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‘There’s no going back’: Ireland’s tourism trade prepares to re-open for good

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DUBLIN — When Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin announced the phased re-opening of hospitality businesses for June, hotel managers like Niall Coffey breathed a sigh of relief. 

Ireland’s tourism and hospitality industries have been the worst hit during the pandemic and previous attempts at re-opening have been upended by fresh surges of Covid-19.

“I think we have no choice but to stay open at this stage because from a financial survival (view), we really need to do it,” said Coffey, who is general manager of Harvey’s Point, a four-star hotel in Donegal in northwest Ireland.

Save for brief re-openings last summer and Christmas, bars, restaurants and hotels have been largely shut since March 2020.

Now, as the vaccination campaign gathers pace, Coffey and others are preparing for June 2 when they can begin allowing some guests back through the doors. Then over the following weeks, bars and restaurants can open up, albeit with restrictions on numbers and guidelines on indoor and outdoor dining.

Des O’Dowd, owner of the Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa in Cork, said that businesses have shouldered a lot of costs in trying to re-open safely over the last year.

“You try and send back food to suppliers. We’ve closed twice, having to go through fruit and veg and throw it out or try to find a home for that. We’ve been closed and beer has been going off,” he told CNBC.

“It is an expensive process to start and stop and to do that again now would be heart-breaking so I hope that this is it, that we’re opening and there’s no going back.”

The government has since acknowledged that the hospitality and tourism industry, a significant employer in Ireland, will need further stimulus support even after restrictions are lifted. Tourism was worth about 9.3 billion euros ($11.3 billion) to the Irish economy in 2019, with 2 billion euros of tourism-related taxes paid to the exchequer.

Beyond food and supplies, many hotels and bars have needed to invest in refurbishment and equipment to ensure Covid compliance.

“This time last year we were really facing into an unknown. We were going around with tape measures trying to measure two meters and we had to buy a lot of dividers between tables,” O’Dowd said.

Now he said the hotel has a better grasp of what a safe re-opening looks like, including providing antigen testing for the hotel’s 225 employees, adding further costs to re-opening and staying open.

Domestic visitors 

Hotel managers and people working in the wider tourism industry will be hoping that the general public shares their enthusiasm for re-opening. 

With international travel still effectively shut down, the country’s tourism industry is betting on domestic visitors and “staycations” during the summer months, but this will only last so long. 

Coffey said that he cannot rely solely on domestic visitors for any extended period and that U.S. visitors are usually a key market group for his business.

“Golf business would have been quite good for us in the summer season where we’re able to achieve high rates (pre-pandemic). That’s gone,” he said.

He added that the hotel has started receiving some bookings for September and October from American guests that are optimistic that international travel will open up again soon.

That may yet come to fruition. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in late April that the EU would allow fully vaccinated U.S. visitors to enter the bloc.

“It’s great to see Europe talking about opening up and the U.K. are a little bit ahead of us. I think that’s a great advantage for us, that we can see in the real world what’s happening a couple of weeks ahead of us,” O’Dowd added.

“Hopefully we’ll see very positive things happening in the U.K. and everywhere that is trialing these things and that we’ll get good results.”

International tourism 

Niall Gibbons, the chief executive of government agency Tourism Ireland, said that the EU’s planned digital green certificate — or so-called vaccine passports in some quarters — is a step in the right direction to making international travel possible again.

Tourism Ireland is a joint government body between Ireland and Northern Ireland tasked with promoting the island of Ireland to overseas visitors.

According to the group, overseas spend by tourists in Ireland in 2019 was 5.8 billion euros ($7 billion), with activity in the sector employing 325,000 people. So it is keen to open the country up again in the latter half of the year.

The EU’s certificate would allow visitors from other countries to verify their vaccination or negative test status upon their arrival in an EU country.

“There are other factors that will be needed as well before the international (travel) restart gets going. First and foremost, we need to work with government on a roadmap,” Gibbons told CNBC.

Photo Taken In Ireland, Cork

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“There are factors like mandatory hotel quarantine, the testing regime that will be in place, air connectivity and getting that up and running again.”

Ireland implemented mandatory hotel quarantine earlier this year, where people arriving in the country from certain locations are required to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. The system has been beset with its fair share of challenges

“Quarantine and tourism don’t go hand in hand,” Gibbons said. He added that he backs a plan similar to the EU’s traffic light system that was in place last year, which indicated which countries had lower infection rates and were safer to travel to.

“Ultimately that’s the place that we all want to try and get to across the European Union,” he said.

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