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*Photograph: Eamon Ward

US visitors will not return to Ireland until late 2021 or 2022, the Chief Executive of Tourism Ireland has told a Shannon webinar.

COVID-19’s impact on the tourism sector and the challenges ahead were discussed at a Shannon Chamber webinar on Thursday by Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland and Managing Director of Shannon Heritage, Niall O’Callaghan.

Leaders in tourism had never had to push the start button on the industry before, the webinar heard as the two men discussed the current challenges and those that lie ahead.

Twelve months ago, Niall Gibbons was the keynote speaker at a Chamber lunch in Dromoland Castle focusing on ways to advance the sector and recruit more visitors. Addressing the webinar, he calculated that up to 325,000 employees from the industry were now on some form of support.

Digital marketing activities are being re-engineered “to ensure that Ireland remains visible in global markets”. He said, “Our path to recovery will be based on assessing where the consumer sits in terms of a willingness to travel and when. We also have to look at access issues, given that seats into Ireland are now 95% down on 2019 levels and will, most likely, return to 2010 levels. We will also have to consider how many airlines will survive the crisis and how governments will fund route recovery”.

Gibbons maintained there were “green shoots of hope” with global markets reacting favourably to the roadmap for reopening the Irish economy.

“While we may see some recovery at the back end of 2020, it is unlikely that we will see any major recovery from the USA market until late 2021 or 2022, or until there is a vaccine”. He added, “We have never had to push the start button on the industry before and the coming months will require a huge effort to kickstart the industry again.”

A parallel was drawn by Niall O’Callaghan who compared the sector to the shape of the currach used by Tim Severin to traverse the Atlantic and which is now based at Craggaunowen Castle. He is also Chairman of the National Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions (AVEA) which has 100 members that employ 4,000 people and injected €15 billion in revenue from 23 million visitors last year. “The scale of the challenge facing the sector cannot be underestimated; the economic retraction is unprecedented in modern times.

Presently “so many livelihoods are at stake” which prompted O’Callaghan to stress “an urgent need” that supports for the sector be unlocked, a reduction in VAT, the continuation of the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and giving redeemable vouchers to every household in Ireland. “The new reality will favour those who have successfully navigated phases one and two. We now have to figure out what the new vision of success will be, given social distancing requirements.” Staycations must be supported in 2020, he felt. “If a monk can cross the ocean in a currach, then we can navigate the journey ahead”.

CEO of Shannon Chamber, Helen Downes was hopeful that domestic visitors would support the economy. “The new norm will be holidaying at home and rediscovering what a wonderful country we have. People might find Ireland again and given that the Irish spend more when abroad than visitors spend here, that augurs well for our economy”.

Shannon Chamber will continue to hold a series of webinars, further information is available here.

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