Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Monday, 22 Mar 2021

Vol. 275 No. 4

Covid-19 (Tourism): Statements

I welcome the Minister. Fáilte go dtí an Seanad a Aire. I thank her for coming to the Seanad to discuss the important topic of tourism and the challenges that are ahead of us. She has ten minutes.

Táim an-sásta a bheith anseo inniu ag labhairt leis an Teach faoin turasóireacht. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad about the plans for supports and incentives for the tourism and hospitality industry for 2021.

In 2019, before the pandemic had wrought its affects on Irish society, tourism was worth more than €9 billion in total to our economy from overseas tourists and the fares they generated together with domestic tourism. The industry supported 260,000 jobs across the country both in remote rural areas as well as in our towns and cities. Since the advent of Covid-19, and the consequential and necessary public health measures, many of these jobs have been lost or are surviving with State support and income from the sector is a fraction of what it was in 2019.

I am very aware of the toll that the pandemic and the restrictions are continuing to take across the sector and, most importantly, on the people working in the industry. It was critical, therefore, that the Government recently extended the economy-wide supports for businesses and employees until the end of June. As Senators will be aware, the Government has also committed that there will not be a cliff-edge end to the supports that are currently in place.

We remain committed to supporting tourism through this difficult period, and to working towards reopening and recovery. In that regard, the Government will soon publish a national economic recovery plan, which will outline how we will help people return to work, support sectors that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and how emergency supports will be phased out. Crucially, as part of that plan, along with my colleagues in government, we will consider more targeted measures to help reboot those sectors such as tourism that will face particular challenges during the recovery phase when the economy reopens.

While we collectively continue to experience the dreadful impact of this pandemic on life, society and the economy, there is cause for cautious optimism as the roll-out of the vaccination programme gathers pace. Reopening tourism businesses and managing the recovery in a way that is economically viable, safe and attractive for tourists and local communities will require co-ordination at a level not seen previously. The roadmap to recovery will require flexibility, agility, investment, innovation, and a commitment to a strong collaboration with the industry.

Horizontal support schemes such as the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and rates waiver have been worth hundreds of millions of euro to the broader tourism and hospitality sectors. Outside of that, I have allocated a record level of funding to tourism, which has allowed me to introduce measures specifically aimed at assisting the tourism sector, such as the €55 million business continuity scheme launched on 1 February by Fáilte Ireland to help strategic tourism businesses survive the pandemic and drive recovery. This scheme will contribute to the fixed costs of identified tourism businesses that are not eligible for the CRSS to support their survival. It will provide an equitable level of payment to the CRSS for qualifying businesses and the first phase will cover businesses such as tourism attractions, activity providers and caravan and camping sites. The VAT rate for the sector was reduced to 9% to help improve the competitiveness and viability of businesses. Two separate funds of €10 million each were introduced for coach tourism operators and the Ireland based inbound agents business continuity scheme in the last quarter of 2020. In addition, €8 million in restart grant funding was provided for bed and breakfast premises. Funding of €5 million has also been provided for upskilling training and to improve digital presence. A €26 million adaptation fund has been provided for the tourism sector to adapt their premises to meet Covid-19 safety requirements.

Survival is the first part of the Government's response for tourism. Recovery must come next. I will continue to keep all options open for supporting the recovery.

Last September, the tourism recovery task force submitted a recovery plan to me which set out a number of recommendations aimed at helping the tourism sector to survive and recover from the pandemic. The plan has been a very important input into my thinking on the sector and has influenced a number of the measures I have adopted.

I subsequently appointed the recovery oversight group in December to monitor the implementation of the recovery plan. The oversight group was ably chaired by Nóirín Hegarty and she presented the group's first report to me on 15 February. The report highlights a number of areas on which it recommends the Government should focus its attention. I brought this report to the attention of my colleagues in government to ensure they are fully up to date with the position on tourism as we prepare the national economic recovery plan. A number of the areas highlighted by the group have already been addressed in our new Covid plan, The Path Ahead. In addition, my officials will continue to engage with tourism agencies and colleagues across government in pursuing progress on specific recommendations. I will keep the content of the report under review, together with the initial recovery plan produced by the tourism recovery task force, as the situation evolves.

Last October, the Tánaiste and I convened the hospitality and tourism forum to provide a platform for structured engagement between the hospitality and tourism sector, the tourism agencies and relevant Departments. The forum enables the Tánaiste and me to engage with a wide spectrum of industry stakeholders to assess the continuing impact of the pandemic, help improve understanding and responses to the crisis and discuss ideas for recovery measures, thus assisting the Government in formulating its ongoing response to the crisis. I was pleased that the Taoiseach also attended the most recent meeting of the forum earlier this month to hear at first hand of the devastation this pandemic has brought to our tourism sector and the many challenges the industry now faces. I am committed to mapping a pathway for the recovery of the sector and I will continue to work with all stakeholders in that regard.

It is recognised that during periods of closure the tourism and hospitality sector is losing skilled staff to other sectors. The tourism recovery task force identified that retaining tourism jobs and skills will be vital to tourism's recovery and implementing an upskilling and reskilling programme can mitigate the significant damage the crisis is having on the sector. In this regard, supporting the retention will be assisted by measures such as the funding of €5 million provided in budget 2021 for upskilling training and to improve digital presence. The tourism and hospitality careers oversight group is a collaborative approach by stakeholders, including industry bodies, education providers, Departments and State agencies, to addressing skills shortages in the tourism sector. The group is finalising a new plan which includes input from members and a review of its collaborative framework, and takes into account recommendations from the tourism recovery task force. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister of State with responsibility for skills, Deputy Niall Collins, recently announced two new skills programmes to assist the hospitality and tourism sectors with Covid-19 challenges and ensuring they are ready for reopening.

Looking ahead to the summer, indications are that there will be a strong domestic demand for tourism services when it is safe to open up.

Recent CSO figures show that almost 70% of people intend to take a holiday in the Republic of Ireland in 2021. While this news is encouraging, I am very conscious that the tourism sector relies heavily on international tourism. The industry wants certainty around when international visitors can visit, but it is not helpful to speculate on specific dates at this point.

The path ahead makes clear the criteria which are most important when considering the easing of travel restrictions. These are the prevalence of the disease and the attendant reproductive rate, reducing hospital and critical care occupancy to low levels to protect the health service and allow for the safe resumption of non-Covid-19 care, ongoing and steady progress in the vaccination programme such that the most vulnerable are protected through vaccination, and emerging information on variants of concern.

International travel is critical for tourism, with overseas visitors accounting for 75% of the revenue generated by the sector prior to the pandemic. At this point, the Government’s overarching and primary policy objective on inbound international travel is to minimise the introduction of new cases of Covid-19 to the State from other locations. A senior officials group continues to review the situation fortnightly. This group, having regard to the developing epidemiological in the State and internationally, the evolution of tests and technologies, and progress been made in the vaccination programme, will make every effort to reopen international travel at the earliest possible opportunity.

Unfortunately, inbound international tourism is not possible at present given how the pandemic has evolved. It is too early to say when it might resume, but I look forward to seeing people back visiting our country when it is safe to do so.

At a meeting of EU tourism ministers on 1 March I urged the European Commission to consider initiatives to facilitate the resumption of safe international travel. In that regard the proposal for a regulation on digital green certificates announced by the EU last week is a welcome development. It is vital, however, not to raise hopes about a quick return to international tourism. Most EU member states are still working hard on their domestic messaging to encourage citizens to stay the course with restrictive measures, many of which remain necessary pending the roll-out of the vaccination programmes.

The priority in Ireland is on regaining and maintaining control over the disease and preventing a further wave of infection later in the year until vaccination can offer a widespread population level of protection. The EU’s proposal of a common framework for the issuance verification and acceptance of certificates relating to vaccination, testing and recovery requires careful consideration. The proposal is expected to be discussed at the European Council meeting of leaders later this week and will be examined in detail by relevant Government Departments. It is too early, therefore, to comment in detail on that proposed framework.

I wish to assure the Seanad that I am fully aware of the great challenges faced in tourism and that I will continue to work with my colleagues in Government to ensure the sector is given every possible support to enable it to emerge intact from the pandemic and to build back in a more resilient, digitalised, greener and sustainable way. We will do that as we have done since I became Minister, which is in constant consultation with the stakeholders.

Fearaim fáilte roimh an Aire agus is iontach í a fheiceáil sa Teach seo arís inniu. I thank the Minister again. Since she assumed this remit, which is vast and phenomenal, she has done amazing work. At the worst time ever to be Minister with responsibility for tourism, she seems to have kept the hopes of the tourism sector alive. Coming from Clare, where there is significant employment in the tourism industry and reliance on it for jobs, the word on the street is the Minister is doing well. I appreciate that as it is good to be able to give the sector some hope for the future. While the pandemic was not the fault of the Minister, unfortunately she has to come up with solutions for the tourism sector.

I must mention the Shannon master plan of €70 million, which is a brilliant idea to attract tourism to the area in a proper regional way because we know that regional rebalancing is key to this country doing well. It is also more sustainable to have tourism spread out more evenly.

The Minister mentioned the green certificate, and I will talk a little more on sustainable tourism. Now that we are on a kind of pause, we have some time perhaps to look at how we do tourism and to look at greenwashing as opposed to genuine green tourism.

It is time we drew a distinction between those two things. Too often, places look like they are green but behind the scenes they are not green at all, while others are so amazingly green and are like unsung heroes for how to do tourism well in a sustainable way.

The BurrenLIFE project has an amazing system - the sustainable indicator system - whereby farmers get rewarded the more biodiversity they have and the greener their operations are. It might be time for something like that in the tourism industry as well because outside of agriculture it is our biggest industry. If we are to take the challenges of biodiversity and climate change seriously and if we want to hold onto all the reasons people come to this country in the first place, which are our biodiversity, beauty, culture and water, we need to get this right.

I will provide an example. The Cliffs of Moher are an absolutely amazing and fantastic place, which get 1.2 million visitors every year. In the long term, the visitor centre there is hoping to increase that to 2 million. However, we want to see the villages around the cliffs thriving as well. The visitor centre had consultants in, spent a great deal of money and is going to do X, Y and Z. That is fantastic but I do not see Milltown Malbay or Kilfenora benefiting from that in any way. The same is true of anywhere in Ireland where we have a huge tourist attraction. In order for it to be sustainable, it has to be of benefit to the people around the area, not just the people right at the point of entry. The only way to do that is to bring in these indicators, such as whether attractions are using local suppliers, local bakers, local milk producers or whatever is available to them. There should not be any foreign milk or foreign meat in a huge tourist attraction. There should be local bakers.

