Over the past week or so, there has been quite a volume of calls to my office from rural bus operators in County Donegal. They are querying what they see as the overly stringent nature of the qualifying criteria for the coach tourism business continuity scheme operated by Fáilte Ireland. Specifically, they feel aggrieved where, as stated in the guidelines, qualifying vehicles under this scheme must meet all of the following criteria: they must have been actively used by the applicant as of 30 March 2020 primarily for the carriage for reward of tourists by road under contracts for tourism transport; they must have been registered on or after 1 July 2013; the vehicle must have a valid certificate of insurance as at 13 March 2020; and the vehicle must be used primarily for the provision of transport services consisting of carriage for reward of tourists by road under contracts for group transport.
They feel that disqualification on the basis they operate buses that are deemed too old to qualify, or are not primarily used in coach tourism, is highly unfair to small rural operators who take on all types of work in order to survive. As they have outlined to me, they are an integral part of the tourism industry in County Donegal.
Over recent years, my own town of Killybegs, to take one example, has successfully worked to develop the cruise liner business. Our small rural operators have stepped up to the mark to service these tourists coming ashore for day trips within the county and wider north-west region. Without their commitment, this initiative would have died in its infancy as there would not have been the interest or financial incentive to attract large operators to this intermittent work. It was, therefore, the small guys who did and continue to do the heavy lifting.
Many have contracts for group transport and want to highlight that the age of their buses is not a problem with tour operators to whom they are contracted. It is simply that they could not justly describe it as the core work or the primary use of their vehicle.
For most, the tourism industry is unable to provide the level of work that would sustain them or their workers exclusively so, in addition, they provide service to a whole range of community needs such as the school transport scheme, local link, GAA clubs, etc.
These may seem insignificant or irrelevant to those who designed the scheme but they are vital services to our local rural communities. Yet, none of them alone could provide a sustainable income for a small rural operator. I am sure other Deputies in the House will agree with me that this is the same up and down the country.
If I was a cynical person, which I am not - although it is a test at times - I could be tempted to believe that, once again, the Government has purposefully set up a scheme designed to exclude many genuine operators within the tourism sector to drive down demand and, consequentially, the costs of the scheme. I am clear in my mind that the scheme does not recognise the reality of bus and coach operations in rural Ireland.
I also note the €10 million or so allocated to the scheme was far short of what the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, submitted would be required for such a scheme to the Minister. With the closing date fast approaching for the existing scheme, will the Minister give me some information and statistics on the take up of the scheme? Is she considering continuing it or a similar scheme? Will she look at amending it so as not to exclude those like the small rural bus and coach operators in County Donegal who play their part, which is a vital part, in the tourism industry? In summary, I call on the Minister to renew, review and properly fund the scheme.