(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?