Chauffeur companies, who bring economic activity and tourism to rural areas otherwise lacking jobs and businesses, are warning that parts of its industry are on the brink of collapse because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Western Chauffeur Drive Association, a network of chauffeur companies throughout Ireland, says its sector needs help or parts of it could go under because of the impact of Covid-19 on tourism. 

"A lot of our members are very concerned about this because they won't make it to 2021 if they don't get some help in the interim", said Fergal Jordan, secretary of the Western Chauffer Drive Association. 

A recent survey of the association's members showed earnings in March and April this year dropped by an average of 87% compared to the same period last year. 

"Most of our members haven't worked since the middle of March and they are worried and scared because they don't know when they will work again", said Mr Jordan. 

"Due to the Covid-19 crisis, those we surveyed said 300 people have been laid off - that includes full-time, part-time, seasonal and contract workers. We believe that figure is most likely higher, as many operators probably didn't include themselves", Mr Jordan added. 

"There's no end date in sight, some of our members believe it could be next year or even 2022 before they return to even 50% of the business levels from 2019", he said. 

Chauffeur companies provide transport for VIPs and dignitaries visiting Ireland and the association sees the aviation industry getting back in working order as an important to its sector's survival.

"The industry is reliant on international travel. We will only really recover when international travel resumes", Mr Jordan said. 

The Western Chauffeur Drive Association is calling to be part of the Government's Tourism Recovery Taskforce, which was set up to tackle the devastation of Covid-19. 

Responding to this Brendan Griffin, Minister for State with responsibility for Tourism and Sport, told RTÉ's Morning Ireland: "They will be consulted with. They will be heard. The taskforce isn't a group made up of individuals representing sectors. It is a group of experts in Irish tourism who are going to do their best to put in place measures that will attract as many tourists into the country for as long as possible and as soon as possible". 

The Western Chauffeur Drive Association is also calling for an extension to Covid-19 pandemic payments to workers in the industry and for a continuation of the moratorium on bank loans. 

On those issues the minister said: "I certainly feel that the tourism and hospitality industry have very specific issues affecting their livelihoods and their businesses and there will have to be exceptions made.

"There will have to be a special effort made to ensure that these otherwise viable enterprises can survive into the future, and thrive into the future, and get through this very difficult period at the moment". 

The National Chauffeur Driver Association is calling for similar measures. 

Mary McGrath of Optimum Chauffeur Drives, which is based Dublin and Cork, said her business is down 98% when compared to last year.

"Any of the large State visits to Ireland we would do the transportation for those. We would have looked after the Papal visit and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they were here. 

"Under normal circumstances we would be very busy at this time with conferences and State visits and tours but obviously because of Covid-19 that's all been cancelled now. 

"We don't have drivers working on the road at the moment. Compared to the same period last year we've seen a 98% loss of business," said Ms McGrath. 

Mike Buckley, managing director of Kerry Coaches in Killarney, who also runs a chauffeur service said the pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on business.

"Mid-summer last year we would have employed 120 people. At the moment I am sitting in an empty office", said Mr Buckley. 

Mr Buckley's €7m fleet of Mercedes, Audi and other high-end vehicles are locked up and not in use. 

"We bring people to the periphery. We bring them to the Wild Atlantic Way. We bring them from North Donegal to West Kerry down to the Wexford Coast. A lot of the tourism businesses on the seafront and on the coast in Ireland are decimated at the moment. We are the people, we are the conduit, to get tourists from the airports when they arrive into the regions", said Mr Buckley.

He added, that presently, because of his sector's inability to transport tourists, peripheral areas in Ireland "are going to perish.

 "To get back into business we need incoming tourists to come back to the country", said Mr Buckley. 

The Coach Tourism and Transport Council, the group representing coach tour services, is also calling for clarity on aviation industry quarantine measures.

Caoimhe Maloney Kavanagh, a member of the council's executive, said coach tourism has been wiped out by the pandemic.

"We have been annihilated. There is nothing. The diary is blank. Everything is gone. All our tours that were due to go out up to the end of August have been cancelled," said Ms Maloney Kavanagh, who is also group operations director with Pierce Kavanagh Coaches in Urlingford, Co Kilkenny.

"All our incoming tours from our American and Canadian clients are all gone. They are on the phone now wanting to know what is happening in September. Unfortunately, there is nobody giving us any information", she added. 

"Unfortunately, with this 14-day quarantine none of these tours can go ahead. The worst part of this is that nobody is telling us that 14 days quarantine will disappear with Phase 2 or Phase 3 or Phase 4.

"We don't know when it will be gone and we really need that information in order to try and salvage some part of the 2020 coach tourism season," Ms Maloney Kavanagh added. 

Minister for State said tourism concerns are being addressed by the Government. 
In relation to Ms Maloney Kavanagh's concerns he told Morning Ireland: "I can assure Caoimhe, and people who are in similar situations, that we are working extremely hard in trying to give as much clarity to people as soon as possible.

"I have asked officials within our department to examine best practice in other countries in terms of alternative ways of protecting public health here in Ireland and yet at the same time trying to optimise the numbers of visitors that we can attract here", he said. 

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