One of the issues of concern among rural communities since the Covid panic has been the recovery and survival of the tourism and hospitality sector. That recovery has been beset by issues around prices and is now greatly exacerbated by the use of hotel and other visitor accommodation to house Ukrainian refugees, along with asylum seekers from elsewhere.
Many communities have been disappointed by the fact that so many owners of this type of accommodation seem to prefer the state cheque to the vagaries of the market. The bill for accommodation and related costs for accommodating migrants and refugees had already passed one billion Euro at the beginning of the Summer.
Local frustrations have been compounded where the owners of what were tourist accommodation have seemingly abandoned plans to reopen hotels and other holiday accommodation that were bought with local community backing for what were promised to be major injections of jobs and spending.
One such promise was in the case of the former Óstán Ghaoth Dobhair and the neighbouring Óstán Radharc na Mara – Seaview Hotel and self-catering in the Donegal Gaeltacht.
A plan for the hotels was launched with considerable publicity in September 2020 on the Bád Eddie beach by Donegal Sinn Féin TD, and local resident, Pearse Doherty and the new owners of the hotels, Vesada Private.
At the launch Doherty claimed that the hotels would provide 80 new jobs. Doherty also stated that he had been in talks with Vesada for more than a year before the plans were made public.
Last August, it was announced that planning permission had been granted for the addition of 80 new bedrooms, café and restaurant at the Sea View.
The attendant publicity again referred to the €15 million proposed investment and the 80 new jobs. To date, the only new guests to have taken up residence in the Sea View have been Ukrainian refugees, and locals say none of the promised long term local jobs have materialised.
Local people stress that they have no issues with the Ukrainians who are staying in the area. They are, however, increasingly worried that Vesada Private may be content to continue to devote the hotels to this use – perhaps in the longer term to provide accommodation for asylum seekers from other countries.
That worry is linked to the fact that Vesada also owns hotel properties in other parts of the country, including the Pontoon Bridge in Mayo which is currently housing Ukrainian refugees. Vesada announced last week that they plan to re-open the Pontoon to the public in 2025.
Vesada Private, in common with other businesses who have bought hotel and tourist accommodation, are not under much pressure to return to the marketplace. Their current arrangement with the state to provide accommodation for Ukrainian refugees had, until the end of March this year, already earned Vesada €4,589,606.30.
That is probably considerably more than a group of hotels might expect to pull in over the period of little more than a year, especially given the low costs involved on the part of the providers.
The two directors of Vesada Private, Desmond Connolly and Frank Clinton, are also directors of Bunbeg Revitalisation Limited which was incorporated in June 2019, over a year prior to the announcement regarding the hotels which were to be the flagships of any revitalisation. The project has certainly been sold locally on the basis of it being some sort of boost for the community.
One local person told Gript that Vesada had promised to include around 50 homes in the vicinity of the hotels in an upgraded public sewerage network but locals became concerned at this as it was common knowledge that there was no such public sewerage system to connect to in the area, Indeed, Pearse Doherty had previously raised this issue at local and national level as far back as 2009 when a smaller development in Bunbeg was rejected due to the lack of such a system.
Some of these and other concerns regarding the plans for the area were apparently aired at a meeting that was held in the local Sinn Féin offices between community representatives and three representatives from Vesada. The main local presence of the company has been Dublin man Ciarán Ó Muireagáin who has given a number of interviews to Raidió na Gaeltachta.
Last September, Ó Muireagáin said that they were planning eventually to have 151 tourist beds but admitted that they had run into planning difficulties regarding the sewerage system. He said that there were 80 Ukrainians staying in the Sea View hotel, and that they had signed a 6 month contract and that he did not know what would happen after that, but that they planned to proceed quickly with their original plans for the Sea View, perhaps over the period of the first six month contract.
The interviewer himself appeared to be optimistic regarding the great boost that the project would eventually bring to the local community, which allowed Ó Muireagáin to refer to six local apartments which are listed among mortgages and charges to Bunbeg Revitalisation Limited.
Those Bunbeg apartments are, in fact, listed as being owned by a Daphne Xiao, who company documents show as being the entitled owner – in other words she owns the deeds to the builds.
Another part of the Vesada Private portfolio was its role as a facilitator of mostly Chinese people who availed of the Immigrant Investor Programme which allowed people who made an investment of €1 million or more to be granted a visa and residency rights in the Irish Republic.
That programme was closed in February by Minister Simon Harris, apparently following concerns that had been expressed by the EU.
The IIP was a major selling point for Vesada and it was believed that part of the funding for the Gweedore project was to consist of finance provided by Chinese citizens seeking to avail of the scheme. The Bunbeg Sea View is one of a number of projects which are listed on the Vesada page that refer to “numerous Investment Projects approved by the Department of Justice in Ireland,” which have “helped many families through the process to relocate to Ireland with a 100% application success rate.”
Among the other projects listed are at Richmond Avenue, Dublin 3, where the person entitled is listed as Yunfeng Zhang, and in Ballybough where 72 Ballybough Road, which is listed among properties listed as mortgages and charges on Vesada Private, has as the entitled person one Gang Ma.
Connolly and Clinton have a number of common directorships which are connected to Vesada Private. Clinton was previously director of companies mostly based in the midlands, while Connolly was a director of three Dublin based companies including At Risk Security and At Risk Electronics which have now been dissolved.
Gript contacted both Pearse Doherty and Vesada Private with a number of queries regarding the background to the project, the possible part played by overseas investors through the Immigrant Investor Programme as well as the likelihood of the hotels being reopened as holiday accommodation.
Neither had responded before we went to publication.