• Cyril McAree

Time For Real Action

Tourism in Ireland today is in what you one might describe as a severe state of flux. As the hotels and restaurants open up in a strange ‘new normal’ with an almost exclusively Irish market, Ireland’s tourism industry finds itself on its knees. The response from representatives of the industry sectors so far appears to be very muted even though it’s the industry that has suffered the most from the Covid-19 Crisis.

Maybe there’s little noise coming from the sector because of the shock of seeing the country’s largest indigenous industry being beaten down once again by the powers that be who seem to be more oblivious than ever to the importance of tourism. It’s no wonder that the tourism industry has adopted a hang-dog and contrite approach to Government with their hands out hoping for some charity.

The new rainbow coalition have unveiled yet another new ministry into which to throw tourism; this time creating what is surely the fluffiest ministerial bag in the history of the republic – a brief that contains no fewer than six portfolios (Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and The Gaeltacht). Lumping the huge and long-suffering industry into Deputy Catherine Martin’s new ministry is nothing short of an insult. On this evidence, the current administration regards tourism as an ill-defined non-entity that has no relevance the Exchequer.

Over at agriculture, meanwhile, convicted unqualified drink-driver Barry Cowen can at least console himself with finding a far more focused brief containing fisheries (these days, normally referred to as ‘the marine’ as we’ve lost most of our national focus on fishing by now) and food. Not only that, but his ministry presides over an empire that has emerged from the Covid Crisis relatively unscathed, with some sectors having done exceptionally well during a time when all that many people could do was eat and drink.

For the hundreds of thousands of people working in the tourism sector – most of them still relying on emergency hand-outs – it must have felt like a particularly cold and hard slap in the face to be treated in such a dismissive manner.

When will an Irish government ever take tourism seriously? Probably never, one would have to conclude, having seen its recent demotion amidst culturally important stuff. Even during a time of extreme crisis as the tourism industry now finds itself in, the Government treats it as nothing more than a makey-uppy kind of industry that’s not even worth being treated as such.

From a pragmatic point of view, one has to accept that there are very few single-portfolio ministries. But even if they insisted on putting it into a brief of other portfolios, then why not put it with something like Trade and Industry? Instead, it’s become a museum piece of sorts – a piece of odd curiosity on whose precise nature they can’t quite decide. Is it an industry or is it some kind of dream product created by fancy promotional video with a seductive siren soundtrack?

It is, of course, an industry. So why not, for example, put it into Leo Varadkar’s new Ministry of Enterprise, Trade and Employment? Given the Tánaiste’s experience as a previous Minister for Tourism, he would surely have been an ideal fit. Moreover, the other three portfolios in that ministry practically describe what tourism is. Or what about having Paschal Donohue apply some of his business acumen to the business of getting our tourism industry back on track.

Back in 2010, tourism was identified by the troika who took charge of our country’s finances as one of the potential saviours of the Irish economy; as a sector with great potential to get our finances in order and one whose growth was vital to the recovery of our economy. In 2010, when almost every other sector in the economy was on its knees, the Irish tourism industry generated €5.8 billion, of which €3.9 billion came for overseas visitors. By 2018, that total tourism take had increased to €9.4 billion. It’s very simple mathematics. Are our leaders suffering from amnesia? Myopia? Stupidity?

In Ireland, we still seem to be struggling with the concept of tourism as a business enterprise or as a collective of business enterprises that generate revenue. In the world’s most successful tourism destination (France), they have a clear vision of what this vital industry is and of its imporantce. Until they began referring to tourist offices by the more internationally understandable “Offices de Tourisme”, they were all called “Syndicats d’Initiative”; which loosely translates as “Initiative Unions”. Tourism in our nearest EU neighbour is a ground-up economic life-force which is a cornerstone of the French economy. It comes under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Recovery. There would have been a very swift reaction if the new Prime Minister had dared put the French tourism industry into some fluffy bag.

And maybe that’s the problem. The tourism industry simply isn’t vociferous enough or even militant enough. Even though its consistently the best boy in class, it gets slapped in the face and made to sit on the naughty step time and time again and the reaction is still seemingly just as muted. The agricultural sector still knows how to throw a giant wobbler when it needs to (as witnessed by the most recent tractor protest only last January). Why aren’t the workers of the tourism industry out in force, blocking traffic and causing chaos in order to have their voices heard?

Where is the aid for an industry that’s on its knees with tens of thousands of people still out of work – many of them for the foreseeable future? While the Government have wrung their hands and scratched their heads over proposals for home holiday vouchers and VAT reduction, they’ve been busy awarding stipends to the retail industry. Through the Covid-19 Online Retail Scheme, grants totalling €65 million (with an average grant of €35,500) have been given to 183 qualifying retail outlets across the country. While it could be argued that a small number of them were part of the tourism sector (such as The Sweater Shop in Kilkenny), this is an initiative aimed at industry and which excludes the largest indigenous industry.

Over at Agriculture, meanwhile, farmers (who, by any analysis weren’t hit nearly as hard as tourism workers were) can look forward to another Government assist scheme announced on June 12th last totalling €50 million because, well, the old Covid-19 Crisis must have been hard on them too.

The only talking that the Government seem intent on doing around the Tourism sector is to talk it down. They talk of a season chopped in half, lying bleeding on the ground and they’ve shaking their heads, pronounced it dead for the season and wishing it luck in bouncing back all on its own next year.

This is a pivotal time for the Irish tourism industry that could mark either the beginning or the end of the industry as we have come to know it. To paraphrase Eamon De Valera, it is an industry that has been “clubbed many times into insensibility” but which should, “on returning to consciousness, take up the fight anew.” While there’s a new Government in place, perhaps now is the time for people in tourism to get militant and to demand that those in power finally listen to the concerns of an industry that has already come to the rescue of the economy once in the last 15 years and which, if the shambolic treatment continues, will not be in a position to do so again.


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