Wednesday, 15 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, to the Chamber. I want to discuss an issue that I have raised in the House before, that is, the level of bed nights contracted by the Government to house refugees. I will preface my comments by saying, as I did on 18 May when we had statements in the House, that this is not in any way to suggest we are not supportive of helping people or that we want to limit our capacity to assist those fleeing war. However, there has been a direct impact on tourism in many counties, including my own county and that of the Minister of State, County Mayo. The number of bed nights contracted means that fewer beds and less tourist accommodation are available for tourists coming into the region. This is having a knock-on impact on many of the smaller businesses that rely on those tourists coming in - the pubs, coffee shops and restaurants and all of the ancillary or downstream businesses that rely on the hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and guesthouses being full of tourists.
We have seen that impact this year, as I know from talking to businesses in County Mayo. I am talking in particular about Westport, where businesses say that this season was quieter, there was less footfall and they are not seeing the same numbers coming in the door or the same amount of walk-in business. While I will not name the business, I was in a small restaurant in Westport during the summer which was about to close early because it was not getting the footfall. The owner told me that they had been turning away 30 to 40 people per night the previous summer, such is the difference between this year and last year.
We all accept what had to be done for this year, with the huge numbers coming into our country, and I think we have done an incredible job as a state, a country and a people in housing those who are fleeing war and those in need. I think there is an acceptance in the tourism and hospitality sector that what needed to be done was done, and there was support for that. What is being asked for now, and Fáilte Ireland is also asking for this, is that a plan be put in place for 2024. What are we going to do for the tourism season next year, accepting that this year is almost done and dusted?
We know that over 76,000 beds are currently under contract with the State. Almost 30,000 of those beds are in registered Fáilte Ireland premises but that only caters for hotels and guesthouses and does not cover all tourist accommodation. The remaining 46,000 are contracted in non-registered properties, which is the vast majority of what has been contracted, but these are properties that are tourism accommodation and, again, this impacts those downstream businesses, such as coffee shops, restaurants and pubs.
Nationally, 13% of all registered tourist accommodation, not including the non-registered accommodation, is currently under Government contract. Five counties, Mayo, Offaly, Leitrim, Meath and Clare, go beyond the 13% figure and exceed 20% of all of their bed nights being contracted by the Government. This means those counties are shouldering an unfair burden when it comes to their tourism sector. The Minister of State will be aware that we have spent decades building up our tourism offering and tourism product. So many people are employed directly and indirectly in the sector. It accounts for a huge part of the local economy and household income in County Mayo and the region. I think it is reasonable and fair to ask what is the plan for 2024.
Many people are afraid to raise the issue for fear of being branded as somebody who does not care about or does not want to help those fleeing war, but that is not the case. Ordinary, decent people and businesses on the ground are raising this issue with us and it is incumbent on us, as middle ground, centrist politicians, to raise the issue nationally and bring it to the attention of the Minister.
I have a couple of questions which the Minister of State might be able to assist with. On 18 May last, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, was in the Chamber to discuss this topic. I am disappointed that she did not have time this morning to come to address this Commencement matter because it was flagged with her Department as early as last week. She said that work was ongoing with Fáilte Ireland to address the issue, that pricing in hotels was being looked at and - this is key - that senior officials in her Department meet with the senior officials group on Ukraine on a weekly basis. I would like to know what is coming out of those weekly meetings in terms of a plan for 2024. She also said that mitigation measures must be put in place. I would like to know if they are in place, if it has been identified what they will be or when they will be in place for next year's season.
I thank Senator Chambers for raising this issue and it is important that it is raised and discussed. I am taking it on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, who has addressed the matter previously. She recognises the importance of the tourism sector to the Irish economy and to communities in every corner of Ireland. She has a particular interest in the development of the tourism sector, given its environmental, economic and societal benefits. In this regard, a balanced regional supply of tourism accommodation is key.