We are so creative as a nation. We have loads of craftspeople and foodies. They are the people who should be supplying these big places that make all the money. That is important if we want to move forward with real, sustainable tourism. The word "sustainable" is thrown around as if it is cheap as chips now but we need to take it seriously if we are going to be serious about preserving Ireland as a place that people can visit in many years' time and still see the natural flora and fauna.

The Minister visited the Burren last year and saw the amazing walkway at the Cliffs of Moher. Currently, only a kilometre of the walkway on either side of the cliffs is getting any support or funding. The rest is being neglected because all the focus is on the cliffs themselves. That is wrong. If it was done properly, Liscannor, Doolin and other places would benefit as well. We have to be accountable as a Government with where we put our funding. If we give funding to big tourism projects we are accountable and we must make sure benefits come to everybody around the area. I would love to work with the Minister on sustainable indicators for the tourism sector.

Biodiversity is also a huge part of tourism. Nobody would come to the Burren if there was no biodiversity. It is not often tied in with tourism but, unknowingly, that is what people come to see in our country. They love our trees, rivers and walkways.

I thank the Minister for all the support for greenways. It is great to see tourism and transport both recognising the importance of blue ways and greenways.

The employment wage subsidy scheme has been amazing. It has been a very difficult time for the tourism sector and I hope we can get it back on its feet. The Minister is the right woman for the job and nobody could have done it better than she has done so far. She has given a lot to it. I look forward to supporting her in the future and working with her on a real, green sustainable tourism future for Ireland.

Sadly, the past 13 months have been a disaster for the tourism industry and the people and families who rely on tourism to make ends meet. I acknowledge the work of the tourism recovery task force that prepared the Tourism Recovery Plan 2020-2023, which was published in October. It appears to be a comprehensive plan, containing critical measures to ensure the survival of as many jobs and businesses as possible. Some of the key points of the plan are: business continuity grants and additional operational supports for enterprises; professional development supports for workers in the sector; liquidity measures to support vulnerable but viable businesses; facilitating the resumption of inbound international tourism; increasing competitiveness through a VAT reduction; actions to increase supply and reduce the cost of insurance; and increased domestic and overseas marketing expenditure. The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation also published a tourism industry revival plan in July 2020 with 45 policy recommendations designed to help avert a complete catastrophic collapse of the sector.

We need to see these recovery plans urgently implemented. What parts of these plans have been implemented? What progress has been made since last summer to reverse the decline we have seen in the industry? I am concerned about whether we have seen sufficient action on the part of the Government.

I have been contacted by numerous people who work in tourism and who run businesses reliant on tourism. One individual who contacted me is Chris Slattery, who owns the Station House Hotel in Kilmessan. It is in such distress at this stage that it may have to close permanently, making the staff redundant. Mr. Slattery states:

We are seeking several urgent, immediate measures to help our industry survive the extended restrictions and secure the livelihoods of 270,000 people employed in tourism across the country, representing 1 in every 10 jobs before Covid-19.

This has been a traumatic experience and at this stage we are in a critical financial situation after 12 months of practical closure, we have encountered extreme hardship during this time and we now need to open urgently for the business to survive,

We are a small, family owned and run country house hotel located in the middle of the Boyne Valley in the village of Kilmessan, Co. Meath and during normal trading times we employ approximately 50 staff. We have been operating for 37 years and provide a huge amount of indirect revenue for many local businesses as a knock-on effect from our wedding business such as hairdressers, beauty salons, shops, hotels, and guesthouses. As weddings are our primary business, we need clarity as to how many guests we can accommodate, we need to know when we can accommodate 25, 50 & above and commencement dates and when we can eventually get back to normal trading,

We need to know this to decide on whether we need to close our business completely, we have remained operating behind closed doors with skeleton staff during this time and we need clarity for us to continue in business. We need the current financial support measures to remain in place, hospitality VAT rate to remain at 9%, we ask that all municipal and state body bills be [waived] until the pandemic is over and present conditions concluded.

We did apply for a government backed working capital loan with Bank of Ireland to support us through this period and it was unfairly declined, these so-called government backed loans are not widely available for small, family-owned businesses fundamentally defeat the purpose for which they were established. We need the government to protect us during this time, we contribute hugely to the economy and the local communities but also ensure that our Irish heritage is preserved and not over-run instead by large international brands taking money out of Ireland and ultimately destroying the economy and the uniqueness of Ireland in the long-term.

The all-important summer trading period serves as a lifeline to sustain the other months of the year in normal times. If this is eroded, additional government supports will be critical to survival. It is now "make or break" time.

We are calling for your help.

I want to make a point about the importance of vaccinations to get domestic tourism flourishing again and to attract international visitors. International tourism is vital. A total of 75% of spending on Irish tourism relies on foreign visitors. A total of 100,000 people in accommodation and food services receive the pandemic unemployment payment, with more tourism and hotel jobs receiving government wage subsidies. Industry estimates suggest many thousands of Irish jobs are at risk if international tourism fails to reopen this summer.

There is only one gig in town to sort out this crisis and that is vaccination. I have a national insurance number in the UK. As an experiment, yesterday afternoon I went online to see whether I could arrange a Covid vaccination. I was able to book an appointment for this Wednesday for vaccination in the Ulster Hospital. I am not in any particular bracket as I am in my 50s. We really need to get our act together. The Government needs to stop shrugging its shoulders and take action on vaccinations.

I thank the Minister for coming here today to set out in detail what she has done right from the get-go, aided by her officials and Department, in helping the vital tourism and hospitality sector. The work of the tourism recovery task force, which addressed the Oireachtas committee, has been substantial and the interventions over the course of these horrific 12 months have been exceptional, which is only right when we consider how the sector has been immensely affected like no other due to Covid-19 and the large number of people employed in the sector, as outlined by so many speakers already.

The 85% drop in revenue in the sector since the start of the pandemic this time last year has been simply jaw-dropping and of course some have been hit harder than orders due to a reliance on the sector. Last week, I and other members of my party attended a Zoom meeting with members of Chambers Ireland and representatives of Kerry in particular indicated that the pandemic has laid bare the over-reliance in the local economy in the kingdom on the tourism and hospitality sector. Equally, along large parts of the Wild Atlantic Way and my own area of the Boyne Valley, businesses have been hit exceptionally hard as well.

Tomorrow, representatives from the industry will address the Oireachtas committee on tourism. The group will include members of the Irish Hotels Federation, which represents a sector that experienced a €2.5 billion drop in revenue last year, the Restaurants Association of Ireland, whose members employ 125,000 people, the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Licensed Vintners Association, LVA. The challenges faced in particular in the hospitality sector are best summed up by the LVA statement tomorrow, which alludes to the trading restrictions over the past year. The businesses were closed on 15 March 2020, reopened on 29 June, closed for indoor service on 18 September but allowed to trade outdoors for a maximum of 15 customers, closed for outdoor service on 21 October, reopened on 4 December and closed on Christmas Eve, remaining closed to date. As of today, they have been affected for 372 days and counting.

These are all part of one industry and although they are distinctly different, they are all bound by the desire to trade. That might be stating the obvious but the statement is becoming more pronounced. They do not want the wage subsidy support; they want to trade and for people to recognise that, as the vaccination programme continues, they will trade differently if allowed to do so. How that should happen is the question and it should be in a uniform rather than ad hoc manner.

I have seen chief executives of local authorities being very imaginative and working well with local businesses in previous restrictions. They are reimagining public spaces because they know this is not a short-term matter. Given the warnings from the deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Glynn, in the past couple of days about how much protection the vaccine will really give us, we need that fresh way of thinking to allow these people to trade.

The Minister spoke about not wanting to give people false hope but they are looking for some hope. The comments by Dr. Glynn over the weekend have further dented the small hope those people have. We must be imaginative and work with our chief executives in local authorities across the country to reimagine those spaces. We must provide a roadmap, limited as it may be. There is little point in members of the Oireachtas committee sitting with their thumbs in their mouths tomorrow and patting the heads of people who are coming in. The demands are clear and have been laid out by others. They include a doubling of the Covid restrictions support scheme, a new enhanced restart grant, the extension of tax warehousing, a commitment on 9% VAT for tourism and the continuation of waivers for rates and so forth.

If we do not act, there will be a break in compliance, confidence and the trust that has been built between the State and these people. That trust is already fracturing. We have already seen high-profile restaurateurs like Paul Treyvaud in Killarney stating on national television that he will open not today or tomorrow but on 1 July, come hell or high water. It is the date he will open his high-profile restaurant on the main street in Killarney. He is holding the Government accountable to supply a roadmap to allow him to do so by that date.

The conversation he sparked shows a frustration of which the Minister is well aware. Are we getting to the point where compliance is being tested and people are no longer looking for a sympathetic word, but for that roadmap?

I am hopeful for the future of the industry. The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation has identified various scenarios for industry growth and a full recovery of jobs and revenue back to 2019 levels over the next number of years. There is hope there. The illumination of monuments across the world in green shows the grá for Ireland and the hope.

The Minister concluded on the issue of digital green cards. She referred to not providing false hope, and I recognise that. However, we cannot on one side recognise how much the international tourism industry is worth and on the other side say we do not have a clear pathway out of the current situation.

I am thankful for this debate. We have various practitioners coming before us at committee tomorrow and we need to offer more than a pat on the head. We need to provide this clear pathway for them so they can trade successfully in whatever limited way we provide for them.

The Minister is welcome. I thank her for the opportunity for Senators to discuss the impact Covid-19 has had on the tourism and hospitality industry.

The importance tourism has for our economy can never be overstated. It played a major role in our recovery following the crash, driving job creation, particularly in rural and regional areas, and directly contributing 260,000 jobs in 2019, 11% of the total employment figure. It provided numerous job opportunities, particularly in rural areas away from the main cities where there was limited employment. Some 70% of tourism jobs are located outside Dublin. Tourism has been one of the most directly affected sectors due to Covid, with over 200,000 job losses, the loss of €5 billion in spend from international tourist visitors and a large drop in the €2.4 billion spend by the domestic tourist. Last year was a virtual write-off, apart from the staycation period, 2021 is looking similar and it looks like 2022 before businesses will start to recover. However, before any business can recover, it must survive.

I welcome the range of support measures that have been introduced, including the cancellation of rates, wages subsidy schemes, restart grants, tax warehousing, and the Covid restrictions support scheme, and I concur with the comments made by a number of Senators regarding the Minister, the Department and the supports that have been put in place. It is significant, but it is enough? The answer is "No". The hospitality and tourism sectors need certainty and clarity in uncertain times.

