"There are going to be holidays in Ireland this year," the Tourism Minister says. But he rules out a dedicated ministry, and says 'staycation vouchers' are unlikely to happen any time soon.
"Yes, 0pc VAT, I am in favour of that," Shane Ross says.
Ireland's tourism industry is "on its knees", the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport adds, speaking exclusively to the Irish Independent, and "dramatic measures" are needed to save it.
One of those measures should be a reduction of VAT for Irish tourism and hospitality businesses from 13.5pc to 0pc. Ross says this is something he and Minister of State for Tourism, Brendan Griffin, agree on.
"I’ve made that clear at Cabinet... I’ve met [Finance Minister] Paschal Donohoe several times, and we’ve made it perfectly clear that’s what we’re looking for."
"I mean 0pc of 0pc isn’t much at the moment... but when things start picking up, the tourism industry is going to need a lift, and I think that would send a very strong signal that we have their interests at heart."
A tourism recovery taskforce will also be unveiled this week, the Minister reveals, with an independent chair and around a dozen members including representatives from Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, as well as business and industry stakeholders "who have worked at the coalface and are recognised as achievers".
"It will be up to them to come up with a plan," he says.
That recovery plan will be published "hopefully in eight weeks", Ross adds. Interim reports are possible, but he will not be prescriptive - the taskforce "will be able to make their own agenda in many ways".
The timeframe is unlikely to satisfy tourism and hospitality businesses that have been shuttered since mid-March, and are issuing increasingly desperate calls for guidelines and supports.
The industry faces "a catastrophic outlook", the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) has said. As well as reduced VAT rates, both it and the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC) have called for immediate liquidity measures, continuity grants and other sector-specific supports.
Ross says he hears the urgency, but adds that Government has introduced substantial supports already, and that he has been fighting their corner in talks with insurance and banking representatives. Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland will also be undertaking "very sophisticated" visitor research to inform recovery plans, he says.
"I don’t think it's going to be too late because, quite honestly, the tourism industry is going to start slowly. It's not going to be first out of the traps... I don't think eight weeks time will be too late for that."
Staycation vouchers and a 'Gathering Part 2'...
Staycations are likely to recover first, the Minister says, driven by pent-up demand, a wariness of overseas travel, and Ireland's "wide-open spaces", beaches and greenways.
"Ireland has magnificent holidays where there is a lot of space. You don't have to go to a crowded place… There is an awful lot of space in Connemara and Killarney and places like that, and I think to people will come to and from Ireland with open arms.
"There are going to be holidays in Ireland this year, I hope and am confident of that... Let's get Irish people going to Ireland and appreciating Ireland, that would be a really good start."
The idea of State-sponsored "staycation vouchers" has been mooted by ITIC as a stimulus measure to kick-start home holidays, but this is not under active consideration, Ross says.
“It’s basically underwriting a holiday immediately... I’m not sure that’s necessary at this stage. The other measures are going to be very strong and extremely worthwhile. But I wouldn’t rule it out."
What about the idea of a 'Gathering Part 2', to reboot tourism?
“We have thought about it and I think it’s a very good idea," he says. "But it would have to be absolutely watertight in terms of health regulations. There is no point having a Gathering Part 2 unless it’s watertight in those terms, and it would have to have total and absolute clearance from NPHET (the National Public Health Emergency Team).
"We might actually wait a few years for it."
Ross, 70, is an outgoing minister who lost his seat in the February 8 General Election, so won't form a part of any future Government. Being a caretaker minister in a pandemic is a strange position, but he says there are advantages in that he no longer has to "think politically", too.
Given the scale of the challenge facing tourism, the 260,000 jobs and €7.5bn revenue it provided last year, according to Fáilte Ireland, should the next Cabinet include a dedicated minister?
"I don't see any need for change. At the moment you have two ministers for tourism, in effect. If we start creating ministers for every sector that becomes highlighted or in big trouble, I think it would be appropriate maybe today, but in a few years time, it would be another minister and you’d have to move around again.”
'My message is: Don't give up...'
Coronavirus is "such a moving story", he says.
"Anybody who says that they know when such-and-such is going to open, or when it’s going to happen, they just don’t know.
"We just haven’t a clue where the virus is going to be at a certain day and a certain time. We have a prediction, but it’s not an exact science... we have to be fairly flexible, but absolutely determined.”
Given this, Ross is "very concerned" for the future of tourism. But he is also hopeful because the sector is full "of energetic, entrepreneurial people who have faced disasters before", he says.
"I was there for four years, and it was a really positive experience in terms of tourism, the figures just kept going up and up.
"That was a real joy... due not just to the prosperity of the nation, or even the Government if I may say so, it was due to the fact that we had a really good spirit, a good product and we were selling it very well."
"And that's all been completely knocked for six by this virus."
However, he says the same people are there now "with the same hunger to do something very patriotic for Ireland... these people have got fire in their bellies. They are not down and out. They are just looking for ways to come back."
His message to small businesses fighting for their lives?
“My message is don’t give up. You've done it before; you'll do it again... we're fighting for you."
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