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Speech by Leo Varadkar, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, at the Restaurants Association of Ireland Conference, Gibson Hotel Point Village, Dublin on Tuesday 12 April
I am delighted to be able to join you today as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and I thank you and your incoming President, Brian Fallon for this opportunity to speak at your annual conference.
I would like to take this opportunity as an ordinary citizen to record my appreciation and thanks to the restaurant industry in Ireland. Twenty years ago, Ireland was far from famous for its cuisine. With the exception of a small number of exceptional restaurants, hotels and country houses, we did not have much to offer. Chicken Kiev, Prawn Cocktail and Beef Wellington were the order of the day.
Instead of a nice Sancerre or Riesling, we were too willing to settle for a lesser vintage. And the closest thing we got to guacamole was a plate of mushy peas.
Things have changed and changed utterly, and I honestly believe that Dublin and Ireland equal and surpass almost any other European city when it comes to the variety and quality of food we have to offer – from modern Irish to ethnic and fusion, from cheap eats to Michelin stars. That didn’t happen overnight or on its own. It took a lot of work, talent and imagination from many people in this room and beyond.
My only slight concern in the emergence of Ireland as a ‘food island’ is that it may have contributed in some way to the increase of obesity in the State, although that is a matter for Minister Reilly to sort out.
I know that I speak to you at a very difficult time for the restaurant industry and I know that you have been hit hard by falling tourism numbers, the credit crunch and a collapse in domestic demand due to falling incomes and rising unemployment. You have responded as any good business should: by reducing costs, reducing prices, changing menus and promoting special offers.
But I know you have not been helped by rising costs and intractable costs, many of which are imposed by government or its agencies. While prices in the food, hotel and hospital sector continue to fall, government influenced prices continue to rise.
The new government cannot bring back the Celtic Tiger. We cannot pass a law to restore economic growth and we cannot afford a give-away Budget to put money back in your customers’ pockets. Many struggling restaurants will not survive the recession and I do not believe prices or margins will ever go back to what they were in 2007, nor should they.
However, there are things that we can do for the sector and we mean to do them and do them quickly:
Jobs Budget in May
· Reduce VAT from 13.5% to 12%;
· Halve PRSI on jobs paying up to €356 per week;
· Abolish the Travel Tax in return for new air services;
· Other VAT measures.
· Seek to abolish Upward Only Rent Reviews
· Review the JLC/ERO wage-setting system
· We are prioritising the funding of tourism marketing and the staging of major sports events such as the Solheim Cup, UEFA cup final and Volvo Ocean Race;
· Use the visit of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama to showcase Ireland on the world stage;
· Make good use of new venues like the Convention Centre Dublin, as well as the Irish Presidency of the EU in 2013, to market Dublin as a conference city.
Cut the cost of Government imposed red-tape on business, in part by streamlining regulatory enforcement activities out of a merger and rationalisation of existing structures.
Work is advanced on a partial loan guarantee for businesses. And we have asked the Revenue Commissioners to examine the feasibility of introducing – on a revenue neutral basis – a Single Business Tax for micro enterprises – those with a turnover of less than €75,000 per annum - to replace all the existing taxes on sole traders and small businesses to cut compliance costs and make starting a business much less daunting.
I know that your outgoing president, Paul Cadden, and Adrian Cummins have been working constructively with the tourism agencies in developing the industry and ensuring that supports are available to help you to market your businesses, and address costs and productivity issues.
That engagement is important. It ensures that Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland are aware of the concerns of the association and that those concerns can be addressed.
Food tourism is a growing market segment internationally and one in which Ireland is well placed to capitalise on opportunities presented. Currently 36% of visitor spend is on food and drink. A key objective for Fáilte Ireland is that Ireland will be recognised for the availability, quality and value of our local and regional food experiences which evoke a unique sense of place, hospitality and culture. Food plays a significant role in this industry, not only by delivering varied dining experiences to our visitors but also by creating valuable employment for our own people.
Fifty seven per cent of holidaymakers claimed that ‘a variety of food’ was an important factor in their decision to pick Ireland for their break, and while 26% of holidaymakers agree ‘a lot’ that Ireland has ‘a variety of high quality food’, there is clearly work to be done in highlighting the eating options available.
In recognition of the importance of food to the overall tourism product, Fáilte Ireland established a Food Tourism Industry Working Group in May 2010. The Working Group is made up of key stakeholders in the Food in Tourism sector, and its purpose is to develop and oversee a National Food Tourism Implementation Framework.
Key activity to date in 2011 includes a new product initiative based on Dublin Coastal Villages, which has been designed to reflect the objectives of the Food Tourism Framework and add value to the Dublin visitor experience.
Additionally, Fáilte Ireland is currently conducting research through Waterford Institute of Technology on challenges in shortening the supply chain between producers and providers.
A new concept entitled ‘Place on a Plate’ is being rolled out to industry to encourage the use of local food, traditional recipes and regional specialities to provide a true sense of locality to visitors. Also, the new Discover Ireland site to be launched in the next two weeks will have a strong food content.
I know that the theme of your conference is 'Brand Ireland - it's in our hands'. While the Government Programme includes measures to support Irish branded products and services, this is but one part of the overall picture.
Our country's brand is not merely a logo or a slogan to appear in advertising, but relates to the level of esteem and respect in which our people, our businesses and our State are held by others, and by ourselves. The last few years has been a period in which some elements in Irish society discarded respect for the people, in the pursuit of massive personal gain, regardless of the consequences for every other pillar of Irish society.
We have seen the consequences of this period, and now have the task of re-building Ireland. The tourism sector has a special part to play in re-building Ireland, because it has at its core the country's most important asset – Ireland's people.
The Fáilte Ireland Visitor Attitudes Survey for 2010 found that, across all nationalities, the friendliness and hospitality of the Irish people received a virtually unanimous vote of satisfaction. It is essential that restaurants, bars, hotels, guest houses, bed & breakfasts, and all the people in Ireland who interact with tourists continue to show this hospitality and friendliness. By doing so, we will show to our visitors and the wider world that we are Ireland, this is our brand, and we are proud of it.
In concluding I look forward to having a separate meeting with your association over the coming weeks to hear first-hand your concerns and priorities in restoring growth to the restaurant sector.
I wish Brian every success in taking up the presidency and wish to thank Paul Cadden for his work on your behalf during his period of office.