I note the Minister's comments on the lack of a specific unit for training and apprenticeships and the fact the programme has been put in there by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. Is it time we created a specific unit? I do not think SOLAS has expertise in that area.

Tomorrow, the joint Oireachtas committee will meet with the Restaurants Association of Ireland, the Irish Hotels Federation, the Licensed Vintners Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland. The hospitality sector is the lifeblood or many rural and regional economies and, without its recovery, many of our regions will not recover. I welcome the introduction of the VAT rate which is due to end in December 2021. However, we need to send out a strong signal of support to the industry by stating that we will extend it throughout 2022. This measure helped build confidence and gave rise to a large number of the jobs that were created in the sector and to the number of international visitors who came here pre Covid and post the economic crash of the 2000s. I see directly the impact in my county where Center Parcs, which employs more than 1,000 staff, has been closed for a significant portion of the past year. As chairman of County Longford tourism, I am confident we can rebuild the sector. I acknowledge phase 1 of the tourism business continuity scheme, which closed recently, and phase 2, which will focus on supporting internal strategic tourism transport providers to access financial supports.

I am encouraged by the numbers who have registered for Meitheal, our largest tourism trade event: 500-plus Irish businesses and, importantly, over 230 international buyers will attend virtually. Fáilte Ireland has done an excellent job in supporting businesses during the pandemic. I compliment Paul Kelly and his team and, in particular, to Paddy Matthews and his Ireland's Hidden Heartlands team, who were performing ahead of target prior to Covid in terms of visitor numbers to the area.

I welcome the recent launch of the Shannon tourism master plan, which involves Waterways Ireland and ten local authorities. It involves a €75 million investment over the next ten years to unlock the potential of the River Shannon and Lough Ree and the potential development of the boglands.

It will help to transform the region and deliver a better spread of tourism and visitor activity in the region. This Wednesday will see the launch of the Royal Canal greenway from Maynooth to Clondara along the River Shannon in Longford, creating the longest greenway in Ireland. I am delighted to see this happen because I have been involved with it since 2013 when we started to develop the section in Longford.

There are a number of issues of concern, however. Fáilte Ireland recently released an outdoor dining scheme to support businesses during the summer months in key tourism destinations. I believe that all areas bar none should be entitled to participate in this scheme and not just the limited number that have been put forward. I am in favour of the vaccine passport to allow travel and in turn to allow a number of businesses to open up and to allow them to survive before they are no longer in a position to recover. I am against a two-tier system for reopening our hospitality sector as happened last year. All should open together under strict guidelines. There should be no difference between dry pubs, wet pubs or restaurants and hotels serving food and drink. While these businesses are closed, we have allowed the large multiples to advertise and sell drink at below cost. We need only look at the national newspapers every weekend and, in the days leading up to each bank holiday, when there are full page advertisements for cheap drink. We are making it cheap to get drunk and we have allowed an underage drinking culture to develop. A minimum price alcohol Bill needs to be introduced for the health and well-being of our younger generation and for the future of the hospitality industry.

Is there a representative from the pub or restaurant sector on the tourism recovery oversight group or on the boards of Fáilte Ireland or Tourism Ireland? The stay and spend scheme, or an amended version, needs to be put in place for the fourth quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022.

We must all play our part in holidaying in our own country and supporting our own economy. As a boost, we must give commitments to the industry that the supports and finances are in place to help Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland to restart, rebuild and ultimately to redesign demand to support the recovery of our overseas tourism and to drive business development throughout the country.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Martin, to the House today. The Irish tourism industry is facing its biggest ever crisis. The headline figures the industry is suffering at this moment are mind blowing. I will quote two of those figures. There has been a loss of €5.7 billion in earnings from overseas visitors and upwards of 160,000 jobs have been lost, with several hundred businesses facing permanent closure.

The tourism and hospitality industry employed more than 265,000 people throughout the State. It was the largest indigenous employer in the country, accounting for one job in nine in the State. Some 70% of those employed in the tourism industry are operating outside of Dublin. Tourism has become the heartbeat of rural Ireland, becoming a vital component of life there. So many rural counties depend on tourism employment. Kerry with 18% employment, Donegal with 13% and Waterford with 12% are examples of the huge percentage of jobs depending on this sector. Simply put, if we do not try to save the greatest amount of these jobs, then rural Ireland and its communities will be decimated.

Over recent weeks I have taken the opportunity to speak to many involved in this industry and I would like to use some of my time today to raise a number of issues around those employed in the industry. Notwithstanding what the Minister said in her opening remarks, there is a growing concern that Government is not doing enough for those who work or have worked in the industry with regard to their future training needs. It is vital the expertise for which we are world famous is retained. It is essential those responsible for the céad míle fáilte can continue in the industry.

We welcome the payment packages put in place by Government and support their extension. Retaining tourism jobs and skills, however, will be vital to the recovery of this industry. An immediate upskilling and reskilling programme is needed for tourism. I am aware the tourism task force has identified the need for lifelong learning programmes through digital platforms, a call supported by those in the education sector. This will increase the quality of jobs in tourism and sustain those jobs in rural Ireland I spoke about previously. Those involved in education of the tourism sector can provide a one-stop shop for those working or who have worked in the industry. These educational providers have the experience and the personnel to roll out such courses. They should be encouraged and supported by Government to develop further their excellent courses, which are world-renowned. We have an opportunity here in an online world to assist with the personal development of those formerly employed in the industry and those who we hope will have a future in this industry.

There is always, of course, a need to ensure all such employment is sustainable and conforms to all employment law.

At a time when youth unemployment runs at over 50%, there is no doubt that tourism can play its part once again in reducing such numbers. Previously, one in two of those employed in the sector was aged under 35 years old, compared with less than one in three in the total workforce. It is time to give those educators the resources to develop these gateways.

I wanted to raise a number of local opportunities that have national outcomes. I have been struck by the numbers already using the blueway in my home county of Kildare over recent weeks. There is both an international and domestic opportunity in developing these blueways. We must capitalise on this opportunity by further providing the funding for those who wish to invest and develop tourist attractions along these tracks. These attractions can sustain rural communities and provide the jobs such communities will need into the future. I once again mention the Umeras peatland experience outside Monasterevin, County Kildare. It is a sustainable way of maintaining our magnificent bogs post production while still providing opportunities in the areas they are located.

Many in the restaurant and food business have identified outdoor dining opportunities. Many local authorities, as has already been said, have embraced this idea through pilot schemes in which they have pedestrianised streets and forgone specific planning charges. It is time we embraced this further and provided a roadmap to local authorities and businesses on how they can fully embrace this idea. The Government needs to move quickly to utilise these open spaces. It can revitalise many towns and cities and, most importantly, such places can play a major part in sustaining and reopening the sector.

I also ask the Minister to consider food trucks which have sprung up in many locations in Covid-19 Ireland. We need to regulate these opportunities vis-à-vis existing businesses. They can provide employment and sustain many rural locations, but the Government must consider the displacement of existing business. These can provide a solution for the mainly rural locations of our greenways and blueways.

I mention the discussion we recently had in the Seanad on the increase in illegal dumping. At a time we are looking to the future of our tourism project, we cannot sustain this damage being done to our countryside, villages, towns and cities. Our tourism product is built on our unspoilt landscapes. I ask the Minister, as the Minister with responsibility for tourism, to ensure the Bill we passed last week on Second Stage to combat this blight or the proposed Government legislation is brought forward as quickly as possible. We can no longer allow our tourism product to be tarnished.

I have raised previously with the Minister the problems we predicted with the stay and spend scheme. It has already been mentioned in the debate. The stay and spend scheme was budgeted to cost the Exchequer €270 million. In a recent reply to my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, the figures released show expenditure of €9.2 million and a potential tax cost of €1.8 million. Speaking to those in the industry, the word "cumbersome" was the most common word used to describe the scheme. We need to consider a new scheme, maybe similar to the one in the UK where the emphasis is put on the Government to pay part of an invoice from a tourism or restaurant provider, with the consumer paying the other part at the point of sale. The domestic market needs a boost. The Irish Hotels Federation in its most recent publication reports booking levels of just 22% for July and 20% for August.

Along with many in the industry, I have asked for the Minister's Department to concentrate on the needs of the tourism industry at this time. If there were as big a threat to any other industry, the Government would recall the task force and meet weekly, such is the enormity of the situation. At the end of the day, we are talking about 270,000 jobs. Those I have spoken to see the potential for creating further employment. They want to invest in their staff and new facilities. The greenways and blueways I spoke about are just some aspects of the great potential for new employment.

I thank the Minister for listening and ask her to consider the points I have raised.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I commend her on her work in terms of the night-time economy. The night-time economy task force has invited submissions. The process is well under way and the report of the night-time economy task force is due to be published soon. When will we expect a report from the night-time economy task force? Will it be laid before these Houses? I commend the Minister's work on it and her commitment to it.

The night-time economy and industry cannot reopen on the same basis on which it was closed. There are myriad good reasons we need a better nightlife and use of our cities around the clock. Tourism is one of them. Many people visit European cities on the basis of their nightlife.

Many people visit Dublin on the basis of our nightlife. I note the Dublin Chamber submission to the night-time economy task force states:

The night-time economy is a key aspect of life in Dublin, as the city is home to world famous theatres and bars and is internationally known as a great city to visit. However, Dublin Chamber recognises that the current regulations, licensing laws, restrictions and lack of supportive infrastructure have resulted in the night-time economy not being able to achieve its full potential.

From a business perspective, we would not dare say that any business should close at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., so I do not know why we force businesses to close at 2.30 at night, at the latest, and that is only after they apply for a special exemption order. Every year, millions of euro in court, solicitor and legal fees and tax leave the entertainment, cultural and hospitality industries in Dublin and our other major cities just to allow businesses to stay open from 12.30 a.m. until 2.30 a.m. When we compare Dublin to other cities around Europe, the restrictions on our night-time culture and industry are huge.

Dublin is obviously very attractive for weekend visits. I am sure the Minister, as a member of the Green Party, has something to say about weekend trips. I appreciate that as well. I once looked at getting the train from Brussels to Amsterdam on a holiday and it was more expensive than getting a flight. It is cheaper to take a flight between two European cities than it is to take the train. Dublin is an attractive city for weekend visitors but we need an offering that goes beyond tea and biscuit culture.

