Thursday, 22 September 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
The National Tourism Development (Amendment) Bill 2011 provides for an increase in the level of capital funding that can be voted to the National Tourism Development Authority, Fáilte Ireland, for the purpose of supporting tourism product development. Before moving on to the detail of the Bill, I wish to outline to the House the importance of the tourism sector. Even after the decline of recent years, the tourism and hospitality sector continues to be a major economic force in the economy, providing an estimated 180,000 jobs. It brings revenues into every part of the country and provides job opportunities for people across a range of skill levels.
The estimate for expenditure in 2010 by overseas visitors, including carrier receipts, is approximately €3.4 billion. In addition, estimated spending on domestic tourism in 2010 was €1.3 billion, making the total expenditure on tourism in the national economy in the region of €4.7 billion. As for tourism performance, after a number of very successful years of growth, Ireland saw a reduction in overseas visitors in the second half of 2008 that continued into 2009 and 2010. Ireland was not unique in this regard as travel worldwide was affected by the global economic slowdown. Fortunately, 2011 has seen a welcome return to growth and I am confident this upward momentum will be maintained. In the first six months of this year, visits from North America increased by 15% and from Great Britain by 8% compared with the first half of 2010. Notably, visits from other long-haul markets and mainland European countries increased by more than 17%. In addition, people appear to be holidaying at home in greater numbers this year and I commend them on their support for the domestic tourism industry.
Comparisons with the first half of 2010 are distorted by the impact of severe weather in the early part of the year and the volcanic ash on travel between March and May last year. That being so, the increase in overseas travel to Ireland is not solely due to the recovery of business lost due to the volcanic ash and weather issues of 2010. Numbers from North America and from other long-haul markets are almost back to 2008 levels. Indications of recovery are supported by evidence from the trade and data from private sector surveys showing Dublin hotel occupancy rates up almost ten percentage points. Ireland has retained its title as least expensive destination in western Europe according to the latest www.hotels.com hotel price index published last week.
While the recent figures are encouraging, one cannot afford to be complacent. I am confident however, that with all those engaged with Irish tourism working together with the relevant agencies, Ministers and Government, we can ensure the quality and competitiveness of the Irish tourist offering will be continually improved and the industry will generate increased earnings and more jobs as part of our economic recovery. The Government is playing its part through measures such as the VAT cut, reduced employers’ PRSI, and the visa waiver scheme to support competitiveness, as well as key investments to upgrade our tourism products and attractions. This Bill is a technical adjustment to existing legislation but is important in facilitating the continued support for capital investment in tourism product.
The decision of the Minister for Finance to reduce to 9% the level of VAT that applies to a range of labour-intensive tourism services provides a much-needed support to this sector of the economy. It improves still further the competitiveness of our services for tourists, particularly accommodation and restaurants. The VAT reduction was introduced for an 18-month period and its implementation will be monitored. I am pleased to note the strong encouragement given by the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation to their members to pass on the VAT cut to their customers. The Government is also helping businesses to enhance their position in the international tourism marketplace by reducing significantly the cost of employing people by halving employers’ PRSI for those on modest wages. It should be remembered that the total cost of employment from the employer’s perspective not only includes wages but also the employer’s share of PRSI. This reduction lowers the cost of employment for the employer without affecting employees’ earnings. The visa waiver scheme, which is perhaps the most radical change in Irish immigration policy or practice since the coming of the Single Market, shows the Government is serious about doing everything it can to support the tourism sector.
While the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, confirmed recently that the Government has decided to retain the €3 travel tax pending a further review next spring, a significant proportion of the revenues taken in from that tax will be used to support inbound tourism. This support will see significant additional funding being used for co-operative marketing with airlines, airports, ferry companies and tour operators on inbound routes into Ireland over the coming months. We will focus in particular on opportunities to enhance access from the British regions, the United States, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Tourism Ireland will lead the marketing campaign to promote inbound travel into Ireland in co-operation with airlines, ferry companies, tour operators and airports. Those participating in the programme will be expected to make a contribution to the cost, thus leveraging a final investment in excess of the Government contribution.
In the domestic market, I recently launched Fáilte Ireland’s latest Discover Ireland autumn breaks brochure. The brochure will be available online and in Discover Ireland tourist offices until the end of November. The range of special offers in our autumn brochure and online is a reflection of the determination of tourism businesses to fight for every potential inch of business in the market. The brochure features 200 special offers from throughout Ireland, with offers from hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and self-catering holiday homes. The brochure highlights some great holiday ideas, including top autumn festivals and includes a special focus on the Dublin festival season.
The Government’s support programme for capital investment in tourism product is provided through Fáilte Ireland’s tourism capital investment programme. The programme has operated on the basis of three broad strands. The first is the development of new attractions and the upgrade of existing visitor attractions. The second strand concerns the development of tourism infrastructure, primarily through supporting local authorities to develop appropriate facilities for tourists, including walking and cycling routes, jetties and moorings, angling stands, access routes to areas of scenic interest, as well as signposting and orientation facilities in heritage and historic towns. The third strand relates to the development of outdoor and other active pursuits such as water sports, boat rental, equestrian and horse riding facilities, and so on. The aim of the investment programme is to provide the necessary public infrastructure to help develop tourism as well as providing sustainable visitor attractions that match the expectations of the international visitor.
