Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Tourist Accommodation

10:30 am

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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This morning, I want to raise again the issue of the use of hotel accommodation in response to the humanitarian issue of refugees fleeing Ukraine and other conflict zones and the impact that is having on the tourism sector, in rural areas where a lot of tourist accommodation is currently being contracted to the State.

I raised this issue with the Minister, Deputy Martin, probably almost a year ago and have been consistently raising the matter. The Minister is well briefed on the issue and Fáilte Ireland keeps her briefed on the issue in terms of the impact on the sector. Recently, Mr. Paul Kelly, the chief executive of Fáilte Ireland, raised concern over the continued use of hotel accommodation to house refugees.

While acknowledging there is a humanitarian response needed, that it is a deeply challenging situation for the State, and people need to be housed and have a roof over their head, for somebody from a rural area in County Mayo in the west, tourism is a major employer. Sometimes this is not appreciated. It puts food on the table, it pays the bills and it is a significant part of the local economy in rural areas. Having tourist accommodation available is hugely important, not only for the accommodation providers but for all of those knock-on industries - the pub, the coffee shop, the restaurant, recreational facilities, places where people go to do activities, etc. There is a whole industry built up around tourists coming to the region.

Our tourism is seasonal. It is not 12 months of the year, but from the St. Patrick's weekend right up until the October bank holiday weekend. That is when we get most of our tourists coming in. As I said, many smaller industries and businesses rely on that tourism and those people coming into the area.

We also rely on repeat business, and that is a really important element of this. We rely on new people coming to visit but, because they have such a good time in the likes of Mayo, in particular, in Westport, Achill and north Mayo, they come back year after year. If they do not get to come this year or next year, we are losing out on that potential repeat business as well.

According to Fáilte Ireland, 12% of registered tourist accommodation has been withdrawn for humanitarian purposes. That is the registered accommodation with Fáilte Ireland. There is much unregistered tourist accommodation that does not come under the remit of Fáilte Ireland. That figure will probably be higher in terms of what has been taken out of the available stock.

Fáilte Ireland estimates that between €750 million and €1.1 billion has been lost to the Irish economy because of the loss experienced by the tourism sector. It should be borne in mind that this is a sector that is still recovering from losses because of the Covid pandemic. While they are experiencing a surge in demand, things are going well and there is huge demand for accommodation, with people coming to visit from the UK, the US and across mainland Europe, nonetheless those businesses are still recovering from the recent Covid pandemic as well.

Acknowledging that this is a difficult situation and people have to go somewhere, what Fáilte Ireland is pushing for and what I am pushing for are alternative solutions, that the State put in place a properly funded specific provision for refugee accommodation and that we stop contracting with hotels. That needs to be the long-term plan: that we stop contracting with hotels and tourism business and that we get those beds back into the tourism sector because we need them back. The Minister committed to doing this a year ago. I have yet to see a detailed plan from the Department of tourism as to how the Minister, Deputy Martin, plans to achieve that. There has been a little bit of football going on back and forth. That is not the Minister's problem. That is the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman's problem. That is somebody else's problem.

That is why my Commencement matter was specifically relating to the tourism industry, the loss to that industry and the plans from that Department to get that accommodation back and to make sure that we have enough capacity to meet the demand that is there. I would like to see a plan from this Minister. There is an acceptance that we lost last year. We are heading into 2024 now. What is the plan for 2024? I asked this nearly a year ago. I still have not got that plan. What are we doing for the medium to long term to get that bed capacity back into the tourism sector?

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Chambers for raising what is an important issue and I offer this response on behalf of the Minister for tourism, Deputy Martin, who is unable to be here today.

I will, first, attest to the many fine qualities of Mayo as a tourism destination, having holidayed there myself with my family on a number of occasions and always found it a brilliant place to holiday in.

The importance of the tourism sector, not only to Mayo but to the Irish economy and to communities in every corner of Ireland, is well understood by Government. The responsibility of the Minister for tourism is for the development of overall tourism policy and the sustainable development of the tourism sector. A key part of this is ensuring there is a balanced regional supply and an overall development of a broad mix of accommodation on offer.

The tourism sector continues to play a significant role in supporting the State's humanitarian effort in response to the unjust Russian war against Ukraine. Fáilte Ireland's analysis of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth data shows that, in November 2023, as the Senator outlined, 12% of all registered tourist accommodation stock was under contract to the State, down from 13% in June 2023. An additional quantum of tourism-type accommodation that is not registered with Fáilte Ireland is also contracted to the State. On foot of this information, the Department of tourism has, at the senior officials group on Ukraine, which is led by the Department of the Taoiseach, communicated the potential challenges arising for the tourism ecosystem, especially in those parts of the country where high proportions of the tourist accommodation stock are directed to humanitarian purposes.

The Minister, Deputy Martin, is making up to €10 million available for a programme of supports targeted at tourism businesses experiencing particular challenges linked to the reduction in footfall 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 recently approved Fáilte Ireland's proposal for a specific business support scheme for tourism activity and attraction businesses that have experienced particular trading challenges related to tourism bed-stock displacement. Fáilte Ireland is now working on the operational details of this scheme which it will explain to the sector at a webinar on 4 March.