I know the National Gallery is engaged with the night-time economy task force, as are the other national cultural institutions. Dublin Chamber refers to St. Stephen's Green. Why do all of these places close at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. at the latest? We need to think differently and not be wedded to this idea that culture stops at a certain hour. Clubbing and bars are culture. They are a key part of our cultural attraction and should be a better part of it.

I mentioned there are a myriad of reasons the night-time economy is important for people who live here. No one would contest that the GAA and the church are not hugely important for people to socialise for all the reasons I mentioned. People need to socialise and interact; nightlife and the night economy are a huge part of that. We cannot reopen this sector, given its importance to jobs and hospitality, on the same basis as it closed.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I look forward to the engagement with her. I know she has a very clear understanding of what is required, as do others. The tourism sector is in a very different position now from what it was in previously. Even with the potential for some opening up over the summer, the tourism mix is very different. It is very clear we will not have the inbound tourism upon which the survival of so many people depends. We will have to reorient the entire tourism product.

There has been engagement with the Irish Hotels Federation and others. They have some very fair and appropriate claims to make, with which the Minister will be familiar. They are looking for the Covid restrictions support scheme to change in nature by doubling the payment amounts, irrespective of the level of Covid restrictions. They want the employment wage subsidy scheme extended until the end of 2021, appropriate banking measures put in place, Government support to ensure that certain moratoriums are put in place on lending, tourism VAT of 9% to continue until 2025 and a refund on the pass-through charges on energy and utilities.

Obviously, they want the continuation of the local authority waiver rates. Those are appropriate. It is right that the Minister would fight her corner, as I know she will, for that to happen. The reality is many of them are small businesses that need continued State support even with the opening up or the relaxing of restrictions.

I also received communication from the Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions. Its members run a number of facilities in my county such as the Aillwee Cave and the Doolin Cave, and many more visitor attractions. They are somewhat concerned that The Path Ahead plan, which was rightly launched with some fanfare, seems to have removed them from being allowed to reopen at level 3. They say:

Visitor attractions are professionally controlled spaces ... highly experienced in managing people flows ... and 85% of members provide online ticket booking to support capacity management in these attractions. They have also extensively invested in new and updated safety measures and training, including that by Fáilte Ireland, around the Covid-19 safety charter so they are perfectly placed to reopen as safe spacious places. There are many well-documented positive mental health benefits associated with the enjoyment of culture and the arts. The lockdown experience showed us how we can create beautiful and aesthetic experiences for our emotional well-being.

They have set out clearly that their visitors attractions are a key part of a destination product offering uniquely presenting a ripple uplift on surrounding accommodation, restaurants and other tourism offerings. Given the likelihood outbound international travel for Irish holiday makers will be hugely curtailed this summer, and recognising that there will little, if any, inbound tourism, there is an onus on all of us involved at State level to try to ensure these facilities are supported and the restrictions are lifted at the appropriate time. What they are appealing for is that they be allowed to open under level 3 restrictions.

I am also concerned about smaller operations, in particular, the Clare Heritage and Genealogy Centre in Corofin, which expected to be initially included under the CRSS, but that did not happen. Unfortunately, it missed the deadline of 8 March for the tourism business continuity scheme. This was through no fault of its own, but because of close contact with Covid and staff not being able to perform their duties, the centre missed the deadline for getting its application in. Can the Minister look at schemes with specific deadlines and perhaps extend the deadlines to cater for business like that, if at all possible? As other Members have identified, there have been some savings on the other end. There are exceptional circumstances for all sorts of reasons when people miss deadlines. It would be a shame if some of these facilities do not survive because of being unable to get on to a scheme.

I raised the case of Sean Kilkenny of Dromoland Castle, who runs a jarvey business, with the Minister previously and I know she has had interaction with him. The pressure on that man is immense. There is no doubt the pressure on his business has taken a considerable toll on him and his family. I appeal to the Minister to examine businesses such as his, which have significant costs and have fallen between the cracks under many schemes. He has rental costs and the cost of maintaining his animals but there is still no business in sight. I appeal to the Minister again to look at facilities such as that. I am taken by comments from Fota Island and others businesses that have significant costs to maintain animals over a protracted period. We should find a way to support and help them. They were all viable, solid businesses before Covid hit. They have the potential to be viable businesses on the other side of Covid. The mental pressure and torture experienced by many of these operators has driven them to extremes. What we need to do as a Government is to find ways to support people who find themselves in really difficult situations but are prepared to put in the hard graft to get their businesses back up and running when we get to a point when the economy can be opened up.

I welcome the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, to the House.

I represent the region of Roscommon and east Galway where there has been fantastic investment in key tourism and recreational initiatives. I want to highlight the key role of walking, cycling clubs and volunteers in our communities, as well as Tidy Towns and the real sense of pride we have in our towns and villages, and how these actively promote and work with tourism and rural recreation officers in our local authorities, as well as Fáilte Ireland, especially with the Hidden Heartlands.

Three projects I want to highlight are the Galway to Athlone cycleway, the Shannon tourism masterplan and the Beara-Breifne Way. The Galway-Athlone cycleway, planned by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, will really open up the area of south Roscommon. It will, hopefully, come along by the Shannon. The choice then on some of those routes mean it will come up along by the Grand Canal, publicly owned lands, into Ballinasloe. I am an advocate of those fantastic experiences of coming into Ballinasloe. The No. 1 green route will bring one along the Beara-Breifne Way into Ahascragh where a multimillion euro whiskey and gin distillery is planned along with a visitor centre. This is a fantastic investment in the future of a small town in east Galway.

There is the heritage and culture in other parts of east Galway such as Castleblakeney where one of the bog bodies in the National Museum was found. The Carrownagappul bog is one of the most unique raised bogs in Ireland. It was recently featured in an RTÉ programme and noted for its biodiversity with over 40 species of birds in the location. There is the Monivea forest, a Coillte-owned land. Another route could go along through the middle of the area through Aughrim and its amazing interpretative centre. There is the stunning Kilconnell Abbey, the impressive Woodlawn House and lovely bog walks around villages such as Cappataggle and New Inn.

While the cycleways programme is important, there has been recent investment through the roads programme under local authorities, particularly for the old Dublin to Galway road. I am sure everyone remembers that road from Ballinasloe to Athlone. Converting the hard shoulder into a cycleway is being examined to make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

The just transition programme provides great funding going to Ballyforan along the banks of the River Suck with €1 million for a cycleway loop. The funds for active travel will be important for developing cycleways for areas with no footpaths in towns and villages in rural areas where it can be dangerous to walk.

The Shannon tourism masterplan will see funding of €76.5 million over ten years. This will be important for Roscommon and east Galway. Funding was announced recently under the outdoor infrastructure funding programme with over €200,000 for the harbour and walkways facilities in Roosky. The Shannon tourism masterplan is looking at options for visitor access to Lough Ree islands from Lecarrow, Portrunny Harbour, as well as from Hudson Bay and Lanesborough. It is important to look at how we develop this as soon as possible. It is amazing to see the amount of funding going into these projects but we really need it to happen quickly.

The River Suck is a main tributary of the River Shannon. It needs to be developed even more than what has already been listed in the Shannon tourism masterplan. Ballinasloe has four star and three star hotels with over 146 rooms available. It is the second largest town in Galway county. It has a range of activities from leisure centres to swimming pools to golf clubs. Ballinasloe Marina connects Ballinasloe and Shannonbridge to the River Shannon. It is highlighted by tourists as a quality route, particularly for water sports. Ballinasloe is the gateway to the west. I would like to see further development of this route under the Shannon tourism plan.

A masterplan was developed for the Beara-Breifne Way. It is an amazing route, 700 km, that goes through ten counties from Dursey Island in west Cork all the way up to Blacklion in Cavan. It is driven by some key people such as Jim O'Sullivan who sits on many community groups. It is a combination of many agencies working together such as Coillte, Waterways Ireland, Mountaineering Ireland, local authorities and Fáilte Ireland.

We have the Hymany Way along the Grand Canal into Ballinasloe. We have the Suck Valley Way. Farmers and landowners work to develop these trails for the enjoyment of all. We have the Lung Lough Gara Way which is one of the routes to be extended under the walks scheme. What is the timeline for that walk scheme? This will go from Clonalis House, Castlerea, to Lough Glynn to Ballaghaderreen to Boyle.

The walks scheme and rural recreation officers are extremely important.

I suppose the following are the questions I have for the Minister. First, I refer to the local authority tourism officer capability programme. Will there be more resources allocated to local authorities? Galway is the second-largest county, at 6,148 sq. km. Its local authority is second lowest in the context of funding. There is one tourism officer, who only started a number of months ago. She already has nearly 20 projects on her books. How on earth will these be completed? How is this possible? Galway is the second-largest county in Ireland. Consideration has to be given to that fact. We need more resources for tourism officers, especially if we are to kick-start our economy subsequent to Covid and deal with the aftermath of the lockdown and Brexit. Second, is there a timeframe for local authorities to submit tourism strategies to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media? Third, on the walk scheme, as I mentioned, in the context of the extension of Lung Lough Gara Way, is there a timeline for applications from Sport Ireland? Is there a timeline in respect of the Beara Breifne Way? On Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, there has been great engagement, as Senator Carrigy mentioned, with Mr. Paddy Matthews, but why I do not see east Galway listed on the relevant website? East Galway is part of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands and needs to be acknowledged as such.

Our region is unique, comprising peat bogs to wildflower meadows, native woodlands to turloughs, lakes and marshes. We want to see more water sports, such as canoeing. We want to bring our walkways, blueways and cycleways together. There is a sense of pride in showing how Galway and Roscommon are wonderful places to live, work and visit, but it is crucial to get investment to kick-start this sector, especially now. Time is of the essence.

In welcoming the Minister - cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire - I would like to endorse everything my colleague, Senator Dolan, set out so eloquently about the beauty of the area in which we live, namely, that of Roscommon-east Galway. I frequently walk and run around the back roads of my own place, sometimes bringing the dog, but I am always struck by the natural beauty of our place. I say that as somebody who has walked a lot on the Continent, particularly on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. What one sees there is a beautifully developed infrastructure rooted in history. So much of the beauty that I have seen when abroad I see in my own place as well, but I also see a huge need for investment in order to develop it to the point where we can then show it to people all over the world and invite them to come among us. The beauty is in the simple things - the old houses, the placename that has a special history that tells of something and the quiet relaxation that is to be had. There are so many amenities on our area, as in other parts of the country, but it is so important that the investment is put in place to support the enthusiasm and the willingness that is there among the people to develop the tourism potential of the areas in which they live.

