I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this important issue with the committee. I am joined by my colleague Mr. Bernard O’Shea, the principal officer dealing with tourism policy development within the Department. We listened with great interest to what the representatives of the vintners' associations said earlier and the discussion the committee had in April on this issue.
Many of the key figures have been rehearsed but I might recap some of the important ones for the sector. In 2019, pre-Covid, tourism was worth €9.5 billion in total to our economy, translating into about 260,000 jobs and €1.8 billion in Exchequer revenue. As the sector rebuilds post Covid, it is hoped we will reach about two thirds of that level and volume in 2022, which would make it among the very strongest rebounding tourism sectors in Europe.
Prior to Covid, the sector registered consistent increases in the numbers employed in Ireland’s regions and was an important driver of greater regional balance and dispersed economic activity. A sustained and, importantly, sustainable rebuild is essential given tourism supports communities and regional development in a manner unlike most other sectors. The Minister at my Department, Deputy Catherine Martin, has worked tirelessly with colleagues across government to secure funding supports to keep the tourism sector alive during Covid-19 and then to support this initial rebuild phase. It was very good to hear representatives of the sector acknowledge the good collaboration that has existed between the Government, the Department and the sector.
This year, again, the Government is providing a record level of funding for the tourism services budget, totalling €288 million. This includes €50 million in business continuity funding and a €35 million increase in the tourism marketing fund to support the delivery of a marketing strategy to help restore inbound tourism. In addition, capital funding of €36.5 million has been provided for tourism product development to deliver enhanced visitor experiences. The sector faces a range of challenges, however, in common with the wider economy, such as sizeable increases in the costs of key inputs and difficulty in recruiting and retaining key skills. Again, the earlier conversation was very illuminating in that regard. These challenges are not unique to Ireland. Indeed, they are shared by many countries around the world.
The wider tourism and hospitality sector is a shared concern for both my Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment as well as a range of other Departments. Restaurants and pubs are a key part of the céad míle fáilte Ireland offers to visitors. However, as Fáilte Ireland has previously advised, about 80% of pub and restaurant trade is not tourism related. This shared mission is reflected in the hospitality and tourism forum established earlier during the pandemic, which is co-chaired by the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin.
The forum is a valuable opportunity for both sectors to communicate their priorities and it is hoped to convene it again in the coming weeks.
At official level, we engage regularly with our counterparts in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on issues such as work permits and other matters that impact on tourism and hospitality. As an example, both Departments are represented on the tourism and hospitality careers oversight group, COG, which brings together industry representatives, State agencies, Departments and the education sector. The group has pivoted to focus on supporting the industry to address some of its immediate recruitment challenges in the months ahead.
Staffing shortages are not just a problem in the tourism sector. Other sectors of the economy are facing the same challenge and it is common in tourism around the world. When Fáilte Ireland appeared before the committee, it estimated that there were approximately 40,000 vacancies in the industry across all roles. The Department and Fáilte Ireland are working with industry and across Departments to ensure a co-ordinated approach to addressing the labour and skills shortages.
Delays in the processing of work permits for chefs is a particular challenge for the sector, as noted previously at this committee. The Department and Fáilte Ireland have engaged closely with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to try to expedite chef employment permit applications that are already in the system, given the immediate pressure to recruit staff for the 2022 season. All flexible resources have now been redeployed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to address processing times for general employment permit applications. Processing times for trusted partners has decreased from 22 to 16 weeks as of mid-May. Processing times for standard applicants remain at 22 weeks but should begin falling in the coming weeks. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment expects to see processing times for general employment permit applications being considerably reduced by the end of quarter 2, with further reductions in processing times across all permit types in quarter 3.
Our Department continues to engage with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science regarding the tourism recovery task force's recommendations, which were to strengthen Fáilte Ireland’s COG and formalise a relationship with that Department to ensure programme development and co-ordination of tourism education and training; develop a national tourism education gateway as a one-stop education access shop for all tourism employees; and ensure consistency in the quality and content of education and training provided by education providers in the tourism sector, in consultation with industry, to meet adapting needs and trends.
Regarding working conditions in the sector, Fáilte Ireland’s research indicates that 70% of people are very happy with their employment in the industry, enjoy going to work and see tourism as a long-term career option. This is a good proportion, but we would like it to be higher and Fáilte Ireland has a range of programmes to build skills and capability for businesses and individual employees, including a suite of online self-directed professional development courses.
As part of the drive to promote tourism as an attractive sector within which to work, Fáilte Ireland has launched a new "Excellent Employer" programme to help all participating businesses to improve their employer practices and build their reputations as excellent employers. It has also launched a transition year work placement programme and a major recruitment awareness campaign called "Works for Me".
When we look at the wider economy and the particular set of challenges facing the tourism industry, it is clear that a collective and concerted multi-stakeholder approach to tackling these challenges is required. That is the approach that the Department will continue to pursue.
I look forward to members' questions.