As the Senator said, she raised this issue last May. Since then, Fáilte Ireland has been working on increasing the accommodation audits to which she referred and which are establishing a baseline for existing capacity and providing a gap analysis in each destination and region. As part of the roll-out of all destination experience development plans, one of which has been completed in the Westport area, Fáilte lreland has carried out an audit and is mapping out current accommodation stock. This includes a quality and gap analysis for additional accommodation development on a county-by-county basis. Fáilte Ireland is using these audits to inform local authorities to allow them to shape their specific tourism accommodation strategies.
The war in Ukraine, combined with the high number of international protection applicants, has resulted in the largest humanitarian effort in the State’s history. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is engaged across government concerning temporary accommodation for those in need of shelter and is responsible for all contracted accommodation used to house Ukrainian beneficiaries of temporary protection and other international protection applicants. As referred to by the Senator, Failte Ireland has carried out a detailed analysis of data provided by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth concerning the bed stock under contract to accommodate Ukrainian and international protection applicants, which established that 13% of the Failte Ireland registered tourism stock was under contract. As referenced by Senator Chambers, that analysis also identified that in five counties more than 20% of the registered stock is used for humanitarian purposes, including in Mayo and peaking at 33% in Clare.
On foot of the Senator’s intervention in May and the work that has been done, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media has, at the senior officials group on Ukraine, communicated the potential challenges arising for the tourism ecosystem, particularly in those parts of the country where high proportions of the tourist accommodation stock are directed to humanitarian purposes.As part of this year's budget, the Minister has secured an extra €10 million for 2024 for a comprehensive programme of supports that will be targeted at the downstream tourism businesses referred to by the Senator, which are experiencing a particular trading challenge linked to the reduction in footfall to activities and attractions in regions most impacted by tourism bed stock displacement.
This programme of supports includes investment in sustainable tourism development and promotion, industry digitalisation, promotion of domestic tourism and festivals and recruitment and retention initiatives. The Minister has also asked Fáilte Ireland to engage with impacted businesses to consider the scope for a specific business support scheme that could affect the most affected tourism activities and attractions. I am led to believe that a report in this regard is due to be submitted imminently to the Department.
Fáilte Ireland is also in the process of conducting an analysis of current data provided by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, concerning tourism accommodation under State contract. This data, in addition to a strong evidence base from impacted downstream businesses, will be critically important to gain a full understanding of how tourism accommodation stock displacement has negatively impacted the tourism sector.
If the Minister starts talking about accommodation audits and providing gap analysis, the eyes of most people in the industry will just glaze over because that is not really a tangible response. Looking at additional accommodation development, we have accommodation, it is just being used for different purposes. The Minister should look at getting some of that accommodation back into use for tourism for next year. That is the easiest way to do it
Six months ago, the Minister was in this Chamber. On that day, she said: "I have asked Fáilte Ireland to do an analysis. It is really key and only prudent to be ready and not to ask 'what we do'?" This was six months ago when the data was gathered. She said that everything had to be evidence-based and data had to be gathered, but: "we need to have those mitigation measures in place and ready to go". Six months on, nothing in her response suggests to me that any mitigation measures are in place or even ready to go. That is really disappointing and worrying for the tourism sector, particularly in the western region, where most of the accommodation is being provided.
Regarding the impact on the sector, the Minister will be very aware of it because Fáilte Ireland has provided this information to her on a rolling basis, almost month-by-month. The most recent figures show that the impact on downstream tourism businesses is between €700 million and €1 billion annually. The lower figure being the most conservative if only looking at registered accommodation. If just half of the unregistered accommodation is factored in, it goes up to €1 billion of an economic impact on downstream tourism businesses. The Minister wants more information. I think that is enough information to prompt any Minister to act with urgency and put in place the mitigation plans she said she would six months ago.
As the Senator knows, the Government has agreed to move from an emergency response to a more mainstream approach that will include a reduced reliance on serviced accommodation. In respect of many areas, the analysis has been completed. The Minister has secured a substantial extra budget allocation to support those downstream businesses.
She is identifying the work for a specific business support scheme , which will go in place to assist those businesses. I agree with much of the Senator's analysis. We need to get those rooms back into tourism use and I will reflect her views to the Minister.