Over the weekend, I spoke to a restaurant owner and asked him what the State could do to assist when the hospitality and tourism sectors eventually begin to open. His answer was simple and emphatic. He said, "Anything that gives some level of certainty so that we can plan properly." That sums it up. Businesses, as well as the public at large, have had to grin and bear it through a lot of chaotic, ad hoc policymaking over the past year. Indeed, the latter is continuing in the context of to the duration of the lockdown. What people need and, indeed, crave is certainty and an ability to plan ahead. It is not easy to give that certainty but we must attend to that particular problem because it is acute.

The intention in the context of reopening is surely that some level of reopening of the tourism and hospitality sectors would take place in the coming months and that some kind of a summer season would be enjoyed by the sector. The view among those trading in the sector seems to be that demand for services will be strong since there will be a pent-up eagerness among people to return to normality as much as possible but we need to learn the lessons of last summer's reopening. For instance, we saw a very serious geographical and regional disparity in how tourism and hospitality reopened in 2020 and we need to avoid a repeat of that. Traditional tourist spots, such as Westport and Killarney, fared quite well whereas other parts of the country, including provincial towns which would not be such a draw traditionally for tourists, did not do so well. We saw it here in Dublin too, where the areas between the two canals were almost a ghost town for the entire summer while the suburbs enjoyed a greater boost. That was probably to do with the large number of tourists from abroad who would normally be in Dublin city centre but who were not there. Should we be looking at targeted supports to address this regional disparity to help areas which did not experience any great uptake last summer because they can ill-afford a second poor summer in a row?

I commend the work done last year by Fáilte Ireland and the work done by individual hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and restaurants to make their premises and services safe. However, there are some questions hanging in the air now regarding, for example, restaurants. Where will they stand with regard to social distancing? This caused a great deal of heartache last year as the many social distancing rules meant it was pointless for them to open because they could not accommodate a critical mass of people on their premises.

With regard to direct State supports for businesses in the sector, I was surprised to read recently about the European Commission reporting that Ireland is last among the 27 EU member states when it comes to providing state aids to businesses affected by the pandemic. We have paid €930 million to support businesses directly but that is 0.26% of GDP. However, we have borrowed €20 billion so far to deal with the pandemic. To be sure, a relatively small percentage has been spent to support businesses. It appears to be very low, and I wonder whether a greater proportion of the additional public spending should be going to businesses to preserve jobs.

The wage subsidy scheme has worked and has been broadly welcomed. It should continue until normal conditions resume. However, at present, turnover has to be below 70% of 2019 levels for businesses to qualify. Last summer, this meant that many restaurants operated only limited hours to ensure that they stayed below the threshold to avail of the breathing space under the scheme. Who could possibly blame them, given what so many have suffered through the level 5 lockdowns? We must be careful that State supports do not act as a disincentive to businesses reopening fully. Perhaps the Government should consider adjusting the 70% threshold to encourage more businesses to reopen more fully once it is possible.

We have to strike a balance between the PUP and reopening business. Last year, many small business owners found that employees were reluctant to come off the PUP to return to their jobs at what were reduced hours and reduced wages. To be honest, none of us would blame anyone for making that calculation in the interest of the person's financial well-being and that of his or her family. We must ensure that the Covid crisis does not lead to welfare traps.

There are other ways in which we can help the tourism and hospitality sectors. City and county councils must play a part. Senator Dooley and other Members mentioned the importance of rates and waivers for small businesses. Measures such as free on-street parking for the summer months could help to bring people back to town centres. Of course, councils would have to be refunded for income lost and that should come out of the money that is being borrowed.

I will conclude by referring to international travel. Nobody seriously expects it to return any time soon, but there is a question about how it will reopen. Last year, the Government adopted the so-called green list system, only to regret it within hours because of the mixed messages it sent about non-essential travel. We need a consistent approach and clear decisions, which will allow people to plan.

I welcome the Minister. This is my first time to engage with her with regard to tourism. I will read a few extracts from my hotel's old diaries:

Ate a hearty dinner and departed fully satisfied with the treatment we received - W.H. Adams.

Stayed ten days at Glendalough, noted for the cleanliness and the kind attention it offers its visitors. On the night of Tuesday last, the 11th, a heavy snowfall occurred and Lugduff and the surrounding mountains next morning appeared like the Alpine landscape.

Arrived from town at 1.15. Had a first-class dinner for which we were charged a very moderate price. Can recommend all cyclists stopping in Glendalough to put their feet up here.

Those are Tripadvisor-style reports from 1887. Our hotel has experienced a great deal in its lifetime. It has seen the fight for independence and two world wars, as well as several economic crises. It suffered through the recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and the significant impact of the Troubles in the North on the tourism sector. However, in the 200-year history of the hotel it has never previously been told and forced to close its doors.

We have always come back and we will again, and, with the Minister's support, we will get there. My first thoughts today are with the 260,000 people who work in the industry and the impact this has had on them. While everyone has been impacted by Covid-19 through restrictions or for health and other reasons, these people have suffered more than the rest. There is the impact of the financial burden it has caused for them and the impact of trying to deal with their mortgages.

I will give the House an example, and this is where a lot of the frustration before Christmas came from. In my industry we tried to encourage staff back to work for three weeks over Christmas. They took advantage of that in the hope they could buy their children something extra special for Christmas only for that to be shot down before they ever even got that chance to work. As an operator within the industry, I am aware of how such staff feel, but then I also have concern for my business and my industry, and every day and every week this is prolonged our viability is put into question. I appreciate every support that has been given to us - without it we would not be here today - but we are still operating at a loss every week we are closed, and that is accumulated loss. We are still going on.

As a small independent hotelier, it is harder to deal with the banking and the insurance industries. Many of my colleagues' insurance policies had a 12-month clause in them, some an 18-month clause and some a two-year clause. None of us know whether we will get compensated by the insurance industry, although we hope we will. This is all still hovering in the background. As I said, we really do appreciate all the supports the Minister has outlined to us today. The wage subsidy scheme, the CRSS, the commercial rates waiver, etc. are all to be appreciated.

The question is this: where will we go in the future? There has to be a safe and sustained opening of the industry. We can never again have the open-and-closed thing we have had up to now. The tourism sector is a business. We will now open our businesses. We do not know, however, what we are opening or when we are opening. We have lost 200,000 staff in the industry. We cannot turn on the tap again. We have to start that whole recruitment process. It has been said here - the Minister said it - that 75% of our tourism is foreign tourism. We will rely more and more on the domestic market over the coming years. The stay and spend incentive was a great idea and we should look at it. It was just unfortunately timed, and the only ones who seemed to benefit from it were McDonalds and a few other fast food outlets. We can use it in the future, however. We cannot have the same thing happen again whereby there is just July and August and then nothing after that. It is a matter of trying to sustain the business over a prolonged period. While the stay and spend initiative did not work, it was not the scheme's fault; it was just what happened. It should be looked at again and targeted at the off-season once again.

In the immediate term a clear pathway is how we will bring back international tourists. It is so vital for us to sustain our industry. What can we add to the green card, the passport and testing to make people comfortable and make them feel safe enough that they feel able to go out again, travel once again and come back to us?

From a strategic and a review point of view, the Minister herself knows the economic figures off by heart. I will not go through all of them again. However, let us look at tourism and hospitality from a social point of view. I mentioned we have been in existence for more than 200 years. Two hundred years ago hospitality was for the elite. That has completely changed now. The whole hospitality sector is open to every cohort of people. It is part of our health and well-being now and part of our social life. We need to do as much as we can to get that back open again.

The one thing that did annoy me over the whole period was that the only access to alcohol was in the off-licence. There is an inequality surrounding alcohol and how it is treated both on- and off-licence. We will need to look at this when we look at the whole tourism sector in a strategic review.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Martin, to the House and wish her well in the portfolio of which she is in charge, tourism.

As an ambassador for tourism, she brings a new, modern approach to how we need to incrementally rebuild the tourism sector in this country. As the Minister knows, I come from County Clare, which is heavily dependent on tourism and, as such, has been heavily impacted by the lack of tourists.

Tourism is a people industry and people work in the tourism industry. It is labour-intensive, when one looks at hospitality, catering, and so on, and leads to significant employment, particularly seasonal employment. In respect of seasonal employment, while there was a temporary and a most welcome reprieve last summer, the worry this year is whether we are going to see any kind of a temporary reprieve. One has to hope that we will, but of course it must be guided by numbers and the Covid numbers reducing. It heartens me to listen, talk and engage with people in the tourism sector who are the first to say we should not open up until it is safe to do so and until we can open permanently. They, as much as any of us, want to see Covid-19 suppressed and that when we do open, we open permanently.

The appreciation for the various schemes that are available is also heartening. Although they will never be enough, they are significant and it is appreciated that they are there. I am not just referring to the grant scheme, but schemes such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, the rates rebate and other schemes. All of those schemes help. However, the opportunity that presents itself now, in respect of rebuilding, must be seized in a different way. We must look at building a tourism industry that operates for 12 months of the year, or as near to it as possible.

In our country we are blessed with beautiful scenery and fantastic walks. There has been significant Government investment over the years, and committed Government spending over the next few years will see a proliferation of walking routes, various outdoor public transport trails and routes and so on. To that end, I welcome the announcement of the commitment to funding for the west Clare railway greenway. Of course, I want to see that project escalated.

Coming from County Clare, it will be no surprise to the Minister that I will mention Shannon Airport. I know she is fully aware of the challenges facing the airport and how critical it will be, when we move out of the pandemic to a post-Covid period, that every possible incentive is provided to ensure as many passengers as possible pass through it. Shannon Airport is the anchor tenant, if one likes, in respect of economic and tourism development in County Clare.

I want to see an initiative similar to The Gathering in 2013, which saw hundreds of thousands of people come back to Ireland. In my view, it was the first step in rebooting the tourism sector in our country after the last recession. A similar initiative should be introduced and I know that plans are afoot to look at that. We can do it bigger and better than we did the last time. The Gathering led to a joined-up approach to marketing the Wild Atlantic Way initiative. In my view, the Wild Atlantic Way will be the most successful walking and cycling trail in the world because it is unique in the range of experiences that people can enjoy when they go on it. When one talks to people who have not been to Ireland before and those who have travelled on the Wild Atlantic way, it is stunning to hear about their experiences.

It will come as no surprise to the Minister that being from County Clare, I will speak about Shannon Heritage and its importance to the tourism offering in the county over the years. However, I believe that Shannon Heritage should have a new home and should be part of the Office of Public Works, OPW, offering.

