Friday’s announcement by An Taoiseach of the latest reopening plan for the economy was a much needed – excuse the topical pun - shot in the arm for the tourism industry, the Ireland’s largest indigenous sector and biggest regional employer.
It contained a number of positive, if far overdue, initiatives including a crucial roadmap for how international aviation can recommence and a timeline as to when indoor hospitality can resume.
With the domestic tourism sector allowed to trade from June 2 when hotels and the accommodation sector reopen we can now anticipate international arrivals – albeit in modest numbers – later in the summer. All going well, and with a full vaccine rollout and the avoidance of pesky variants, Ireland’s tourism and hospitality industry can plan for a full trading year in 2022 and the start of real recovery.
Let’s be under no illusions, though, that what’s left of this year will be a long and challenging. Closed for the first half of the year, and only trading with limited capacity and stunted demand for the latter 6 months, the 20,000 businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector will need ongoing financial support from Government to get through this existential crisis.
As welcome as Micheál Martin’s announcement was it left many questions unanswered. How long will the dreaded Mandatory Hotel Quarantine – akin to a closed sign above Ireland – be kept in place for certain markets? Is there a successor to the flop that was the poorly designed Stay and Spend Scheme? How long will the time-limit and restrictions on indoor hospitality be in place? These and other questions remain front of mind for nervous business owners today.
In the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation’s view May was always set to be a crucial month for the sector. A Government decision on the recommencement of international aviation was critical and it has finally come, not as quickly or as comprehensively as many would have liked, but at least a commitment has been made. And why was this so important to Ireland’s tourism sector? Well, 75 per cent of Irish tourism is dependent on international visitation and so it is vital to tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses that inbound markets are opened up once again.
In pre-Covid times Ireland was a globally connected, dynamic, open economy where trade and tourism flourished yet the recent attitude to international travel, including the harshest restrictions across Europe and mandatory hotel quarantine for our key markets, was making us a vulnerable island on the western edge of Europe. That now thankfully changes with the relaxation of international travel restrictions and we can send a much more positive message abroad again.
The Government must go further, though. As well as intra-EU tourism, the Common Travel Area, which has been in existence since the 1920s, should operate in full allowing free and unfettered movement between Ireland and the UK, the latter well ahead of our own vaccination rates.
And talking about vaccination rates, the US market – key for Irish tourism – will have its adult population inoculated by the end of next month. The EU has already signalled that fully vaccinated people can enter the continent and a travel corridor between Ireland and the USA should be very achievable.
The Taoiseach also confirmed that a new National Economic Plan is set to be published next week that will act as a framework for the country’s medium term economic future. Tourism and aviation interests need to be at the heart of this plan.
What is evident is that even with international tourism to recommence in July the recovery will be slow and it is incumbent on Government to maintain existing supports for Ireland’s tourism and hospitality industry into Q1 2022.
In light of slow recovery from international markets there is an onus on Catherine Martin, the Minister for Tourism, to maximise the domestic tourism season as much as possible. A new redesigned consumer-friendly staycation scheme for the autumn period should be put in place to incentivise home holidays and lengthen the short tourism season beyond the summer months.
Also if ever there was a year for the creation of a new end of September bank holiday surely it is now. This would both stretch the domestic tourism season and also reward a hard-pressed public. Ireland with nine such holidays compares unfavourably to the rest of Europe so it would not be unreasonable for the Government to add a new day to the calendar.
It might give a poll bounce too.
Eoghan O’Mara Walsh is the chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation