Dispatches from a Pandemic: Ireland’s tourism chief resigns after he takes a trip to Italy — despite the government advising people to vacation at home

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DUBLIN — When the sun shines in Ireland, it’s not unusual to hear someone say, “You could be in Italy right now.”

Michael Cawley, chairman of the state tourism board, did not have to imagine such a scenario. He and his family are currently enjoying time in the Italian sun. He went on vacation to Italy, despite the advice of his own government to limit travel overseas.

Cawley, who previously served as the deputy chief executive and chief operations officer of Irish airline Ryanair RYAAY, -1.31%, said that he resigned from his post as the nation’s tourism Czar with “great regret,” adding, “I fully support the government’s policy on tourism.

“I will continue to help the industry emerge from its current difficulties,” Cawley said. “It has been a privilege to serve as chair of Fáilte Ireland and to have contributed to the massive growth which Irish tourism has enjoyed prior to this global pandemic.”

He added, “As has been reported in the media this morning, I am on a pre-arranged family holiday in Italy, which is on the Government green list.” He handed in his resignation the same day Ireland reported the highest number of new coronavirus infections in three months.

On Saturday, Ireland confirmed 200 new cases of Covid-19. That brings the total number of cases to 27,191, a situation Dr. Ronan Glynn, the country’s acting chief medical officer, described as “deeply concerning.” The number of coronavirus-related deaths here remains at 1,774.

News that the chairman of Fáilte Ireland, the country’s tourism board, would take such a trip was greeted with a mixture of disbelief and disappointment among the public and lawmakers alike. Cawley is listed as a member of the board of directors of no-frills airline Ryanair.

Fáilte Ireland had been spearheading a major campaign to convince Ireland to avoid flying to Italy or other places on Ireland’s “green list” and to vacation at home and support local businesses. (People returning from “green list” countries do not have to quarantine for 14 days.)

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When the sun shines in Ireland, it’s not unusual to hear someone say, ‘You could be in Italy right now.’ (Photo: Quentin Fottrell.)

Last July, the Irish government has announced a tax credit or rebate for vacationing in Ireland. Domestic holidaymakers will receive €125 ($148) if they spend roughly €600 ($710) on accommodation and restaurants. Couples will be able to claim €250 ($296).

The so-called vacation subsidy will be available until October and will apply to hotels, restaurants and non-alcoholic drinks. The scheme was designed to help stimulate an economy flattened by the coroanvirus pandemic, but also to dissuade people from traveling abroad and spreading the virus.

Catherine Martin, Ireland’s Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, said Saturday that she accepted Cawley’s resignation in a phone call. She said the government encouraged people to stay in Ireland this year, and help support the local tourism industry.

Martin said it was important that people don’t undertake non-essential travel. “I would encourage everyone to support the tourism and hospitality industries in any way they can, and am taking my own holidays in this country. Fáilte Ireland will continue to promote holidaying in Ireland,” Martin said.

“While Italy is on the green list, meaning that people who return from there do not have to restrict their movements, the government has called on people to avoid all non-essential travel,” the minister added. “I was disappointed to learn that the chair of Fáilte Ireland was holidaying in Italy.”

Johns Hopkins University ranks Ireland as No. 15 in the world on a list of COVID-related deaths per capita: 36.5 per 100,000 with a case-fatality rate of 6.6%. For comparison, the U.S. is ranked at No. 10 with a fatality rate of 51.5 per 100,000 and a case-fatality rate of 3.2%.

Ireland, a country with a population of 4.9 million excluding the British province of Northern Ireland, has also recorded one of the highest rates of COVID-related nursing-home deaths in the world. Some 62% of fatalities from the virus occurred in nursing homes, a rate only exceeded by Canada.

Last Monday, the Irish government introduced a mandatory face-mask policy in stores four months after the World Health Organization and other international health authorities changed their official policy on face masks, recommending people wear them to help stop the spread of the virus.

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Customers enjoy a drink at Murrays Pub on Grafton Street in Dublin. Photo: Getty.