So, we have a New Government and at least two Ministers for Tourism. Therefore we can look forward to new, innovative and progressive policies on tourism, designed to restore growth to a sector which has been in decline for several years now. Or can we ?
The Programme for Government agreed between Fine Gael and The Labour Party is light in its attention to an industry which has the potential to be a major driver of economic recovery. It gets just seven paragraphs, covering just one third of a page in the 64 page document. These contain the usual measure of clichés and platitudes, although they also set out the principal pillars of Government tourism policy over the life of this Dail. Top of the list is a promise to abolish the €3 travel tax ‘subject to a deal being agreed with Ryanair and Aer Lingus to re-open closed routes and bring more tourists into Ireland. If no deal can be done, there will be no reduction in the tax’, the programme states.
Negotiating a watertight deal with Michael O’Leary should indeed be fun and we can only wish ‘Best of Luck’ to Minister Varadkar. The next promise is to ‘prioritise the Tourism Marketing Fund as an essential pillar of our tourism strategy’ and to ‘ensure the best return on Exchequer’ which is like the Government saying it favours motherhood and apple pie.
Of greater consequence is the intention to ‘explore the possibility of a new agreement on visitor visas with the UK, offering tourists the opportunity to visit the UK and Ireland with one visa’ This would help alleviate current difficulties with holiday visas for visitors from emerging markets like Russia, India, the Middle East and China. ‘Exploring the possibility’ sounds vague however and the industry would probably have preferred a commitment to ease the visa regime unilaterally, particularly as the very next item on the Government shopping list is to develop these self-same ‘emerging markets’ The PFG also wants to ‘improve the e-capability of our tourism product’- surprise, surprise. It must have had a look at the tremendous work being done by Failte
Ireland and Tourism Ireland in this field for the past four or five years. So too with an undertaking to devote resources to ‘developing and co-ordinating niche tourism products’ which has been in every tourism planning document since the Vikings took their holidays here. Ditto, with a promise to ‘prioritise’ event tourism such as the Volvo race and golf tournaments. These have been prioritised for more than a decade by previous Governments and the tourism agencies.
And that, dear friends, is it- the entire programme on tourism as articulated in the Programme for Government. There are no prizes for guessing that it falls well short of what the two Government parties promised in their Election Manifestos. Fine Gael had by far the more detailed section on tourism, much of which was based on its Tourism strategy published well in advance of the election. It promised the same deal on Air Travel tax as that in the PFG, but it also undertook to work with the Aviation Regulator to reduce airport charges and to allow Dublin, Cork and Shannon Airports to operate independently. It also promised to freeze rates ‘and reduce them where possible’ ‘We will expedite the National Revaluation Programme by the Commissioner of Valuation to review rates for businesses, including hotels.’ This promise earned three cheers from many hoteliers, who continue to live in hope.
Fine Gael also promised to ‘streamline the bodies dealing with tourism marketing, promotionand product development to create a single voice for tourism’. This was seen as a thinly veiled intention to merge Failte Ireland with Tourism Ireland or at least to have them operate from a single headquarters. Difficulties involving the all-island mandate and funding of Tourism Ireland may be behind the absence of this intention from the PFG. The Fine Gael manifesto also promised a ‘London Olympics Strategy’, the development of clusters of visitor attractions, a bid to achieve more UNESCO World Heritage Site designations and to ‘explore the feasibility of releasing the 1926 Census’, none of which made it through to the PGF. Of course virtually all of these initiatives could (and probably will be) implemented by state agencies within the terms of their present remit. In most cases they merely re-state existing policies and work which has been on-going.
Labour placed less emphasis on tourism in its manifesto and many of its promises were identical to those made by Fine Gael including investment in niche marketing and e marketing. The party also promised to extend free travel for visitors over 66 years of age to all CIE services and to encourage ferry-based travel from the UK and France. It promised to conduct a survey of road signage which is a constant source of complaint by visitors and backed the ITIC proposal to establish a Tourism Recovery Task Force. None of these proposals get a mention in the PFG. The most interesting Labour promise however was to ask NAMA to review its hotels strategy and to allow hotels to exit from the Capital Tax Relief Scheme without a claw-back provided that the hotels would be used as ‘community facilities’. The vagueness of this terminology suggests that the idea was not fully thought through and as a result was not included in the PFG.
The absence of some manifesto undertakings from the Programme for Government does not necessarily mean that they will not be implemented. It is always open to the Minister to introduce his own projects outside of the PFG and Ministers Varadkar or Ring may well take such initiatives. The tourism agencies of course also enjoy wide flexibility in how they market Ireland as a destination and develop the industry. Failte Ireland is already well advanced in developing e-marketing expertise in a very wide range of tourism enterprises through a variety of programmes including Webcheck and a portfolio of Toolkits. It is working towards raising management expertise through programmes like Optimus and the Management Development Programme and has made considerable progress in enhancing tourism infrastructure, particularly in the areas of looped walks and cycle tracks. Tourism Ireland, on its part, has embarked on some cutting-edge emarketing embracing an array of websites as well as social network campaigns.
Perhaps the most glaring omission from the PFG or indeed the manifestos was a commitment to a co-ordinated approach tothe promotion of business tourism. After many years of waiting, Conference Centre Dublin has brought a world-class conference facility to Ireland and venues like the INEC in Killarney and Citywest have also contributed to this infrastructure.
Failte Ireland is well aware of the potential of business tourism. Its programme of recruiting ‘conference ambassadors’ has already netted business valued at €36m. this year and it claims that the 181 ‘ambassadors’ on its books could deliver a further €200m. over the next few years. This is an opportunity to which several Government Departments, including Enterprise, Transport and Foreign Affairs could make a valuable contribution if a coordinated Government approach was developed. Inclusion in any revision of the PFG would be a step towards achieving this goal.
The future direction of Government tourism policy will heavily depend on the commitment, expertise and enthusiasm of Ministers Varadkar and Ring. In the early weeks of the new Coalition, Leo Varadkar seems to be more concerned with his transport portfolio. His visit to India had only a minor tourism element and his first major address to the industry (at Meitheal) was little more than a bland Departmental script. Apart from one statement urging Irish people to holiday at home this year, little has been heard or seen of Michael Ring since his appointment as Minister of State for Tourism. Indeed the Minister most active to-date in tourism promotion has been Jim Deenihan whose portfolio is Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs.
There is every reason to believe that the Government will deliver on the tourism aspects of the Programme for Government, but what the industry will look to, are those election manifesto promises which have already slipped under the radar.