Cork Chamber calls on the Government to put in place a comprehensive, data-driven plan to help businesses cope with the impact of Covid-19. The extension of Covid supports must continue far beyond June as it is clear the pandemic’s impact will extend beyond this date.
The past 12 months have been the most tumultuous period for tourism, hospitality, leisure, aviation, retail and culture in recent memory and while many have weathered the challenge to date, clarity of direction is required to ensure a promising future. The passing of our second St. Patrick’s Day in lockdown is a stark reminder that our most vibrant and colourful, and uplifting sectors are still deeply suppressed.
It is now time for Government to orient actions towards the long-term nature of this pandemic with an appropriate framework of structured interventions focused on the sectors which are most acutely affected by the impact of Covid-19. Tourism, hospitality, leisure, aviation, retail, and culture are among those most deeply impacted, being the first to be suppressed by the pandemic and most likely to be the slowest to recover. Current supports provide some relief to those who are affected, but the increased speed of vaccination rollout, economic reopening and longer-term operational and capital supports are now essential if a pathway to economic normality is to be found.
As it stands, the continuation of restrictions will undoubtedly cause deeper financial harm to individual businesses, to individual mental health and wellbeing and to communities across the country. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority set aside their personal and circumstantial perceptions and agree to collaborate and support our approach for the greater good. Indeed, the continued support of the general population in adhering to the guidelines is the only way to ensure that everyone will be able to benefit from reduced restrictions sooner, rather than later.
But as businesses attempt to plan for a return at the appropriate point, it is critical that there is a co-ordinated, coherent, and clear programme of policy and communications from government, the absence of which will undermine the viability of businesses and the sustainability of our economy.
The areas influencing Government decision making on the reopening of society have been outlined as community transmission levels, hospital and ICU occupancy and the vaccine programme, yet precise detail on these targets and the resulting impacts on our level of social and economic restriction have yet to be made available. Would it not be reasonable to set metric led ranges within which certain levels of restriction apply? It would provide a series of concrete targets, and trigger points at which activity can be endorsed or restrained.
Business supports have been a lifeline for many. The various supports developed and rolled out over the past 12 months have kept countless businesses afloat and are as critical today as ever. Thankfully, the €60m Small Business Assistance Scheme for Covid has finally been rolled out and is open for application, addressing some of the qualification shortcomings of the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme. However, the supports require constant interrogation and evolution to ensure they are relevant and fit for purpose. Ultimately, extension of existing supports beyond June, with enhanced support for businesses operating in the worst affected sectors is required and must be confirmed.
For tourism, hospitality, leisure, aviation and retail a clear pathway to recovery is required and it is time for the Oireachtas Committees to engage with business, dust off their sectoral COVID plans of last summer and revise them to be fit for purpose for the coming 12 months.
Cork airport recorded an 80% decrease in passenger numbers in 2020, with just 530,000 people using the country’s second largest airport last year, down from 2 million passengers in 2019. Significant capital investment is required to ensure that infrastructure, including the runway is poised for the return of significant volume. Full recovery will take up to five years in the sector and Cork Airport must be supported by multi-year operational and capitals supports under the Regional Airports Capex Programme. It must be noted however that Ireland has not sought to subsidise specific airlines unlike other international jurisdictions and considerable marketing budget will be required to ensure airlines not only prioritise Ireland in their renewed route scheduling but prioritise airports other than Dublin.
The tourism sector was worth an estimated €9.3 billion to the Irish economy in 2019 with 9.7 million overseas tourists spent almost €5.2 billion throughout the country. In 2019, the tourism and hospitality industry employed an estimated 265,000 people with 68% of jobs outside Dublin. The recent announcement of a €55 million Tourism Business Continuity Scheme will go some way to supporting businesses active in this sector however it will take years to recover to 2019 levels. Above all else targeted marketing must be supported by Government to kick start visitor interest as soon as possible. As the sector returns to form, new challenges will arise, such as the movement of many experienced professionals to other sectors, and the impact of interest in hospitality careers from younger generation now assessing their future prospects.
In parallel it is essential that our offering is vigorously overhauled. We m0ust continue to invest in active and eco-tourism building on the unique alure of the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland Ancient East, with quality outdoor infrastructure. Why must we drive from point to point to enjoy the Wild Atlantic Way? Where are our versions of the greenways, walkways, and bridleways enjoyed by so many throughout Europe? Could our beaches not have bathrooms? How many exceptional historical sites, ringforts, castles and piers can we better signpost, restore, preserve and enhance? From sailing to surfing, we have some of the most energised and quality focused outdoor activity business in Europe. We also have the greatest of assets in our natural environment, yet we have a long way to go in how we access and engage with these areas of outstanding natural beauty and heritage value.
Beyond supports, the placemaking and the experiential nature of our towns and city, which host so many of our hospitality and retail businesses must continue to be pushed with vigour. Project ACT in Cork County and Reimagining Your City played a hugely valuable role in creating both positivity and footfall in 2020 by delivering on pedestrianisation, on street dining, cycling and generally improving urban spaces. It is essential that such initiatives are evolved and pursued with equal urgency this year. The greatest thing that Cork can do in this pandemic is to distinguish itself as a place that is progressive, with actions that match intent. Let’s be nothing short of an international case study of how to recover.
Art and culture have an integral role to play in our story of economic resilience. It invokes our civic pride, stimulates our intellectual curiosity and at best challenges our perceptions of space, morality, and politics. Investment in art and culture is investment in creativity and innovation. Projects such as árdu in the city must continue to be evolved and supported to maintain the positive momentum that has been so uplifting over the past year.
Above all else, Government must recognise that tourism, hospitality, leisure, aviation, retail and culture are all interrelated and mutually supportive. They are integral not only to our economy but to our reputation. All of Government policy must be considered in relation to how it can support these sectors, and must recognise that they will require unique support, encouragement and vision far beyond the delivery of the last vaccine in Ireland. St. Patricks day is a day of national pride and reflection, and our tourism offer is our people and our places. It is at the heart of how we view our nation and it must be progressed.
Thomas Mc Hugh Director of Public Affairs & Communications