Monday, 22 March 2021
Covid-19 (Tourism): Statements
I welcome the Minister. This is my first time to engage with her with regard to tourism. I will read a few extracts from my hotel's old diaries:
Ate a hearty dinner and departed fully satisfied with the treatment we received - W.H. Adams.
Stayed ten days at Glendalough, noted for the cleanliness and the kind attention it offers its visitors. On the night of Tuesday last, the 11th, a heavy snowfall occurred and Lugduff and the surrounding mountains next morning appeared like the Alpine landscape.
Arrived from town at 1.15. Had a first-class dinner for which we were charged a very moderate price. Can recommend all cyclists stopping in Glendalough to put their feet up here.
Those are Tripadvisor-style reports from 1887. Our hotel has experienced a great deal in its lifetime. It has seen the fight for independence and two world wars, as well as several economic crises. It suffered through the recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and the significant impact of the Troubles in the North on the tourism sector. However, in the 200-year history of the hotel it has never previously been told and forced to close its doors.
We have always come back and we will again, and, with the Minister's support, we will get there. My first thoughts today are with the 260,000 people who work in the industry and the impact this has had on them. While everyone has been impacted by Covid-19 through restrictions or for health and other reasons, these people have suffered more than the rest. There is the impact of the financial burden it has caused for them and the impact of trying to deal with their mortgages. I will give the House an example, and this is where a lot of the frustration before Christmas came from. In my industry we tried to encourage staff back to work for three weeks over Christmas. They took advantage of that in the hope they could buy their children something extra special for Christmas only for that to be shot down before they ever even got that chance to work. As an operator within the industry, I am aware of how such staff feel, but then I also have concern for my business and my industry, and every day and every week this is prolonged our viability is put into question. I appreciate every support that has been given to us - without it we would not be here today - but we are still operating at a loss every week we are closed, and that is accumulated loss. We are still going on.
As a small independent hotelier, it is harder to deal with the banking and the insurance industries. Many of my colleagues' insurance policies had a 12-month clause in them, some an 18-month clause and some a two-year clause. None of us know whether we will get compensated by the insurance industry, although we hope we will. This is all still hovering in the background. As I said, we really do appreciate all the supports the Minister has outlined to us today. The wage subsidy scheme, the CRSS, the commercial rates waiver, etc. are all to be appreciated.
The question is this: where will we go in the future? There has to be a safe and sustained opening of the industry. We can never again have the open-and-closed thing we have had up to now. The tourism sector is a business. We will now open our businesses. We do not know, however, what we are opening or when we are opening. We have lost 200,000 staff in the industry. We cannot turn on the tap again. We have to start that whole recruitment process. It has been said here - the Minister said it - that 75% of our tourism is foreign tourism. We will rely more and more on the domestic market over the coming years. The stay and spend incentive was a great idea and we should look at it. It was just unfortunately timed, and the only ones who seemed to benefit from it were McDonalds and a few other fast food outlets. We can use it in the future, however. We cannot have the same thing happen again whereby there is just July and August and then nothing after that. It is a matter of trying to sustain the business over a prolonged period. While the stay and spend initiative did not work, it was not the scheme's fault; it was just what happened. It should be looked at again and targeted at the off-season once again.
In the immediate term a clear pathway is how we will bring back international tourists. It is so vital for us to sustain our industry. What can we add to the green card, the passport and testing to make people comfortable and make them feel safe enough that they feel able to go out again, travel once again and come back to us?
From a strategic and a review point of view, the Minister herself knows the economic figures off by heart. I will not go through all of them again. However, let us look at tourism and hospitality from a social point of view. I mentioned we have been in existence for more than 200 years. Two hundred years ago hospitality was for the elite. That has completely changed now. The whole hospitality sector is open to every cohort of people. It is part of our health and well-being now and part of our social life. We need to do as much as we can to get that back open again.
The one thing that did annoy me over the whole period was that the only access to alcohol was in the off-licence. There is an inequality surrounding alcohol and how it is treated both on- and off-licence. We will need to look at this when we look at the whole tourism sector in a strategic review.