I thank the House for organising this special debate and for giving me the opportunity to speak.
During the course of the crisis, the primary preoccupation of the Government, supported in large measure by the public, has been to ensure that foot and mouth disease is confined to the one outbreak. I indicated in two recent Dáil Adjournment Debates and a full day session of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Sport and Recreation, on 22 March, that the possibility of widespread outbreaks of the disease threatens our economy, security and the livelihoods of not just those in the farming, agriculture and food industries but potentially of every citizen, particularly those in the tourism sector. I pay tribute to my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, and his staff for the sure footed manner in which they are tackling the crisis, and for their extraordinary hard work and dedication.
The recent heart breaking, stark images from County Louth and Britain give an indication of what a full scale outbreak would mean and put into perspective the sacrifices we have made. For tourism, a full outbreak would result in sustained negative international publicity, more internal and external travel restrictions and the prolonged closure of key attractions and facilities. Let us hope and pray that we do not face such a scenario.
On behalf of the Government, I thank the tourism and hospitality industry, which is on the economic front line in the battle against foot and mouth disease, for its support and patience in recent weeks in accepting the controls which were put in place. The industry has sustained a substantial hit in loss of business but has been mature enough to see it as an essential contribution to the bigger objective of fighting the disease.
The economic importance of the tourism sector should not be underestimated. It employs over 15,000 and earns £3 billion in foreign exchange annually. One in 12 jobs is dependent on tourism. It represents over 4% of GNP and makes a critical contribution to regional and rural development. This industry has almost doubled in terms of employment and increased threefold in terms of foreign earnings over the past ten years.
It is important to point out, however, that the scale and importance of the tourism industry in modern Ireland is not always fully appreciated by the public because of its diverse nature and the number of small firms involved. While agricultural employment has decreased steadily in recent years, tourism has experienced phenomenal growth. The reports we hear every day of the impact and scale of foot and mouth disease on tourism will serve to get the message across that tourism is one of our largest industries, not far behind agriculture in economic importance.
The tourism and hospitality industry is hurting as a result of the foot and mouth crisis. An up-to-date assessment puts losses at over £200 million, excluding the impact on air and sea carrier receipts which I forecast will be substantial too. If the current situation were to continue until August, it is estimated that the potential loss of out of State visitor receipts could rise to £500 million. This does not take into account the separate and significant losses in domestic tourism and hospitality business due to cancelled events and conferences and the apparent reluctance of the public to take short breaks in Ireland. Since the onset of this crisis my Department, Bord Fáilte and I have worked energetically to support the industry and we have taken a range of measures to deal with the situation. I would like to outline ten specific actions we are taking.
I encouraged the tourism and sports sectors to take a series of initiatives in support of the national campaign to minimise the spread of foot and mouth disease. Major industry groups such as the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland asked their members to take a range of precautionary measures. Bord Fáilte suspended the active promotion of high risk land-based recreational activities, and sporting organisations and festival groups voluntarily cancelled events. Such initiatives have demonstrated the commitment of the tourism and sport sectors to playing a full role in combating the disease.
I set up structured arrangements to ensure the tourism industry's views are taken on board and their concerns are made known, particularly with regard to key decisions about control measures. On 8 March, I met a delegation from the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation – ITIC – to discuss the situation and have kept in close contact with the industry since then. I am a member of the key Government task force which convenes every morning, under the chairmanship of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, to monitor and review measures to prevent the spread of the disease. In addition, a high level action group, chaired by the chief executive of Bord Fáilte and including key representatives of ITIC and my Department, has been established to monitor continually the situation. This group has met twice weekly over the past few weeks with the active participation and support of the industry. Its objective is to actively manage issues which are affecting tourism business already booked and to limit medium and long-term damage to the industry's image and prospects overseas.
We have pressed strongly in appropriate fora for a phased modification of the control measures in line with the evolving risk situation. This pressure brought about the easing of the control measures announced on Friday, 16 March by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. This followed a report by a technical expert group under the chairmanship of Professor Michael Monaghan, supported by a separate report from the high level tourism action group. The guidelines issued by the expert group, together with clarifications given during the press conference by the Minister, Deputy Walsh, enabled a significant number of low risk events and activities in the tourism and sports areas to recommence immediately.
With industry support, we have pressed for the phased reopening of key State cultural and heritage attractions to allow a full and varied array of facilities to be available to visitors. National cultural institutions such as the National Gallery, the National Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Chester Beatty Library and Dublin's City Hall have remained open, together with most of the attractions operated by Dublin Tourism and Shannon Development. Following the easing of control measures on Friday, 16 March, Dublin Castle, Kilkenny Castle and the Rock of Cashel reopened. On 27 March the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands announced that a further 11 heritage sites would be reopened the following day and that further sites would be kept under review, which was welcome news to the tourism industry. In a recent press statement, I encouraged those involved in the provision of tourism facilities and attractions to familiarise themselves with, and to be guided by, the guidelines of the expert group with a view to restoring as much of our key tourism infrastructure as possible.
