Bleak days for our family coach business

Inadequate support for the private coach sector could seriously impede the recovery of Irish tourism, so says John Halpenny, Chairperson of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland
Bleak days for our family coach business

Private coach operators have been severely hit by Covid-19.

IN my 30 years in charge of a third-generation, family-owned coach tourism business, I have never experienced bleaker days than those of the past year. My colleagues in the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland (CTTC), most of whom have been running their own coach tourism businesses for decades, will echo this statement.

In the last year and a half, our industry has effectively collapsed, and many operators are now facing the prospect of having to reduce their services or close a part of their business.

While CTTC members are my primary concern I equally fear that without the robust transport infrastructure that private coaches provide, the recovery of Irish tourism could be seriously undermined.

When the Covid-19 crisis struck, as coach tour operators, we were fearful — but focused nonetheless to face the challenges that lay ahead. Collectively, we drew on our limited reserves from the 2019 tourist season, and we managed to scrape through the initial months.

Since those first few months of 2020, the situation has deteriorated significantly. The total collapse of international tourism, with little forewarning, led to thousands of coach tour bookings effectively being wiped out overnight. The loss to our economy was calculable; coach tour operators bring two million international visitors to Ireland, every year.

In spite of this, we attempted to pull together once again, as an industry, and salvage what remained of the domestic tourism season but demand was severely limited.

However, given that domestic coach tourism is a low margin activity at the best of times, and with tour operators bound by public health restrictions on coach capacity levels, the balance sheets of many operators became unsustainable.

Chairman of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland (CTTC), John Halpenny.
Chairman of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland (CTTC), John Halpenny.

The regional connectivity provided by coach tourism is unparalleled. Through the provision of coach tour services, as an industry, we collectively contribute more than €400 million to the Irish economy on an annual basis. In doing this, we are proud to support tens of thousands of jobs across retail, hospitality, visitor experience, leisure and many more sectors.

Coach tourism is a nationwide business, with 87% of private operators based outside of Dublin. It is also an industry that generates significant revenue, and one which directly supports the livelihoods of people in every province, in every county, across every town in Ireland.

Aside from the regional connectivity that it offers, coach tourism is an integral component of Ireland’s tourism product, and without the services that we provide, it is difficult to foresee how Ireland can continue to position itself as a viable, attractive destination for international tourists, post-pandemic.

While landlocked European countries benefit from geographical connectivity, Ireland is not so fortunate. 

Although we consistently report strong levels of export sales, our economy relies heavily on service provision. Therefore, as we begin the road to economic recovery, it is imperative that the government works to directly support strategic services like coach tourism. Our sector is directly responsible for attracting millions of international visitors to Ireland every year with operators footing the marketing costs to get them here. This has obvious benefits to Ireland as it positions the country favourably, while supporting the commercial activities of various other businesses the length and breadth of the country.

At various critical stages, since the Covid-19 crisis began, the government has stepped in and provided support.

As an industry, we particularly welcomed the funding allocated under the Coach Tourism Business Continuity Scheme. It was a positive step and signalled the government’s understanding of the vital role that coach tourism will play in leveraging the Irish tourism product, post-pandemic. More importantly, this funding provided a crucial lifeline, as it came at a point whereby many of our businesses were on the brink of collapse.

It is with regret however, that the financial subsidies introduced over the past year, have simply not gone far enough in their support for our industry.

To give an example, the funding that each operator received under the Coach Tourism Business Continuity Scheme would not even cover the average cost of three monthly repayments for a single coach. As July 19 approaches, and international tourism partially resumes, many industries may be feeling hopeful about what lies ahead. For coach tourism, the outlook remains bleak. The average lead generation time for international tourist bookings is at least 12 months, often longer. Realistically, we are facing a scenario whereby most coach tour operators will not be able to meaningfully resume services until June 2022.

Taking all of this into account, I would appeal to the government to build upon their proactive steps taken early in the crisis and introduce targeted support for the coach tourism sector - with a view to renewing the Coach Tourism Business Continuity Scheme as part of Budget 2022. As an industry, we understand our integral role in optimising the Irish tourism product. In this regard, we stand ready and prepared to play our part in rebuilding the country’s tourism market — but we need adequate, sector-specific support from the government to ensure that we can do this.

A renewal and an enhancement of the Coach Tourism Business Continuity Scheme is an imperative for the future sustainability of our world-class tourism product.

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