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DUBLIN – When Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin announced the gradual reopening of the hospitality industry in June, hotel managers like Niall Coffey breathed a sigh of relief.
Ireland’s tourism and hospitality industries were hardest hit during the pandemic, and previous attempts to reopen have been weighed down by new waves of Covid-19.
“I think we have no choice but to stay open at this stage because financially we really need to do this,” said Coffey, general manager of Harvey’s Point, a four-star hotel in Donegal, North West Ireland.
Apart from brief reopenings last summer and Christmas, bars, restaurants and hotels have largely been closed since March 2020.
Now that the vaccination campaign is gathering pace, Coffey and others are preparing for June 2nd when they can start letting some guests through the doors again. Bars and restaurants can then be opened in the following weeks, albeit with restrictions on the number and guidelines for indoor and outdoor meals.
Des O’Dowd, owner of Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa in Cork, said companies have incurred a great deal of expense over the past year trying to reopen safely.
“They are trying to return groceries to vendors. We closed twice, going through fruits and vegetables and throwing them away or trying to find a home for them. We were closed and the beer ran out,” he told CNBC.
“It’s an expensive process to start and stop and do it all over again now would be heartbreaking. I hope that is the case, that we open up and there is no going back.”
The government has now recognized that the hospitality and tourism industries, a major employer in Ireland, will need further support even after the restrictions are lifted. Tourism was valued at around 9.3 billion euros ($ 11.3 billion) for the Irish economy in 2019, with 2 billion euros in tourism-related taxes paid to the treasury.
Food and supplies aside, many hotels and bars have had to invest in renovations and equipment to ensure compliance with Covid guidelines.
“This time last year we really faced a stranger. We were trying to measure six feet with tape measure and we had to buy a lot of partitions between the tables,” said O’Dowd.
Now, he said the hotel has a better understanding of what a safe reopening looks like, including providing antigen testing to the hotel’s 225 employees, adding to the cost of reopening and staying open.
Hotel managers and tourism industry workers hope the general public will share their enthusiasm for the reopening.
With international travel still effectively ceased, the country’s tourism industry relies on domestic visitors and “stays” during the summer months, but this will only last so long.
Coffey said he could not rely solely on domestic visitors for an extended period of time and that U.S. visitors are usually a major market group for his business.
“The golf business would have been pretty good for us in the summer season when we can get high rates (prepandemic). That’s gone,” he said.
He added that the hotel has had some bookings for September and October from American guests who are optimistic that international travel will reopen soon.
That could still come to fruition. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the end of April that the EU would allow fully vaccinated US visitors to enter the block.
“It’s great to see Europe talking about opening up and Britain is a little ahead of us. I think that’s a big advantage for us that we can see in the real world what happens a few weeks ahead of us,” said O. ‘Dowd added.
“Hopefully, in the UK and wherever these things are tested, very positive things will happen and we will get good results.”
Niall Gibbons, executive director of the government agency Tourism Ireland, said the planned EU digital green certificate – or vaccination cards in a few quarters – is a step in the right direction to make international travel possible again.
Tourism Ireland is a joint government agency between Ireland and Northern Ireland whose job it is to promote the island of Ireland to overseas visitors.
According to the group, overseas tourist spending in Ireland in 2019 was 5.8 billion euros ($ 7 billion), with 325,000 people employed in the sector. It is therefore important to reopen the country in the second half of the year.
The EU certificate would allow visitors from other countries to check their vaccination or negative test status upon arrival in an EU country.
“There are other factors that will be required before the international (travel) restart gets underway. First and foremost, we need to work with the government on a roadmap,” Gibbons told CNBC.
Photo taken in Ireland, Cork
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“There are factors such as the mandatory hotel quarantine, the applicable test regime, air connectivity and restarting.”
Ireland introduced mandatory hotel quarantine earlier this year, which requires people entering the country from certain locations to be quarantined in a hotel for two weeks. The system presents a number of challenges.
“Quarantine and tourism don’t go hand in hand,” Gibbons said. He added that he supports a plan similar to the EU traffic light system in place last year, indicating which countries have lower infection rates and travel safer.
“Ultimately, this is the place we all want to be across the European Union,” he said.