I do not believe an airport company or property company, while their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing, necessarily have the skill set to bring Shannon Heritage to the new level I believe it can potentially go to. That is why I think the expertise of the OPW, were Shannon Heritage and the OPW to be married together, would provide Ireland with a phenomenal tourism product.

Speaking of tourism products, the Minister will be aware that, in 2019, the Cliffs of Moher visitor experience in County Clare had a throughput traffic of 1.6 million people. I welcome the fact Clare County Council hired consultants to look at a 2040 plan for the Cliffs of Moher. However, I worry about the potential to put a town or miniature city into the Cliffs of Moher, which will suck up whatever potential benefit there is to the surrounding communities. Whatever happens at the Cliffs of Moher has to complement the other towns and villages in north Clare, not compete with them. For too long, the Cliffs of Moher experience has not lived up to the hope and expectation in terms of driving economic development and visitor numbers in the surrounding towns and villages. That needs to change. We need further engagement in this Chamber about the future of the second busiest and most successful tourist attraction in the country, the Cliffs of Moher, at another date.

I welcome the Minister and it is good to have her in the House. As we know, Ireland is known as the country of 100,000 welcomes and everyone is always happy to get céad míle fáilte when they come to Ireland or, indeed, if they are in Ireland and go to another part of it, so we are giving the Minister céad mile fáilte here today. She has come from her House to our House, which is actually her House.

In terms of the asks that I know we are going to ask of the Minister and the supports that have been given for the tourism industry, I know she recognises this is a vital industry in terms of providing full-time and part-time employment and, of course, giving people the opportunity to see the wonderful vistas and the different types of events and experiences we have here in Ireland. I know the Minister will not be surprised when I talk a little about the feast of offerings we have in Kildare. The Minister will in particular be familiar with those on the north side of the county but I am going to talk a little about the south side of the county. Many people travel through Kildare to get to Dublin or to leave Dublin and go either west or to the south. However, if they took the opportunity and the time to stay, either for a few hours or a few nights, they would find an absolute feast of events just to whet their appetite. When our restrictions are eventually lifted, the first thing most of us are looking forward to, apart from getting a haircut or a hairdo, is having the opportunity to travel to some wonderful places, such as Glendalough. I was very taken with Senator Casey's description of reading some of the recollections in the hotel over the years. I completely empathise with the situation of family-run hospitality establishments in particular, given how difficult things are.

Within my own 5 km, I am very lucky that I have the Curragh plains, which we would certainly be hoping will become a UNESCO site in time. Consultation has just started in regard to the future of the Curragh plains. That is going to be a very important piece because, obviously, it has a world of heritage, archaeology and biodiversity aligned with it. I am very lucky also to have the River Liffey, and Newbridge Tidy Towns has done wonderful work to ensure it is a very attractive place for us to go to. Pollardstown Fen and its wealth of biodiversity are also within my 5 km limit. Therefore, while I live in an urban town, I have the opportunity to explore all of those. Of course, when I can go beyond my 5 km, I can go to the greenways and the blueways, which have been an incredible boon to everybody, particularly during these Covid restrictions and Covid times.

Obviously, however, we could do with more support for those amenities. One can go into Kildare town and to the Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens. We are well known, in County Kildare, for our racing industry. I will take this opportunity to suggest that the Minister come down to Punchestown, the Curragh or Naas when racing returns. We have a wealth of places and lovely hotels, such as the Keadeen Hotel in Newbridge, in which the Minister can stay.

That aside, we have Killinthomas Wood outside Rathangan on the way to Lullymore peatlands park, as well as the heritage park. All these attractions have really suffered in the past 12 months in terms of people not being able to go to them. We are very lucky that work is continuing on a distillery just outside Monasterevin, which will be a tourist attraction beside Umeras Peatlands Park. We also have Newbridge Silverware, Kildare Village and the Curragh military museum. We have spiritual tourism and we are really looking forward to celebrating Saint Brigid. Many calls are being made to make her national day a national bank holiday. In 2024, there will, we hope, be a huge festival in Kildare to celebrate 2,000 years of Saint Brigid. Some of her remains are to be found out of this country, in Lisbon. We are hoping to bring them back. We will be looking to the Minister for some funding in that regard.

The Minister, therefore, can see by even just a few of the areas I mentioned that Kildare plays a significant role with regard to Ireland's Ancient East and tourism. The whole tourism and hospitality industry absolutely needs clarity, certainty and continuing supports. I thank the Minister and Fáilte Ireland for the supports that have been put in place. There is a need for them to continue and a need for certainty and clarity, however. We are all looking forward to having the opportunity to explore our country through staycations and domestic tourism. In 2019, domestic tourism accounted for almost €3 billion, which was on top of the €7 billion for overseas tourism. There are, therefore, a huge amount of opportunities for all of us to explore and support those who are local and national.

I want touch on three points with regard to tourism in my native County Louth. Indeed, it is somewhere with which the Minister is familiar, not because of where she is from originally but if I am not mistaken, through a staycation there last summer in Gyles Quay.

The first point I want to make is about tourism in north Louth in the village of Carlingford. Senator McGreehan is all too well aware of the same issues I am about to raise regarding this area. Approximately 1,200 to 1,500 people are involved in the tourism sector in a village like Carlingford. In preparation for this contribution, I spoke yesterday with many people involved in the tourism and business sectors to really get a sense of the situation.

Last summer, they definitely had one of the busiest summers on record as a result of the calls for people to staycation. It really was an effective call and worked very well. The point is that in somewhere like Carlingford, we really need to ensure that sustainable tourism takes place. What do I mean by "sustainable tourism"? To me, sustainable tourism is where a village like Carlingford can be a nice place to live and to raise a family. At the same time, however, it can be a vibrant and enjoyable place for tourists to come and experience. It works well for visitors in terms of tourists and residents alike. We really need to focus on that promotion of sustainable tourism in rural villages. Westport, County Mayo, is a good example of how people have really acted well with sustainable tourism and made it work. One issue we must consider about that is the recent planning legislation, which states a person cannot rent out a residential unit for X amount of days of the year under Airbnb unless he or she has a commercial licence or has a plan for a commercial licence.

Problems will arise if the legislation is enforced too strictly by local authorities. A village like Carlingford, which has three small hotels and a couple of places offering bed and breakfast accommodation, does not have much capacity anyway. Consequently, if we are going to clamp down on people who provide Airbnb accommodation throughout the year, it will have a real impact on the capacity of such small villages to take tourists and visitors.

Yesterday, I chatted to a friend of mine who has been involved in tourism in Carlingford for decades. He reminded me that in 2008 the European Destination of Excellence, EDEN, awarded Carlingford an award under the theme of intangible heritage. What is "intangible heritage"? It is not easily identifiable and is not something one can see or touch. It is the stories, folklore, legends and character that seep through the landscape of a medieval village like Carlingford.

The region is home to the Carlingford Oyster Company that was first set up in 1974. The oysters are so popular that wherever oysters are eaten in the UK or Ireland there is a great chance that they came from Carlingford Lough. A couple of weeks ago, the Carlingford Oyster Company featured in an episode of Neven Maguire's series entitled "Neven's Irish Seafood Trails" on RTÉ television.

I wish to pay tribute to Louth County Council for creating the Louth Seafood Trail. The initiative came about after members of the council's Louth economic forum sat down around a table to think of ways to promote a coastal county like Louth. They came up with the innovative concept of a seafood passport where one stops at south Louth, outside Drogheda, outside Baltray and work one's way right up the coast via 49 different restaurants, shops and coffee shops. One can visit places like The Glyde Inn, Annagassan, where Conor O'Neill has done a lot of work. One can work one's way up from there, through Dundalk, into County Louth and into Carlingford to visit the Carlingford Oyster Company and see the Border region. The seafood trail is a great initiative to attract tourists to County Louth. The members of the Louth economic forum and county council have been very innovative and came up with ideas to differentiate County Louth from other parts of the country, and they deserve a lot of credit for doing so.

I wish to comment on greenways. My vision for Ireland is to have the entire country connected by greenways and it will be brilliant. At the minute we have really positive projects. There is a greenway from Carlingford to Omeath and that has been extended across the Border so the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is extending the greenway from Newry to Victoria Lock and onwards. The overall vision for that has to be a Louth coastal greenway. It would mean people could safely follow the seafood trail, make their way right up the coast with wonderful views of the Mourne Mountains and Cooley Mountains, and around Dundalk. The Government, as a result of the Green Party's involvement, has seen more money than ever before being allocated to greenways, which is welcome. However, the planning side of things is not up to speed when it comes to greenways. For example, we cannot have a greenway linking Dundalk to Blackrock yet until we get the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, in order, and the CFRAM study involves a two-year process for planning. Therefore, it is important that local authorities, when they analyse the short to medium term while seeking funding for greenways, do so in tandem with the plans for flooding development and CFRAM development that is being done. If that is not done in tandem, then the whole process will be delayed.

Finally, I wish to say that tourism is the lifeblood of so many small business owners in this country. There are people here who have much more experience in tourism than I do but I really think that this summer must be exactly like last summer, that people involved in the sector get a real bang for their buck and that people have staycations as much as possible.

Senator Niall Blaney has six minutes.

Is Senator Crowe following me? There was an arrangement between myself and Senators Crowe and Murphy to share time.

Senator Crowe will have six minutes.

We are sharing time. So Senator Crowe will take four minutes, I will take five minutes and Senator Murphy will take three minutes with the agreement of the House. The time still amounts to 12 minutes.

The Senator will have six minutes and then Senator Crowe will have six minutes. Other speakers are listed who are not in the Chamber so most certainly Senator Murphy will have that time.

On a point of order, there was an agreement that I would take three minutes.

Senator Blaney should proceed and we will figure this out.

Can we restart the clock? More than one minute has gone already.

Stop the clock.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. We have to acknowledge she has had a baptism of fire in the short time she has been in her Department. We would like to see more of her ability, which we know she has, when we get over this pandemic and she gets to it, and expect to see great measures in tourism.

Tourism has evolved in recent years. I come from Donegal, in the north west, where we have seen much more potential for tourism in recent years with the Wild Atlantic Way. However, there are many difficulties being faced by many in the tourism sector including hoteliers, restaurant and pub owners and small tourism businesses. I spoke to a hotelier in the past few days who is in turmoil. This person has restructured loans. The payments are welcome but they go nowhere near toward paying his loans. They are not the same because there is no certainty. I am aware of the difficulty in trying to create that certainty but the quicker we get a roadmap, the better because people in those businesses are in turmoil.

