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At last, our battered tourism industry gets a little good news

Pól Ó Conghaile



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'As Budget 2021 approached, as many as nine out of 10 hotel bedrooms in Dublin were empty' (stock photo)

'As Budget 2021 approached, as many as nine out of 10 hotel bedrooms in Dublin were empty' (stock photo)

'As Budget 2021 approached, as many as nine out of 10 hotel bedrooms in Dublin were empty' (stock photo)

As bed nights plummeted in Ireland's hotels, so sleepless nights have risen. And they surely hit a peak this Monday, on the eve of the biggest budget of our lives.

Budgets are always about lobbying, but never had so much been on the line. Ireland's tourism industry has been in car-crash mode since mid-March. Sure, summer brought a reprieve for some - self-catering briefly became the new loo roll and resorts along the Wild Atlantic Way were able to rescue a semblance of a season. But with no overseas visitors, no festivals or events, no corporate business, no big conferences or weddings, that could only ever be a Band-Aid.

As Budget 2021 approached, as many as nine out of 10 hotel bedrooms in Dublin were empty. Out-of-work chauffeurs had staged a summer "drive to survive" to highlight their plight. Many businesses had closed early for winter.

One coach tour operator, used to catering for Americans and continental visitors in the shoulder season, had pivoted to provide domestic tours of Donegal, only for Donegal to go into Level 3 lockdown. It was like building a sandcastle as the tide came in.

There were brief sparks of hope. We heard talk of a possible Covid-19 testing system for overseas travel, and the zombie Green List was resuscitated... only for the number of countries on it to be slashed to four, then zero. Ryanair threatened winter base closures.

Restaurants opened. And shut. And opened. And shut. Nobody in Ireland, it seemed, could plan past the Six One news headlines.

"Plan, plan, plan... it's the fundamental thing they teach you in marketing college," as the owner of a Co Kerry guesthouse told me this week. "But that's the problem. Right now, you can't plan anything."

Budgets are always about lobbying, but they threw the kitchen sink at this one. Tourism and hospitality groups and businesses all over Ireland got the lead out, and got on the same message. There were social media campaigns for "support, not sympathy".

Last week, hotels and tourist attractions such as the Guinness Storehouse and Cliffs of Moher were lit up green in a symbolic cry for help.

Local TDs were lobbied 'til the cows came home... and a little after. There were calls, emails, Zooms, release after release sent to journalists. Something - anything! - to get the message out: "Tourism is on the brink. It needs life support."

The penny seems to have dropped. A tourism and hospitality forum was set up. Recommendations from the tourism taskforce appear to actually have been read, brought to Cabinet, and taken on board.

Those in power seemed to realise Covid-19 has not hit all sectors equally. Tourism has shed 100,000 jobs, and could lose 100,000 more. The danger was clear and present.

Even so, as October 13 approached, there was a fear the VAT reduction, news of which had leaked in advance, would be the main event. "VAT at this stage makes damn all difference," as one hotelier told me.

It's something, of course, but it can't help if you're not making cash in the first place.

But there was more. It wasn't perfect. Arguably, it wasn't good enough. But alongside that VAT cut, there was a new Covid restrictions support scheme that would allow businesses forced to close during lockdowns to claim up to €5,000 a week. There was a €55m business continuity fund, and extensions to the wage support and rates waiver schemes.

It's not enough to plan for the future, to get Irish tourism in fighting shape for 2021, to fire the reboot required to exit this pandemic and compete for international visitors again, but it might just buy a little time. It's a step towards survival.

This morning, these resilient business-owners, job-creators and memory-makers will pick themselves up and go again.

Here's hoping they got a well-earned night's sleep.

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Irish Independent