With the tourism and hospitality sectors the worst affected of all major economic sectors by COVID- 19, it is not surprising to hear that reigniting the sector will be slow. The path to attracting international visitors to our country and encouraging staycations will be linked to mid or post-pandemic consumer behaviours, willingness to travel and tolerance of any perceived level of risk.
This was the view of two of the sectors leading commentators – Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland and Niall O’Callaghan, managing director of Shannon Heritage and chairman of the National Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions (AVEA) – when they spoke at a recent Shannon Chamber webinar which looked at COVID-19’s impact on their sector and the challenges that lie ahead for all tourism market segments.
In addressing the webinar, Niall Gibbons stated: “Twelve months ago, I addressed Shannon Chamber members in different circumstances in the risk register, never anticipating a pandemic of this magnitude. It is only now, when the sector is effectively closed temporarily, that the true value of tourism to the national economy is fully understood – 325,000 employees are now on some form of support.
“While we are assessing the impact on a daily basis and re-engineering our digital marketing activities to ensure that Ireland remains visible in global markets, our path to recovery will be based on assessing where the consumer sits in terms of a willingness to travel and when. We also have to look at access issues, given that seats into Ireland are now 95% down on 2019 levels and will, most likely, return to 2010 levels. We will also have to consider how many airlines will survive the crisis and how governments will fund route recovery.
“The feedback on our Government’s road plan for reopening the economy is being favourably received in global markets and has sparked a new interest in Ireland. In that respect, we are seeing some green shoots of hope. While we may see some recovery at the back end of 2020, it is unlikely that we will see any major recovery from the USA market until late 2021 or 2022, or until there is a vaccine.”
Citing the fourteen-day quarantine restriction, air access and social distancing as major barriers to travel, Mr Gibbons welcomed the establishment of the Tourism Recovery Task Force, chaired by industry expert and chief executive of AVEA, Ruth Andrews, adding: “This is a very tough time for the industry. We have never had to push the start button on the industry before and the coming months will require a huge effort to kickstart the industry again.”
Comparing the sector to the shape of the currach used by Tim Severin to traverse the Atlantic and which is now based at Shannon Heritage’s Craggaunowen Castle in Co Clare, Shannon Heritage managing director Niall O’Callaghan, speaking on behalf of the 100 members of AVEA, who collectively employ 4,000 people and injected €15 billion in revenue from 23 million visitors in 2019, stated: “The scale of the challenge facing the sector cannot be underestimated; the economic retraction is unprecedented in modern times.
“So many livelihoods are at stake. There is an urgent need to unlock vital supports for the sector. While re-opening guidelines have been prepared, the confidence of our members is low as many visitor centres are heavily dependent on international rather than domestic visitors.”
Stating that phase 1 of the pandemic led to a complete collapse of the sector, phase two to lockdown and phase 3, which is linked to preparing to re-open but wondering what the future will shape out to be, Mr O’Callaghan stated: “The new reality will favour those who have successfully navigated phases one and two. We now have to figure out what the new vision of success will be, given social distancing requirements.”
Calling for a reduction in VAT for the sector, a continuation of the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme, a review of rates, grants versus loans for the sector and consideration of giving a redeemable voucher to every household in Ireland, he called on the nation to look to Ireland for their 2020 holidays and support the outstanding range of our visitor attractions, adding: “If a monk can cross the ocean in a currach, then we can navigate the journey ahead.”
Thanking both presenters for their openness and honesty about the current state of the sector and hopes for the future, Shannon Chamber CEO Helen Downes, stated: “The new norm will be holidaying at home and rediscovering what a wonderful country we have. People might find Ireland again and given that the Irish spend more when abroad than visitors spend here, that augurs well for our economy.”
This tourism-focused webinar was one in a series of informative and training webinars being hosted by Shannon Chamber in response to member companies’ needs. Information on all webinars can be found at www.shannonchamber.ie/events-training/