The Restaurants Association of Ireland’s Opening Remarks to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport & Media to discuss the development of rural tourism in Ireland.

“I thank the members of the Committee for the opportunity for myself and our President, Paul Lenehan to appear at this meeting. The development of rural tourism in Ireland is closely linked to the restaurant sector, we welcome this renewed interest and investment that is necessary to ensure the restaurant and food industry across the island is able to recover from recent pressures while given the opportunity to thrive. 

To ensure the development of rural tourism, we should seek to maximise the benefits from food tourism. Food has a particularly important role in this modern economy, particularly in the development of tourism services. Food tourism is about the range of ’food experiences’ available for visitors which forms a vital part of the value network linking local food producers, communities and cultural and tourism entrepreneurs. 

Growth opportunities in this area can be maximised by expanding the number and variety of authentic, high quality food experiences that are easily accessed by the visitor, for example but not limited to: farms open to visitors; producers with visitor facilities; demonstrations of traditional skills/authentic techniques such as smoking, cheese making etc.; and museums/exhibitions that link the agriculture and food heritage of a region. 

Anecdotal evidence of the benefits of food tourism can be seen from the success of the 2013 Fáilte Ireland initiative, The Gathering. This initiative was created to draw the global Irish diaspora back to Ireland via almost 5,000 events across the country organised by local communities. The Restaurants Association of Ireland suggests the creation of a similar initiative specifically tailored to boost the development of rural tourism. This initiative would showcase Ireland internationally as a destination for world-class experience in terms of rural tourism through various festivals, sporting events, plays, and food experiences across rural Ireland.

There are multiple government initiatives which are aimed toward the development of the agri-food sector, such as Food Wise 2025 and Food Vision 2030. The former sets out the practical ways in which aspirations for growth within the agri-food sector can be made tangible through research, development and innovation while the latter outlines key objectives for Ireland’s agri-food sector to become an international leader in Sustainable Food Systems (SFSs). 

These initiatives highlight the role of the agri-food sector in the development of rural Ireland, and provides the government a detailed roadmap of investment priorities to maximise the potential benefits of the industry. Continued support for the agri-food sector would have a direct effect on rural food tourism and will undoubtedly kickstart the revival of many local, rural communities that have been decimated from the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and below average tourism levels. 

Fáilte Ireland’s research into consumer behaviour for food tourism has not been updated since 2020, we recommend further research is carried out to track best practices for consumers and inform future development. We suggest this research include a specific focus on rural areas to ensure rural businesses have the best information to restructure their business in a post COVID environment. The Restaurants Association of Ireland would be happy to assist in any future research.

According to the most recent economic commentary by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), the accommodation and food sectors is one of the only sectors that have not reached or surpassed pre-2020 employment levels. Therefore, the Restaurants Association of Ireland advocates for an increase in investment and research into innovative programmes designed to boost tourism and hospitality related training and education. For example, Generation Apprenticeship’s ‘Apprenticeship Employer Grant’, is a programme in which employers receive a stipend to hire apprenticeship students in their related field. 

Investing in or creating similar grant programmes such as these would be crucial for the attraction and retention of hospitality staff, as the creation of similar programmes would provide incentives and the necessary resources for employers to invest in upskilling their employees. This would be especially beneficial in rural areas where staff shortages have been communicated to us as one of the major pressures the sector is facing.

Maintaining the value for money that Ireland, until recently, has been praised for cannot be done if the hospitality sector does not receive further government support, such as the continuation of the 9% VAT Rate past September of this year. From discussions with our members and the sector as a whole, the restaurant sector is doing its best to not pass on the stress onto their margins to consumers by closing certain days of the week, changing or removing menu items and in some cases business owners are dramatically cutting their own salaries to ensure they do not hike their prices or cut down on staff. 

Those in the hospitality sector are still fighting core inflation rates, as well as increasing interest rates and will have to begin paying back warehoused debt with a 3% interest rate starting at the end of this month. The continuation of the 9% VAT rate for hospitality will ensure that all businesses within the hospitality sector, but more importantly small, family businesses that are mainly located in rural areas, will be able to weather the unprecedented combination of these pressures. We thank you for your time and are happy to take any further questions.”

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