Adjournment Debate. - Tourism Industry.

(Mayo): This was to have been Ireland's best ever season for tourism. Bookings and inquiries were up. Indications from overseas trade fairs were never better. It now looks as if it may be the worst season for many years. While the tourism figures for 2000 are not yet available, provisional estimates show that 6.3 million overseas visitors came to Ireland during that year. Over 3.4 million of these came from Britain. This year, British tourists have to be told they are not wanted. To an industry that earns £4 billion per annum, and which is already reeling following the cancellation of St. Patrick's Day celebrations, the prospects are dire.

St. Patrick's Day was to have kick-started the tourist season. Instead of the season kicking in with a bang, we have had empty hotels and guesthouses, tour buses lying idle, deposits returned and airline flights cancelled. Apart from the cancellation of conferences thus far, approximately 500 conferences are now under threat. Rural tourism is particularly hit with virtually all outdoor pursuit centres closed. Angling areas in the west are devastated because of the total ban on angling. The tourism sector has been fully willing to co-operate with the national campaign to keep foot and mouth out. They participated wholeheartedly in the country's determination to stave off a national disaster. However, they now find that they are facing financial disaster. The blanket advice to people not to visit Ireland is misunderstood in certain markets, giving the impression that Ireland has a virulent public health problem and is closed to visitors.

Some 181,141 persons are employed in the hotel, restaurant, guesthouse and licensed premises sectors. When one factors in self-catering accommodation, fast food outlets and other tourist services and attractions, one is talking about an employment figure of well in excess of 250,000. Already many are being laid off. If this is the situation at an early stage one can anticipate wholesale lay-offs and unemployment in a few weeks time. One can also anticipate major financial difficulties for enterprises which have borrowed heavily to develop their facilities and have now no income. Many will not survive.

One coach operator told me that, in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day celebrations and the World Cross Country Championship, he had spent over £1 million on new coaches. Both events were cancelled. His coaches are empty and idle, he has no cash flow and his business is in jeopardy.

What angers those in the tourism industry is that they have shown solidarity to the national anti-foot and mouth campaign, yet the Government has forgotten their interests. There is no coherent strategy in place, no B-plan. The Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation and the Government seem to go from day to day hoping that there will be no outbreak here and that the crisis will ease in Britain. Thankfully, there has been no outbreak here. However, what was a brushfire in Britain three weeks ago is now a raging inferno. The number of confirmed cases today is 361 and the figure gets worse daily. Even if the problem begins to scale down the necessary incubation and clearance period means that the British tourist market is a write-off for this year. With 50% of the tourism market written off tourism interests want to know the Government's plans. Will there be a compensation package? Will the Government meet the banks to try to obtain attractive finance terms for tourism businesses that borrowed heavily and are now in crisis because of foot and mouth disease to try to sustain enterprises? Will the Government immediately put in place an economic sub-committee to assess the economic consequences of the crisis and take positive action? Is the Government now prepared to launch a massive marketing campaign to target countries which have not been affected by foot and mouth disease? Will the Government launch a major marketing initiative to encourage as many people as possible to holiday at home this year in the national interest?

I thank Deputy Higgins for raising this matter on the Adjournment and I agree with many of the sentiments he expressed.

I spoke about this subject on the Adjournment on 7 March and I answered a number of parliamentary questions on it recently. The Deputy will be aware that the Joint Committee on Tourism, Sport and Recreation will devote a full day's meeting on Thursday next to hearing the views of 12 tourism groups on the impact of the current foot and mouth crisis on the tourism industry. I will listen carefully to what these groups have to say and I will respond in detail at the meeting.

As I said previously, the possibility of foot and mouth disease – FMD – spreading to this country threatens our economic security and the livelihoods of not only farmers and the agriculture and food sector, but potentially every citizen. Agri culture and livestock are of such importance to the whole economy that the Government and the entire population must be thorough in our combined efforts to ensure that the disease does not spread with disastrous consequences. The impact of the current control measures on the tourism industry have given us a glimpse of how much worse matters would be if there was a full-scale outbreak.

A series of initiatives have already been taken within the tourism and sports sectors to help reduce the danger of a spread of the disease and, on behalf of the Government, I thank all those involved and look forward to their continuing co-operation to overcome the current difficulties. The implications for our tourism industry, which employs more than 150,000 people and is worth over £3 billion annually to the economy, of the foot and mouth disease crisis will depend on the scale and duration of associated restrictions. If there is sustained negative international publicity, travel restrictions and prolonged closure of certain key tourism attractions and facilities here, it will have a very significant impact on the level of business in 2001 and subsequent years, particularly, as Deputy Higgins said, from the British market which has been one of the main engines of tourism growth in recent years.

On 8 March I met a delegation from the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation – ITIC – which represents all sectors of the industry, to discuss the potentially very serious effects on tourism. I note from a press release issued by the ITIC that it estimates that overseas business could be down by 15% to 20%, amounting to a loss of foreign revenue of £500 million. My Department is represented on the task force which at present convenes daily under the chairmanship of the Mini ster for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to review measures to prevent the spread of the disease. In addition, a separate high level tourism action group, which is chaired by Bord Fáilte and includes my Department and key ITIC representatives, has been established to monitor the situation on a continual basis and it has met on five occasions to date. The objective is to be in a position to actively manage issues affecting tourism business already booked and limit any medium to long-term damage to the industry's image and prospects overseas.

The industry is most immediately concerned about the temporary closure of some of our flagship State cultural and heritage attractions, the cancellation of many local events activities within the country and, as the Deputy pointed out, the advice to visitors from the UK not to travel to Ireland unless absolutely necessary. I brought these key concerns of the tourism industry to the attention of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development who, following a report to him by an expert group, announced on Friday last the easing of certain foot and mouth disease controls.

The guidelines issued by the expert group will enable a significant number of low risk events and activities in the tourism and sports areas to recommence immediately as long as everyone in tourism and sporting circles continues to take the necessary precautionary measures. I welcome the view of the Minister, Deputy Walsh that, subject to necessary precautions, urban-based business from Britain need not be discouraged. I look forward to discussing the matter further with the Deputy and the interests involved at the meeting on Thursday.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 March 2001.