Naturally, as with most funding schemes, there are many more applicants than there is capital funding available. Under the National Tourism Development Authority Act 2003, responsibility for the management of tourism related funding programmes has been devolved to Fáilte Ireland, which considers applications for funding based on the tourism benefits that each proposal will provide. To achieve the best use of public funding, it is crucial that the limited funding is put towards the projects that will have the most effective impact on tourism both in terms of increased visitor numbers and the enhancement of the visitor experience. In this regard, the Fáilte Ireland executive will undertake a full appraisal process, including financial evaluations, legal and other due diligence of all applications made under the programme. When it has been completed, the Fáilte Ireland executive will bring the application before a capital investment appraisal group, which has been established to examine the proposals and make recommendations on funding. It includes external experts with particular expertise in financial appraisal and economics, together with Fáilte Ireland’s chief executive and a representative of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Final approval of the appraisal group’s recommendation is made by the board of Fáilte Ireland.
In the initial years of the programme, 2007-08, Fáilte Ireland targeted infrastructure provision by local authorities, such as walking and cycling routes, beach management works, access to angling waters and so on. It also supported the historic towns initiative for walking routes in designated towns of historic merit. A total of €23 million was allocated to Fáilte Ireland in those years for such projects.
In the following years, the focus expanded to include the provision of support for re-investment in major tourist visitor attractions and the development of facilities for visitor activities. Notable projects allocated or approved for grant aid to date include Dublinia, Waterford Viking Triangle, Sliabh Liag Cliffs in Donegal, Athlone Castle, Mizen Head Bridge in west Cork, Mayo Greenway and King John’s Castle in Limerick.
From 2009 to date, 45 projects have been approved for funding of just under €76 million. The level of outstanding commitments under the programme means the current legislative limit on the funds advanced to Fáilte Ireland will no longer be sufficient. This gives rise to the need for the Bill before the House which I will outline in more detail.
The National Tourism Development Authority Act was passed in 2003 to dissolve Bord Fáilte Éireann and CERT limited and establish the National Tourism Development Authority, Fáilte Ireland. Section 24(1) of the Act gives the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, the power to advance, out of money provided by the Oireachtas, such sums as the Minister may determine. Section 24(2) limits the amount of money that can be advanced by the Minister to Fáilte Ireland as capital expenditure on projects or enterprises to €65 million.
Since its establishment in 2003 to the end of 2010, a total of €44.411 million has been advanced to Fáilte Ireland for capital expenditure on projects or enterprises. This leaves a total of just €20 million available to be advanced to Fáilte Ireland before amending legislation is required. It is anticipated that expenditure in 2011 and 2012 is likely to exceed the existing cap and this necessitates an increase in the limit. My Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have agreed a new legislative cap of €150 million, based on this year’s allocation and possible future allocations. I am bringing forward this Bill to make the necessary legislative change and commend it to the House.
Deputy Timmy Dooley: I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for the work he has done to date on this issue. I recognise the Bill, as the Minister said, is technical in nature and is removing a cap. There is no change in terms of the policy platform of the Government. I have been supportive of the actions and initiatives the Minister has taken since coming into office and will continue to be so if they are in the best interests of the tourism sector and the country.
We all know there are a couple of bedrocks in the economy which we perhaps lost sight of in better times. One is agriculture, with which the Minister is very familiar because of his constituency, and the other is tourism. There is a lot of talk about foreign direct investment and the need to attract it, in terms of high technology companies, ICT, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and other industries. We often fail to recognise that one of the best aspects of foreign direct investment can be derived from the tourism sector. It is effectively money from America and can be of immense benefit to reignite our domestic economy.
We are all aware of the lack of confidence in our economy and the impact it is having at local level. It is often very difficult to stimulate the industry from macroeconomic policy decisions that are taken, but if activity can be ignited in the service industry, in hotels, bars and restaurants, a buoyant economy will be created in every local community. Tourism has a phenomenal capacity to deliver on that.
I welcome the initiative, which will allow the State to facilitate Fáilte Ireland in providing assistance through its current programme and the facilities it has identified and approved but are awaiting funding. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Finance in attempting to ensure that a greater level of funding is set aside to support this vital industry.
The Minister is well aware of the number of jobs the sector provides. They are exceptionally important jobs. Some of them, by nature, are part time and assist young people in college and young mothers with families who need to work part time. The impact it has on our economy is often underestimated. I support the Minister in his efforts to ensure a greater level of funding is set aside this year and over the next number of years. Such funding has to be viewed in the context of rebuilding our economy.