I extend to the Minister an invitation to visit Donegal at her earliest convenience. I understand she was brought up in Monaghan so she is not too far from Donegal and is probably familiar with much of it. Our county is somewhat similar to Monaghan in the way we were affected by the Troubles over the years. While tourism is somewhat of a commodity in Donegal, it is nothing like what it could be because during those decades of the Troubles we were cut off. We have about 8 km or 9 km adjoining the South. When I was a child travelling through the North the roads were a great thing; now, they are just bottlenecks. That is an idea of the infrastructure deficit we have in the whole north west. Counties like Donegal, Derry, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Sligo and Leitrim have a general population of 500,000 people. As far as getting our slice of the cake is concerned, we are nowhere near where we should be in terms of roads and tourism.

I come from a peninsula called Fanad, which is roughly the size of Dublin city outside the M50. We have some of the most fabulous beauty spots the Minister has ever seen. The beach near where I am from was voted the second most beautiful in the world in 1994 by The Times. Fanad Lighthouse was voted the second most beautiful in the world in recent years. There are many other attractions across Donegal. It has the highest cliffs in Europe and the most northerly point in Malin. The area where I am from on the Fanad Peninsula does not even have a hotel. Something needs to happen in terms of rebalancing tourism in this country. There is an opportunity to do that with the national development plan review. Areas such as those where I am from do not expect to get any more than that given to the rest of the country but in better times other counties got incentives to build hotels and other tourism infrastructure and to start their small businesses. There is an excellent opportunity now to do that.

With regard to the national development plan, it should be looked at using a wider scope. What can we develop that is different in respect of our tourism infrastructure? An issue I spoke about here previously is one I feel strongly about. A friend of mine, Hugh Friel, is a former chair of Tourism Ireland and a former CEO of the Kerry Group. He is now living in Kerry but he is also a Fanad man. We have spoken many times about tourism in Donegal and how we can get to where other countries are in that regard. There needs to be a change in the mindset and incentives must be provided. He has taken me to Kerry and shown me the different areas where they built marinas.

Anywhere that a marina was built, other infrastructure fell into place afterwards. Over the 20 years of the national development plan, Project Ireland 2040, we must build marinas around the coast. Everything does not have to be built tomorrow but we must make a start. There is significant potential in doing this and it is an opportunity to look after smaller businesses and incentivise start-ups.

The remaining speakers will have four minutes as I would like to give all Members who wish to speak an opportunity to do so before the Minister responds.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus cuirim failte roimh an Aire arís. Tá sí i gcónaí go breá iarchomhairleoir de chuid Chomhairle Contae Dhún Laoghaire-Ráth an Dúin a fheiceáil sa Seanad.

I recognise the good and important work that is done by visitdublin.com, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is sometimes omitted from the list of good things to see in Dublin. We are all looking forward to the resumption of tourism in Ireland and the removal of restrictions. We need to ensure that the people who visit Dublin also know that Dublin is not just the city centre and that there is a range of amenities to be seen in the county, especially Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown.

People will be aware of the rich villages we have in Dún Laoghaire, places such as Monkstown, Dalkey, Glasthule, Blackrock which are worth visiting. Fantastic transport links allow people to access these areas easily from the city centre through the DART and bus services. We have many leisure activities and literary connections. I am thinking here of the Mountains to Sea Dlr Book Festival, which will take place on Saturday and Sunday and of which I know the Minister is aware. The festival is being arranged by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and our libraries. The literary connections with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown are huge, whether through James Joyce and the Joyce Tower in Sandycove, Samuel Beckett and his family home in Foxrock or Maeve Binchy's and Hugh Leonard's connections to Dalkey. There is a long list of such connections.

As to sporting amenities, water sports are obviously of tremendous importance, with sea swimming in places like Seapoint, the Forty Foot, Hawk Cliff, Sandycove and Killiney beach. People want to visit these places. I implore the Minister to send that message also to people who visit Ireland from abroad.

Dún Laoghaire Harbour is a tremendous historical amenity. Over the years, it has been a staging point, sadly, for the departure of thousands of our citizens on boats to England and further afield. The harbour is a great Victorian entity of enormous proportions built with locally-hewn granite. It now provides significant tremendous leisure opportunities in sailing, paddle-boarding, kayaking, rowing and other water sports.

I ask the Minister to ensure Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and other parts of County Dublin are included in planning for the aftermath of Covid restrictions. One very important element that would be an excellent link between Dún Laoghaire and Dublin is the proposed Sutton to Sandycove cycleway, the S2S. The Minister is aware of the initiative because we have spoken about it before. The Sutton to Sandycove cycleway and promenade is a coastal promenade around Dublin Bay which has largely been finished on the north side of the city. There is a problematic section between Sandycove and the Merrion Gates and Dún Laoghaire. This would be a fantastic amenity, providing a commuter route for cyclists that is separated from the traffic of Rock Road and the other main arteries and a walking facility for local people. Every year, more than 1 million people walk the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire Harbour which does not lead anywhere. The S2S would be a link between Dún Laoghaire and the surrounding hinterland and Dublin City. It has enormous potential as tourist infrastructure. One sees coastal promenades and cycleways in coastal cities throughout the world, from San Diego and Havana to Tel Aviv and other cities.

This is an enormous unrealised opportunity and it needs the Government to get behind it because it must be done at central government level. I have mentioned this to the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan. I would like a commitment from the Minister that her Department is also committed to moving forward the S2S? This will be a coastal cycleway outside the DART line and a facility for tourists and local people. It will be segregated, safe and separate cycling and walking infrastructure in our area. Many of the villages I mentioned are cut off from the sea, even though they are coastal communities. Let us reconnect them. I would like the Minister to give a commitment to join us in helping to make that happen.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Martin, for coming to the House. As she is well aware, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the lives of everyone in this country. From an economic standpoint, no sector has been hit harder than tourism.

The sector has experienced a €6 billion decline in revenue and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. As the Minister will be aware, it has essentially been shut down for the entire year. The tourism sector was worth €9.3 billion to the economy in 2019, with 10 million overseas tourists coming here. We have been particularly affected in Galway, and in Galway city especially, due to the cancellation of a number of events. As the Minister will be well aware, 2020 would have brought the European Capital of Culture to our city and there was enormous expenditure on that event. I ask her and her staff to examine the expenditure for that event as it certainly seemed excessive. I was a councillor for 11 years and I am very familiar with the city.

The supports the Government has put in place, including the CRSS, are very welcome. Senator Casey outlined the tax debt warehousing and the business continuity scheme, which are welcome, but we now need to consider how the sector can be assisted with its reopening. It is of paramount importance that the domestic tourism sector be fully opened by the end of June. It is vital that it is fully operational without restrictions when the secondary schools go on holidays. Funding has been set aside for local authorities to roll out supports, which is welcome, and I ask for urgency in that regard.

Based on my experience within the industry, a major issue in the hospitality sector is the loss of experienced and skilled personnel. That is particularly relevant in my city of Galway because people are going to work in the medical device companies such as Medtronic and Boston Scientific. That is going to be a huge issue. We will find it very hard to get qualified, serious head chefs and hospitality managers. I have a suggestion for the Minister on this matter. We need to give consideration to providing Government funding for the development of an online learning programme, which could speed up the development for new employees and might bring back some of the old employees, who will be hopefully needed in these sectors as soon as we recover. We have a family business in Galway that has been there for four generations and the staff are who we are. One cannot be there all the time oneself, as Senator Casey alluded to earlier. It is hugely challenging for all businesses but it is a particular issue for businesses that need a number of chefs and managers. I ask the Minister to come up with a couple of solutions to that problem. We could run an online course to see if we could attract the relevant people we require. The Minister is aware of that.

The 9% VAT rate should be extended for the lifetime of this Government. There are thousands of jobs in jeopardy. We need to look at all VAT rates across the hospitality sector. That would give us a fighting chance at surviving a crisis which is not of our making.

We now move to Senator Burke, who confused me because of the seating arrangements. I thought he was not here.

Is there something he would like to tell us?

It is my first time on this side of the House. I welcome the Minister and take this opportunity to wish her well in her portfolio. I have no doubt that she will make many changes and will do an excellent job for the whole industry. I am sorry I missed Senator Casey's contribution because nobody in the House knows better than him what it will be like to start up a business again after being closed. It is not just like opening a business from new. Many businesses have lost fortunes. They have to renovate or do up their properties and, in many cases, they are faced with redundancies and heavy borrowings. That will be an enormous task for an awful lot of businesses, in the hospitality sector in particular.

They are the lifeblood of the tourism trade.

All Members in both Houses received a brochure from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, which has also gone through a very difficult period. The brochure states the challenge taken by Comhaltas in 1951 of reversing the fortunes of the cultural traditions was, by any yardstick, truly ambitious and that from the outset, Comhaltas reorganised to be the fundamental link between these traditions and the community and recognised the importance of providing a comprehensive response to the needs of the traditions. It started in 1951 and grew from strength to strength. It faces a crossroads again. In his letter to us, Labhrás Ó Murchú, a former Member of the House who is the ard stiúrthóir of Comhaltas, states the exceptional response of many people and branches to keep the music playing has left us with a memory and legacy that lifted our spirits and will, le cúnamh Dé, sustain us in our efforts for 2021.

This is a golden opportunity for the tourism industry to use Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. When the bars and restaurants open, whenever the Minister can give them a date and they need to get a date, we could build in grants to Comhaltas to help those businesses. Most of the catering will be outdoors for a period and will require a lot of funding by businesses. They will need grants. Comhaltas could play a role if we had a mini-feis in each town. It would bring people out. The biggest problem we will have will be to bring people out and get them to go on holidays and make them stay locally or nationally. It would make the experience more enjoyable for these patrons. If we got a few heads together, something could be done whereby Comhaltas would play a huge role in every town throughout the country to help the catering business and bars, restaurants and hotels, and bring life back for our summer and make the summer more enjoyable for tourists. It would make it memorable. The Minister is the person who can lead this and I wish her well. I know she has a keen interest in this area and I wish her well with it.

I am grateful to the Acting Chairperson and the staff for this opportunity to speak and I will certainly abide by the time limit. I thank my colleagues Senators Crowe and Blaney for their assistance. The Minister is very welcome to the House. I sincerely thank her for all the work she has been doing, along with the Government, in a most difficult time. I want to give the message I have from people in the hotel and restaurant sector in Roscommon. We have to try, as the vaccination programme moves along, to allow an opening of our facilities in hotels and restaurants to retrieve some of the lost business. As the Minister knows, summer business is vital. It is the time when most of these people make some money. There has been a huge loss of revenue. We do not need to tell the Minister. Really and truly, as the vaccination programme moves ahead and the numbers come down, we have to make some arrangements to get this business back.

