that some level of reopening of the tourism and hospitality sectors would take place in the coming months and that some kind of a summer season would be enjoyed by the sector. The view among those trading in the sector seems to be that demand for services will be strong since there will be a pent-up eagerness among people to return to normality as much as possible but we need to learn the lessons of last summer's reopening. For instance, we saw a very serious geographical and regional disparity in how tourism and hospitality reopened in 2020 and we need to avoid a repeat of that. Traditional tourist spots, such as Westport and Killarney, fared quite well whereas other parts of the country, including provincial towns which would not be such a draw traditionally for tourists, did not do so well. We saw it here in Dublin too, where the areas between the two canals were almost a ghost town for the entire summer while the suburbs enjoyed a greater boost. That was probably to do with the large number of tourists from abroad who would normally be in Dublin city centre but who were not there. Should we be looking at targeted supports to address this regional disparity to help areas which did not experience any great uptake last summer because they can ill-afford a second poor summer in a row? I commend the work done last year by Fáilte Ireland and the work done by individual hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and restaurants to make their premises and services safe. However, there are some questions hanging in the air now regarding, for example, restaurants. Where will they stand with regard to social distancing? This caused a great deal of heartache last year as the many social distancing rules meant it was pointless for them to open because they could not accommodate a critical mass of people on their premises.
With regard to direct State supports for businesses in the sector, I was surprised to read recently about the European Commission reporting that Ireland is last among the 27 EU member states when it comes to providing state aids to businesses affected by the pandemic. We have paid €930 million to support businesses directly but that is 0.26% of GDP. However, we have borrowed €20 billion so far to deal with the pandemic. To be sure, a relatively small percentage has been spent to support businesses. It appears to be very low, and I wonder whether a greater proportion of the additional public spending should be going to businesses to preserve jobs.
The wage subsidy scheme has worked and has been broadly welcomed. It should continue until normal conditions resume. However, at present, turnover has to be below 70% of 2019 levels for businesses to qualify. Last summer, this meant that many restaurants operated only limited hours to ensure that they stayed below the threshold to avail of the breathing space under the scheme. Who could possibly blame them, given what so many have suffered through the level 5 lockdowns? We must be careful that State supports do not act as a disincentive to businesses reopening fully. Perhaps the Government should consider adjusting the 70% threshold to encourage more businesses to reopen more fully once it is possible.
We have to strike a balance between the PUP and reopening business. Last year, many small business owners found that employees were reluctant to come off the PUP to return to their jobs at what were reduced hours and reduced wages. To be honest, none of us would blame anyone for making that calculation in the interest of the person's financial well-being and that of his or her family. We must ensure that the Covid crisis does not lead to welfare traps.
There are other ways in which we can help the tourism and hospitality sectors. City and county councils must play a part. Senator Dooley and other Members mentioned the importance of rates and waivers for small businesses. Measures such as free on-street parking for the summer months could help to bring people back to town centres. Of course, councils would have to be refunded for income lost and that should come out of the money that is being borrowed.
I will conclude by referring to international travel. Nobody seriously expects it to return any time soon, but there is a question about how it will reopen. Last year, the Government adopted the so-called green list system, only to regret it within hours because of the mixed messages it sent about non-essential travel. We need a consistent approach and clear decisions, which will allow people to plan.