Clare Senator Martin Conway won a Seanad vote by a 22-12 margin for his motion calling for continued Government support of Ireland’s tourism industry. Sinn Féin and a number of independent senators voted against.

Senator Conway’s motion acknowledged the economic importance of tourism to Ireland over many generations and the partnerships between successive Governments and the tourism industry to create, “a very strong experience for many millions of visitors to this country”.

He also called for the retention of the 9% VAT rate, investment in green tourism initiatives and funding to assist entrepreneurs to expand the tourism offering. Significantly, Senator Conway called on Government to identify mechanisms to distribute visitor numbers to towns and villages across Ireland that may not have traditionally benefitted from the tourism industry.

Noting that all parts of Ireland are emerging from an incredible economic recession, Senator Conway spoke highly of initiatives such as The Gathering which helped to kick-start the tourism economy. Another important initiative was the introduction of a 9% VAT rate, which assisted the hospitality sector through a very difficult period, as well as the elimination of the travel tax.

The emergence of The Wild Atlantic Way, said Senator Conway, has created a concept to rival the Camino de Santiago walk in Spain. Likewise the success of the Ancient East heritage trail. However Senator Conway also acknowledged that working conditions in Ireland’s hospitality sector sometimes fall short and he saluted work carried out by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to fight for better standards.

Appealing directly to Transport Minister Shane Ross, he called for further airline incentives to enable additional routes into Ireland from areas not currently serviced. Overall, he said there is significant potential for growth in the tourism sector but it is important to have a focused strategy with more ambitious targets. “In my county we have the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren and there is beautiful scenery and fantastic history in many other counties. That is what we need to develop. They are our raw materials and natural resources.”

Limerick Senator Kieran O’Donnell welcomed the motion in the context of pending British exit from the European Union as this has already caused a dip in UK tourism numbers. However he also noted “astronomical increases in the rates charged” by certain hotels and restaurants, he believes the 9% VAT rate should be kept in review in order to ensure customers are not being exploited.

Senator Ned O’Sullivan said Fianna Fáil supported the motion but called on the Minister not to be complacent with regard to tourism’s success and to commit to a new tourism policy document to reassure the industry that something is in place to deal with Brexit.

A Sinn Féin amendment opposing the 9% rate as a “de facto subsidy” and expressing concern for “widespread abuse of workers” across the hospitality industry was defeated. Minister Shane Ross said that while some of the arguments were convincing, he did not want to spook the entire industry for “undoubted wrongs, difficulties and… abuses of employees”.

Minister Ross also acknowledged problems with the 9% VAT, while it has been great in terms of employment, he does not know whether the reduction is passed on to consumers and said a certain amount of fine tuning is required. “The Government’s position at the moment is that it is there to stay. To send out any signals that the VAT rate is under threat would be totally wrong, in particular in terms of Brexit, and that signal should not go out, but there is nothing wrong with examining it and doing a little bit of fine tuning.”