Another factor, which is a disaster for the business, and I am sure Senator Casey could speak about it far better than people like me, is the loss of staff. I have spoken to some staff who were employed in the industry for years and they have lost faith in the tourism sector. There will be an issue when we get back up and open as to how we will source staff. I look forward to bringing the Minister to the many fine places we have throughout County Roscommon. I remind her that Rathcroghan, near Tulsk, was one of Ireland's six royal sites and it has great prospects for the future.

I thank the Acting Chairperson for allowing me to speak. I give my full support to the revitalisation of the industry. All of the schemes have been fantastic and we have to try to keep them going.

There will be money to be spent by the public when all these services open again. I have no doubt about it. Míle buíochas.

It strikes me the Minister will have a very busy time when the 5 km restrictions are lifted in visiting all the wonderful places right around Ireland. Within two hours she has had the opportunity to go the length and breadth of our beautiful country. I have no doubt she will get a wonderful welcome wherever she goes.

I thank the Senators for their statements today and the passionate support demonstrated for the tourism industry. As Minister with responsibility for tourism, allow me to re-emphasise that I am acutely aware of the devastation that Covid-19 is inflicting on the sector. I am also very aware of the havoc it has caused for the hundreds of businesses and thousands of workers in one of our most valuable indigenous industries. In my many engagements with tourism stakeholders we continue to focus on key supports for survival and recovery. My colleagues and I across the Government have reiterated there will not be a cliff-edge end to the supports currently in place.

I will do my best in the time allocated to answer as many specific questions but if I do not get to one, Senators should feel free to contact me and I will get answers to any Senator making that request. Senators Garvey and McGahon raised the question of sustainable tourism. My immediate focus is on the survival of our tourism sector but we must begin planning for recovery and rebuilding when the time is right. I absolutely agree with Senators that there is an opportunity here to address sustainable tourism development in a much more meaningful way during the recovery and rebuilding phase following this crisis. Sustainable development is about using without exploitation our natural, cultural and other tourism resources, preserving them for use by future generations. It also means tourism should be a positive for local communities, as Senator Garvey mentioned, tapping into and supporting local food producers. It makes sense, as well as being economically sustainable. With that in mind we must seek to realise Ireland's ambition to be among the world leaders in sustainable tourism practices. As Senator Garvey indicates, biodiversity can play a significant part in tourism.

A sustainable tourism working group was established prior to the Covid-19 outbreak and it produced a set of guiding principles for sustainable tourism development in Ireland. I have now charged this group with the development of a suite of actions that will promote sustainable tourism practices. The implementation of these actions, along with the guiding principles we have produced, will underpin the advancement of a new tourism policy that will mainstream sustainability. In due course and when the time is right, officials in my Department will initiate the development of this new national tourism policy.

Senator Keogan asked what progress has been made in supports and I outlined earlier some of those supports, including: the €55 million business continuity scheme; the reduction of the VAT rate to 9%; two separate funds of €10 million for coach tourism operators and the Ireland-based inbound agents business continuity scheme; an €8 million restart grant; €5 million for upskilling; and a €26 million adaptation fund. There are also horizontal supports such as the Covid restrictions support scheme, the employment wage subsidy scheme and rates waivers worth millions of euro to the broader tourism and hospitality sectors.

The tourism recovery oversight group presented its report to me early this year but the tourism recovery task force included representatives from the hotel and hospitality sectors. Senators Casey and Wall mentioned the stay and spend scheme, which was set up late last summer to provide targeted supports to accommodation and hospitality businesses most affected by continued restrictions. At the time the scheme was devised and launched, there appeared to be a steady downward trend in infection rates and there was an expectation that at the very least there would be a partial reopening of the sector that could be sustained. It was set up by my colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and it was an innovative approach to incentivising spending on the tourism and hospitality sectors. Public health conditions that were beyond our control have clearly prevented that and the stop and start nature of the pandemic, along with its unpredictable consequences, resulted in the scheme being completely underutilised.

There are effective supports in place. I mentioned the CRSS and the €55 million for strategic tourism businesses. This specific scheme should be reviewed, as provided for when it was launched. The review of the scheme was a recommendation of the recovery oversight group and I have urged Cabinet colleagues to give serious consideration to this and other recommendations of the report to facilitate the reopening of the sector.

Senators Cassells, Blaney and Burke mentioned the pathway and when sectors will be able to open and have that information. I am conscious that the hospitality and tourism sector wants certainty around this but I cannot give specific dates at this point. Covid-19 Resilience & Recovery 2021: The Path Ahead, which we published recently, makes clear the criteria which are most important to consider regarding the easing of restrictions. Those criteria are: the prevalence of disease and the attendant reproductive rate; reducing the hospital and critical care occupancy to low levels to protect the health service and to allow for resumption of non-Covid care; the ongoing and steady progress of the vaccination programme; and emerging information on variants of concern. I will continue to engage with sectoral stakeholders on this as we move towards the summer. I want the sectors to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. The Government is absolutely committed to developing a clear roadmap for return and we will meet in advance of 5 April to review the restrictions.

Senator Keogan mentioned the vaccination roll-out. We are prioritising that roll-out. We are only constrained by supply and are working to increase that supply. Projected deliveries in April to June give us some optimism that we should be able to hugely expand the programme. I am sure everyone here would agree that would be very welcome. The Senator also asked what exactly has been implemented from the report. There has been the extension of EWSS, the introduction of CRSS, the Fáilte Ireland inbound agents and coach tourism operators schemes, the tourism business continuity scheme, the rates waiver, tax warehousing and, as I said, the 9% VAT which was agreed in the last budget.

Senators Carrigy, Cassells and Wall mentioned the outdoor scheme with Fáilte Ireland working with assistance from local authorities to help this industry. The pandemic has triggered discussions around reimagining our cities and towns as better places to live, work and visit. Local authorities and State agencies have been responding to this promptly and thoroughly. Public health guidance is likely to place restrictions on capacity across tourism and hospitality for the foreseeable future, with a much greater focus on utilising outdoor settings and public spaces to best advantage. That is something I am doing within the arts and culture sector as well. Fáilte Ireland is considering how best it can support outdoor dining experiences in consultation with local authorities. This includes proposed outdoor dining and urban animation schemes. The subject has got a lot of attention. No final decisions have been made regarding the outdoor dining scheme. With further regard to the infrastructure, licensing and planning challenges that exist with the use of outdoor spaces, Fáilte Ireland is exploring options for combining funding for individual businesses with support for local authority-led initiatives. Details have yet to be finalised.

I assure Senator Dooley that I am fighting my corner for the tourism and hospitality sector. On businesses seeking the extension of closing dates of certain schemes, I ask the Senator to provide me with the details.

I was interested to hear Senator Casey's reports from times past and the 200 years of his hotel. As I said recently to the industry, tourism has seen many challenges but nothing on the scale of this pandemic. It is unprecedented and is the most difficult period ever. We are committed to supporting the sector through reopening and beyond. We will do all we can to get international tourists back again when it is safe to do so.

Senator Mullen referred to State aid. Tourism and hospitality businesses are the main beneficiaries of CRSS, with roughly 60% of the total going to that sector. There are many other supports, as I set out earlier, and Government will continue to review those supports to allow businesses to trade when it is safe to do so.

Senators Casey and Mullen mentioned international travel, and I have covered that. Senator Dolan spoke of cycleways and greenways. Obviously, as I am from the Green Party it makes absolute sense to me. As I responded earlier to Senators McGahon and Garvey, this is the kind of low-impact sustainable tourism that makes sense and which we need to develop for the future, for international and domestic tourism. On the query about tourism officers' funding and other queries, I will come back to the Senator on that.

I agree with Senator Conway on the need to extend the season and to disperse business across the country, and to extend that regional and seasonal tourism. This will be a key part of sustainable tourism. With regard to the successor to The Gathering, the Senators will be aware the programme for Government incudes a commitment to the Year of the Invitation initiative, which could play a really important role in rebooting tourism. It needs to be done at the right time. My officials are looking at how best to do that.

Senator O'Loughlin spelled out very clearly so many of the appeals of Kildare. As the Senator said, I am very familiar with north Kildare as I have family there, and I am somewhat familiar with south Kildare. The Senator has whetted my appetite to get there as soon as possible and I look forward to that.

On Senator Blaney's comments, as a proud Ulster woman I have had the pleasure of visiting Donegal. What a beautiful county it is. I will happily take the Senator up on his offer and take my family with me. My children have not yet visited Donegal and I look forward to bringing them there. I am a frequent visitor to Sligo, where I have family, so it is just a hop over to Donegal.

Reference was made to Shannon Heritage. My colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, is well aware of the challenges faced by Shannon Heritage, which is part of the Shannon Group. I understand that his Department has been able to provide some supports to them. In addition they are eligible for the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. As with other attractions I am aware that Shannon Heritage wants to open as soon as possible and I want that for it too.

I absolutely agree with Senator Blaney on the need to invest in areas of great beauty such as Donegal. It has massive tourism potential and it just needs that investment, such as the investment in Sliabh Liag, Malin Head and the Wild Atlantic Way. We will look at the potential of future projects.

With both of us having served on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, I know only too well of the many amenities that Senator Ward has talked about. In marketing Dublin pre-pandemic, Tourism Ireland drew attention to its proximity to nature in the many villages and communities the Senator has outlined, in north and south Dublin. It will be even more appealing in the future.

Senator Crowe suggested a great idea for online training for chefs. The skills shortage, as I outlined in my speech earlier, is a massive issue. I know this from my engagement with the sector. This is why funding of €5 million was provided in the budget in 2021 for upskilling and training, and to improve the digital presence.

With regard to Senator Burke's comments on the connectivity right across my sector, it is often said that there are so many sectors under my remit. To me it makes perfect sense and culture, arts and tourism are a really good fit. On Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, I have a mini comhaltas ceoltóirí in my house every Thursday when my children do harp, mandolin and button accordion by Zoom. It works. I am very aware of the rich heritage of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and tapping into that. Indeed, when I speak of the connectivity right across my sectors, I will be making that connectivity part of my upcoming Department strategy.

I apologise for cutting the Minister off, but to be fair to the cleaners we must take a break to allow the next session to start at 3.45 p.m.

I propose a suspension of the House until 3.45 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 3.40 p.m. and resumed at 3.50 p.m.