Eoghan O'Mara Walsh: 'Tourism industry must be louder about how vital it is'
It is an often under-appreciated fact that Ireland's largest indigenous sector - employing 270,000 people throughout the country - is the tourism and hospitality industry.
In terms of jobs, it is far bigger than agriculture, retail, manufacturing or even the financial services sector.
And yet it rarely makes the business or economic headlines.
Software company Salesforce deservedly made a big splash last week with its announcement of 1,500 jobs in Dublin over the next five years.
That's approximately 300 jobs a year, which is to be applauded.
Compare and contrast to Center Parcs in Longford, which will open its forest lodge park this summer with 1,000 permanent jobs from the off.
It could be argued that this employment in Ireland's midlands is more valuable to the country in terms of economic and regional balance.
So why doesn't tourism, from media or Government circles, get due acknowledgement as an economic sector?
Part of the reason is that the industry hasn't been loud or bold enough in talking about itself and its economic importance.
That is part of the reason behind the Irish Tourism Industry Awards, which take place this Friday in Dublin.
These are a celebration and, crucially, a very public acknowledgement of excellence in Irish tourism.
The usual suspects, if you like, are in the running for awards including Aer Lingus, Stena Line, Dublin Airport, the Jameson visitor centres and the Cliffs of Moher. But there's also some fascinating new and emerging tourism businesses in the mix including food tours, tourism technology and greenways.
But to use that old cliché: all finalists on the night are winners as they showcase the best of Irish tourism which as an industry is entrepreneurial, innovative and ambitious.
There will also be a Special Recognition award on the night for International Airlines Group CEO Willie Walsh to acknowledge his work in global aviation and Irish tourism.
Walsh now heads up one of the world's largest airline groups, that includes Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia, with 565 aircraft flying to 279 destinations and carrying around 113 million passengers each year. Not bad for someone who started as an 18-year old cadet pilot with Aer Lingus in 1979.
Business leaders such as Walsh need to be acknowledged by the Irish tourism industry and perhaps that's what the sector should be doing more of.
Putting faces to the industry's success help raise the profile of the sector.
The likes of Francis Brennan, Darina Allen, Pat McCann and Michael O'Leary are all leaders in their field and have generated significant economic and employment opportunities.
There seems to be merit behind a National Tourism Day, as done in many other countries, to highlight the importance of the sector, its economic contribution, and to salute the people that lead from the front as well as the unsung heroes.
Why the desire to raise the profile of the tourism and hospitality sector?
It's not just to get a pat on the back. Instead, it is to make the argument that tourism as an industry is too important to take for granted. The Government must ensure that enabling factors for tourism success are in place.
Worryingly, some of those pro-tourism enabling factors have begun to unravel of late.
Although the Irish tourism industry has just enjoyed a record year of value and volume, it enters into 2019 with a degree wariness as to what lies ahead.
Brexit, of course, is the looming challenge and Failte Ireland, the national tourism development authority, have estimated that a hard Brexit will cost the sector €390m in its immediate aftermath.
That's bad enough, but it's an external factor that tourism and every other economic sector must grapple with.
Of equal concern is the self-inflicted wound that the Government imposed on the sector with the tourism Vat hike in the most recent budget.
In his budget speech, the Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe stated that the Vat increase would be an additional tax of €466m on the sector.
Add a bad Brexit and the Vat hike together, and that's getting close to a €1bn wallop to Ireland's largest indigenous industry and biggest regional employer.
Other non-tourism legislation coming down the tracks, such as the restrictions on short-term lettings, also run the risk of having unintended consequences for Irish tourism if it leads to less available accommodation stock for visitors at a time where there's still a shortage of hotels.
Despite these challenges, Irish tourism is still confident in growth this year.
It is a remarkably entrepreneurial industry. Aside from Center Parcs, this year will see new hotels built, new aircraft and ferries in operation, and the €10m Museum of Literature Ireland visitor attraction opening its doors on St Stephen's Green.
It is estimated that the tourism industry is committing €2.5bn over the next three years as it invests in its own capacity for growth.
As with any sector, the future is paved with opportunities and challenges. Despite difficulties ahead the industry is confident in its capacity to achieve continued growth given a level playing field.
Last year the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation, the umbrella group for the sector, clearly set out an eight-year roadmap to 2025 for the tourism's sustainable success including a 65pc increase in overseas tourism revenue and 80,000 more jobs nationwide.
However, to achieve this pro-tourism policies and investment strategies must be pursued by Government, agencies and industry.
- Eoghan O'Mara Walsh is CEO of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC). The Irish Tourism Industry Awards take place this Friday in the Clayton Hotel Burlington Road, Dublin 4. The final winners are selected by an independent judging panel including Glen Dimplex CEO Fergal Naughton, FleishmanHillard MD Rhona Blake and INM Group Business Editor Dearbhail McDonald. irishtourismindustryawards.ie
Sunday Indo Business