Monday, 22 March 2021
Covid-19 (Tourism): Statements
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Martin, to the House and wish her well in the portfolio of which she is in charge, tourism.As an ambassador for tourism, she brings a new, modern approach to how we need to incrementally rebuild the tourism sector in this country. As the Minister knows, I come from County Clare, which is heavily dependent on tourism and, as such, has been heavily impacted by the lack of tourists.
Tourism is a people industry and people work in the tourism industry. It is labour-intensive, when one looks at hospitality, catering, and so on, and leads to significant employment, particularly seasonal employment. In respect of seasonal employment, while there was a temporary and a most welcome reprieve last summer, the worry this year is whether we are going to see any kind of a temporary reprieve. One has to hope that we will, but of course it must be guided by numbers and the Covid numbers reducing. It heartens me to listen, talk and engage with people in the tourism sector who are the first to say we should not open up until it is safe to do so and until we can open permanently. They, as much as any of us, want to see Covid-19 suppressed and that when we do open, we open permanently.
The appreciation for the various schemes that are available is also heartening. Although they will never be enough, they are significant and it is appreciated that they are there. I am not just referring to the grant scheme, but schemes such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, the rates rebate and other schemes. All of those schemes help. However, the opportunity that presents itself now, in respect of rebuilding, must be seized in a different way. We must look at building a tourism industry that operates for 12 months of the year, or as near to it as possible.
In our country we are blessed with beautiful scenery and fantastic walks. There has been significant Government investment over the years, and committed Government spending over the next few years will see a proliferation of walking routes, various outdoor public transport trails and routes and so on. To that end, I welcome the announcement of the commitment to funding for the west Clare railway greenway. Of course, I want to see that project escalated.
Coming from County Clare, it will be no surprise to the Minister that I will mention Shannon Airport. I know she is fully aware of the challenges facing the airport and how critical it will be, when we move out of the pandemic to a post-Covid period, that every possible incentive is provided to ensure as many passengers as possible pass through it. Shannon Airport is the anchor tenant, if one likes, in respect of economic and tourism development in County Clare.
I want to see an initiative similar to The Gathering in 2013, which saw hundreds of thousands of people come back to Ireland. In my view, it was the first step in rebooting the tourism sector in our country after the last recession. A similar initiative should be introduced and I know that plans are afoot to look at that. We can do it bigger and better than we did the last time. The Gathering led to a joined-up approach to marketing the Wild Atlantic Way initiative. In my view, the Wild Atlantic Way will be the most successful walking and cycling trail in the world because it is unique in the range of experiences that people can enjoy when they go on it. When one talks to people who have not been to Ireland before and those who have travelled on the Wild Atlantic way, it is stunning to hear about their experiences.
It will come as no surprise to the Minister that being from County Clare, I will speak about Shannon Heritage and its importance to the tourism offering in the county over the years. However, I believe that Shannon Heritage should have a new home and should be part of the Office of Public Works, OPW, offering.I do not believe an airport company or property company, while their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing, necessarily have the skill set to bring Shannon Heritage to the new level I believe it can potentially go to. That is why I think the expertise of the OPW, were Shannon Heritage and the OPW to be married together, would provide Ireland with a phenomenal tourism product.
Speaking of tourism products, the Minister will be aware that, in 2019, the Cliffs of Moher visitor experience in County Clare had a throughput traffic of 1.6 million people. I welcome the fact Clare County Council hired consultants to look at a 2040 plan for the Cliffs of Moher. However, I worry about the potential to put a town or miniature city into the Cliffs of Moher, which will suck up whatever potential benefit there is to the surrounding communities. Whatever happens at the Cliffs of Moher has to complement the other towns and villages in north Clare, not compete with them. For too long, the Cliffs of Moher experience has not lived up to the hope and expectation in terms of driving economic development and visitor numbers in the surrounding towns and villages. That needs to change. We need further engagement in this Chamber about the future of the second busiest and most successful tourist attraction in the country, the Cliffs of Moher, at another date.