We have arranged to ensure, through the Bord Fáilte website and associated call centres, that there is regularly updated information available to visitors and the trade, including information about major attractions and events which are open. The Bord Fáilte website is updated daily and contains a very comprehensive regional listing of the tourism attractions open at present. Tourism-related calls to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development foot and mouth disease helpline are being processed through Bord Fáilte. Hot links between key websites, including The Irish Times website, Ireland.com, have been put in place.
I am anxious a clear message is sent that Ireland is open for tourism business and that, subject to the taking of appropriate precautions, Ireland remains a welcoming destination for international visitors. I have confirmed this in press statements and I believe it is entirely consistent with recent specific advice from the expert group. The new guidelines mean we can welcome urban based visitors from the United Kingdom and other affected countries. This positive message was reinforced by the Taoiseach in his remarks on 22 March at the naming of the Irish Ferries car ferry Ulysses, and by Sir Reg Empey and me at the North-South Ministerial Council meeting last Friday in Letterkenny. I am arranging that these positive messages are highlighted in Bord Fáilte's and my Department's websites.
We have been pressing for an easing of the restrictions on the movement of people within Ireland to help the accommodation sector recover from the effects of the cancellation of conference and seminar business and domestic tourism. It is important that people realise that the expert group's easing of restrictions on gatherings in defined locations means that indoor meetings, conferences, and certain sporting events may resume. Over the past week I have launched a strong appeal to the business community not to cancel or postpone conferences arranged for cities and towns in the lowest risk category specified by the expert group. This morning, the Government reviewed its instructions to Departments and State agencies to encourage them to allow such low risk activities to resume.
On Friday, 16 March, the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources announced the lifting of the ban on angling with effect from the following day. Under new guidelines, sea angling is permitted together with angling which does not involve access to lands to which susceptible animals have had access. This will go some way towards meeting the concerns of angling visitors who have been particularly badly affected by the crisis.
Following a meeting I held with the chairman and chief executive of Bord Fáilte, the board is launching a special tourism marketing and promotion reassurance programme which will come into effect this weekend. The programme, comprising an initial component costing £3 million, will consist of tailor made trade and consumer campaigns, joint activity with trade partners and special consumer events in key European and US cities. I intend to personally lead these campaigns. Bord Fáilte has identified savings from within its budget to assist in meeting the costs involved in mounting these campaigns and I have sought supplementary funding for this purpose from the Minister for Finance.
Prior to Christmas, I launched the largest ever annual tourism marketing programme involving the joint expenditure by the tourism industry and Bord Fáilte of £100 million during 2001, of which approximately £35 million is Exchequer funding. I requested the industry to put together a range of attractively priced short break packages to ensure a greater level of domestic holidays this year. We are also considering further initiatives to give domestic holidays a particular boost and I have urged people to holiday at home this year.
I have also appealed to the banks, financial institutions and the Revenue Commissioners to be as sympathetic as possible to any tourism business which experiences cash flow difficulties as a result of the foot and mouth crisis. I received a very constructive response from the banks yesterday which stated:
The banks are very mindful of their role in supporting customers through this difficult period. The banks are committed to giving careful and sympathetic consideration to requests for particular support from those business customers who encounter financial difficulties as a consequence of foot and mouth disease. Such support may take the form of additional short-term credit, rescheduling of existing credit repayments and, where necessary, a moratorium on repayments. It is crucially important that banks are advised by their customers of the development of such problems as soon as they arise.
The banks are confident that they will not be found wanting and I applaud them for the initiatives they are taking. While there has been unprecedented growth and success in the tourism industry over the past decade, inevitable temporary setbacks are experienced in the economic cycle which do not undermine the medium to long-term sustainability of the business. I expect a mature and enlightened business approach on the part of the financial institutions to help businesses to trade out of their current difficulties where necessary.
The Taoiseach and Minister for Finance have confirmed that it is not possible to compensate tourism interests. It is more practical to put in place an aggressive international and domestic tourism marketing campaign, supplemented by measures to assist companies to trade out of any temporary financial difficulties. My Department and Bord Fáilte are keeping the situation under close scrutiny with a view to making appropriate further adjustments, in consultation with the industry, to planned marketing and promotional activities. While we are all conscious of the threat to agriculture, we must not lose sight of the extent of the disease's impact on the tourism and hospitality industry. Our shared objective must be to ensure that no unnecessary medium to long-term damage is done to the tourism industry which is so important in economic terms.
The tourism industry has successfully dealt with crises in the past, including the fall-out from the Gulf War and the troubles in Northern Ireland. It is a resilient and strong industry which, while bleeding at present, will successfully overcome this crisis if we all work together. I was delighted to hear the forecast from the Central Bank last week that economic growth is expected to run at a rate of 5% to 6.5%. Other European countries would give their right arms for such forecasts.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and Members for providing me with the opportunity to address the House.