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It's been a hideous year for our tourism business. If we're to make it through 2021, a level playing field is vital

Tourism businesses need more support – amending eligibility for the CRSS scheme would be a very good start, writes Mícheál Ó Cionna.

Mícheál Ó Cionna

IT’S BEEN AN unspeakably tough year for many small businesses around the country – not least in the tourism trade. 

With Christmas all but a write-off for many in the sector, St Patrick’s Day and the traditional start of the Irish tourist season is the date many of us have circled in our wall-planners -  but it is more likely international travel restrictions will not be lifted until perhaps later in the year, and, until then, the industry in Ireland will remain largely in hibernation.

Tourism, in a normal year, is worth over €9 billion to the economy.

But if the government wants small operators like us to make it to the starting line for 2021 we need a level playing field. 

Let me explain.

We operate small boat-based tourism attractions in Connemara and in Dublin City Centre. We trade as Killary Fjord Boat Tours in the beautiful village of Leenane and give our visitors an opportunity to experience Killary Fjord in all its splendour.

In Dublin, we run boat tours of the river Liffey as Dublin Discovered Boat Tours and dinner cruises on the Grand Canal (as Canal Boat Restaurant) as well as operating guided tours of the Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship at Custom House Quay.

Our business has been devastated because of Covid. Our sales for 2020 are down by more than three-quarters, and it will take us at least half a decade to recover financially from this blow.

That is, if we make it that far. 

Hardest hit

As the crisis began to unfold back in March, it did not take long to assess the likely impact. Everyone quickly knew that our tourism industry, along with the wider hospitality industries, would be hardest hit.

Despite this, none of the initial emergency support schemes were designed with tourism in mind. The initial TWSS (Temporary Wage Support Scheme) gave support to businesses for employees who were on their books in February. Naturally, given the highly seasonal nature of tourism, this did not work out well for us: we have ten people employed in an average February, but this grows to over fifty – in roles like tour guiding and bar staff – at the height of the season.

It took until the July Stimulus to rectify this with the announcement of the EWSS
(Employment Wage Support Scheme) – but once again, tourism fared badly. This is because, once tourism reopened in July, the EWSS only supported those businesses which had experienced a drop of 30%, measured on a month-by-month basis, compared to 2019.

For large swathes of the Wild Atlantic Way business levels did not fall by this measure – as east coast consumers came in their droves, making the most of the lifting of travel restrictions. So from July to September, many tourism businesses got zero support under the scheme – even though that was the only brief window of the year where they had the chance to make a small amount of money. As summer turned to autumn the tightening of restrictions brought a premature end to a very strange 2020 tourist season. 

In the October Budget, the latest Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) was introduced. Championed by business minister Leo Varadkar, the scheme, like the ones before it, also discriminates against tourism. It will only provide support for the period from October to March to businesses that normally trade during that period – thus excluding all of the seasonal operations that are shut for the winter.

And it does not pay out in many cases under Level 3 restrictions even though tourism is effectively shut down once intercounty travel is prohibited – particularly in more isolated areas. 

The scheme also restricts support to those businesses that operate from a ‘bricks and mortar’ premises - excluding all of the wonderful and diverse tourism offerings that have been developed over many years that operate in our great outdoors and which contribute enormously to the attractiveness of Ireland as a destination.

Needless to say, our boat-based businesses were all given the thumbs down for inclusion. 

Awaiting our fate 

All businesses – ours included – have overheads that need to be paid all year round. Clearly the civil servants in the Department of Finance who devised the scheme recognised this and designed the CRSS to provide support in coping with these costs.

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Yet because we have boats, and not buildings, we are excluded. 

Tourism destinations are successful because of what there is to see and do in those destinations – so clearly, tourism attractions are the cornerstone of the industry.

In Leenane village, where we have been based for twenty years, our own business, Killary Fjord Boat Tours, along with our neighbours, the Killary Adventure Company, get nothing under the current CRSS scheme – yet the local hotel, pub and restaurant are all supported.

We are most grateful for the lifeline of this support being paid into our community in Leenane. Those hospitality businesses all deserve the relief. 

But why discriminate against the businesses that provide the things for visitors to do when they get there?

Tourism businesses will need other support too – but amending eligibility for the CRSS would be a very good start. 

Nine months into the crisis and after several shutdowns and reopenings we have managed to retain all ten of our jobs in Dublin and Galway. Like countless others across the country we’re all on significantly reduced hours and pay. 

We anxiously await our fate.

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