As of January 2024, Mayo county has seen a substantial investment in tourism development and enhancement, with a range of projects and funding initiatives spanning various aspects of the industry. These initiatives include the development of state-of-the-art facilities for water-based activities at Keel Beach and Carrowmore, alongside an immersive heritage and cultural attraction at Westport Estate. Funding from Fáilte Ireland has also supported enhancements in destination towns such as Belmullet, outdoor dining schemes in Claremorris and Castlebar, as well as substantial investments in outdoor recreation infrastructure across the county. Moreover, Mayo's tourism businesses are benefiting from the Digital that Delivers programme, which aims to facilitate digital transformation within the industry, showcasing a comprehensive approach to bolstering Mayo's tourism appeal and infrastructure.

Furthermore, the Department of tourism hopes to publish in the next couple of months a new national tourism policy framework that will mainstream sustainability - environmental, economic and societal - across the entire tourism sector. The framework will shape how our tourism industry develops in the period to 2030. In this regard, while we want to see the sector grow, we want it to do so in a manner that is consistent with our broader sustainability targets and ensure Ireland will be a brand leader in sustainable tourism. Issues around accommodation stock will be considered as part of that new policy framework and subsequent action plan because you cannot have the environmental sustainability if the providers do not have the economic sustainability, which is the very point the Senator is raising.

When we look at the wider economy and the particular set of challenges facing the tourism industry, it is clear that a collective and concerted multi-stakeholder approach to tackling these challenges is required, and that is the approach the Department of tourism and the Government will continue to pursue.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate him delivering the response on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Martin, who seems quite reluctant at times to come into this Chamber despite numerous requests to do so.

I will pick up on a couple of points. I take the Minister of State's point about sustainability, but that is not really what I am talking about today. We are on a completely different topic but it is always nice to point out the positives happening in the Department as well and we, of course, support that work.

I am glad to hear that in the Minister's reply, she acknowledged the need for balanced regional supply. That is the crux of my problem here.When we look at the areas that are most affected in terms of the levels of accommodation being taken out of the system, it is the part of the country where I live in the west of Ireland. It has more than shouldered its fair share. We want to respond to this issue. Last week, we stood in this Chamber and marked the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine and the illegal war perpetrated on those people and we, of course, continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. That is not in question but there needs to be fairness in our approach to how we deal with that response collectively as a country. We have spent decades building up our tourism sector and our offering in the west of Ireland. In the past couple of years, because of Government policy, it has been severely damaged and we are taking steps backwards. This is not acceptable. It is not fair and it is not just. Businesses are asking for a proper response from the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media as to how she is going to advocate for businesses in the west of Ireland and support the tourism sector.

What Fáilte Ireland has asked for are alternatives for accommodation as quickly as possible. It has been asking for this for the past two years but we will only see the details of some sort of plan next month. Regarding suggesting that a €10 million business support scheme is an appropriate response, it is derisory and miserable. It will do a little bit for some of the recreational businesses but it will not help the coffee shops, restaurants and pubs because they are not included, and this point has been made to the Minister going back months.

Regarding the lovely list of projects detailed by the Minister of State that have been delivered in County Mayo, I very much welcome those projects in Keel, Belmullet and Castlebar. They were not delivered by the Minister. They were delivered by the Government across multiple Departments and they are, of course, very welcome but we want tourists to come and visit and have somewhere to stay when they come to enjoy those recreational facilities. That is the point I am making. The Minister of State's response is wholly unacceptable. It does not meet the requirements of the industry, does not respond to any of the questions I have raised and leaves me with very little reassurance that there will be any real solution to the shortage of tourist accommodation in the west of Ireland for 2024. I would even question where we are going with regard to 2025.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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The importance of the tourism sector to the Irish economy and communities across Ireland is understood well by Government. The role of the Minister, her Department and Fáilte Ireland is to support the tourism industry and work for the sustainable development of Ireland as a high-quality and competitive tourism destination. Fáilte Ireland provides a range of practical business supports to help tourism businesses better manage and market their products and services.

The Minister and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment co-chair a hospitality and tourism forum that on a regular basis brings these important inter-related sectors together. The forum provides a platform for structured engagement between the tourism and hospitality sectors and relevant Government Departments where key issues can be discussed with a view to identifying practical solutions, which were raised by the Senator today. The forum met most recently on 24 January 2024. The impact of tourism accommodation displacement on the two sectors was among the items discussed.

While the increased cost of business scheme is not administered by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, it is still an overall Government support and both it and the announcement by the Minister for Finance of a reduction in the interest rate applying to warehoused tax debt to 0% are both of direct relevance and benefit to a wide range of businesses across the hospitality sector. I take on board the Senator's point about the limitations of that €10 million fund. It is better than not having it but that alone will not be a panacea for everything. I undertake to bring back the concerns expressed by the Senator relating to the tourism industry in Mayo to the Minister. We want to see that supported and developed into the future.

Sitting suspended at 11.34 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.