We share a common view, with the exception of the Minister’s colleague, on the necessity to recapitalise the banks to create a level of activity in the domestic economy. In parallel with that, funding for the tourism sector will have an equal benefit in terms of motivating and renewing activity. The Bill will allow the Minister to provide funding to Fáilte Ireland. He will have to win the argument with the Department of Finance.
We should develop a new programme. Long before the crash I prepared some ideas for a former Minister on investing significant sums of money in tourism capital infrastructure. We should be spending in the region of €1 billion a year over five years to create best of breed facilities and attractions in four unique districts in the country. There could be a level of competition between regions in terms of who would have the best facilities for families, watersports or outdoor pursuits such as walking or hiking. We could create some of the best facilities in Europe.
Sadly, that is not possible in the current environment. For far too long we have failed to consider new markets. There are no facilities, with the exception of good hotels. We have not created major attractions like other countries for families and young people. Why does everybody have to head to France, Portugal, Spain or Italy? There is a weather issue. A level of development has taken place in recent years in some of the Nordic countries which now have very good tourism facilities. Why can we not forget about the weather, look at what attractions are available and try to create the best possible ones to attract inward investment to benefit the State?
There is a huge job to be done to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit within the tourism sector to develop ideas. It will then be up to all of us to try to find how to support it with grant aid. The figures will stack up if we can develop the entrepreneurial spirit we had in the days of Shannon Development. Dr. Brendan O’Regan was very proactive in developing the castle experience and Bunratty folk park. Other facilities have been successful such as St. John’s Castle in Limerick. Many such attractions targeted the American market. A visit to a castle was a big thing in the United States at one stage but not any longer. We have to look beyond such attractions.
I am mindful of the fact Shannon Development continued to pursue the next level of tourism attractions. It has an attractive offering, of which the Minister may be aware. There is a proposal to build a theme park at the back of the folk park. Such projects should be considered for grant aid. It wants to attract an international player, similar to the management of other theme parks. As we do not have much experience in that, it is right to seek to tie up with other international operators to bring the best of breed theme park to this country, in the first instance to retain our own people. A significant number of Irish people travel abroad every year to facilitate families because the facilities are not here and it is not just the weather. We need to carefully consider that.
We also need to consider how we promote and market what we have which requires money. In the past I have been critical of the efforts of Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland to promote Ireland. When one moves out into the wider world in terms of attracting tourism it becomes exceptionally expensive and it is not possible for Ireland to fund the kind of marketing campaign that would give the growth rates we would want. We need to be considerably more effective in targeting certain sectors of the market.
I am delighted the certificate of Irish heritage has eventually come to fruition. I know it has been doing the rounds for some time and has been working through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It culminated this week with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade presenting the first certificate. I understand that later this month or early next month those certificates will be available. I believe Mr. Greg O’Neill from County Clare first proposed that idea. I know some people have suggested it came from the Farmleigh forum, but Mr. O’Neill, who was originally from Athlone and a schoolmate of the late Brian Lenihan Sn., would rightly recognise that it was his idea going back over 20 years. It is an exceptionally good idea in terms of making that connection.
We will need to consider other similar opportunities, including how we get into the many networks that exist. For example, there are walking clubs to which local authorities have given support and grants and which have benefited from the good work of FÁS and Fáilte Ireland. There are many walking networks throughout Europe and in other parts of the world and it is a matter of being proactive in making contact with them, doing the legwork and setting up festivals with a theme at this end affording people the opportunity to travel.
In my area as in the Minister of State’s area there is a very strong history of traditional music. We have traditional music festivals throughout the summer which are very good for the region, and are well recognised and supported. I was delighted that an east Clare tourism group has decided to have a walking festival next month, which extends the tourism season. It has been building connections with other walking groups in Ireland and the idea is to look further afield. It is slow and expensive because most of the work is done by volunteers in the first instance or the very small tourism practitioners in the region, mainly bed and breakfast operators, and taxi and hackney service providers. It is a small group of local people coming together. A small amount of money to assist them in their marketing efforts to offer their wares to a broader audience would be most welcome. We need to consider the macro level in terms of branding Ireland, but we also need to assist at the micro level.
The Minister of State will be familiar with the fishing on Lough Derg. Some people spend time, energy and money travelling to places like Holland and France to attract people to come to participate in lake angling. It is an exceptionally good tourist offering and probably one which has been underexploited. Great work has been done by many of the local fishing clubs in their restocking programmes and returning the catch. There needs to be joined-up thinking with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Inland Fisheries Ireland to eliminate poaching which has become a serious phenomenon in more recent years. There was always some poaching of salmon. While I do not want to get into the broader debate of who is doing it, there is a strong body of evidence that certain nationalities in particular have targeted lakes and are effectively removing many of the fish. We need to consider a programme that limits the number of fish caught in a particular way in order to protect that asset. If the information gets back to the fishing community that the rivers and lakes are no longer fruitful in terms of delivery of catch, it finds its way into the angling magazines resulting in a complete fall-off in activity. There is some work to be done in that area.
The Minister of State has given numbers indicating the increase in tourism, which is helpful. We cannot sit back on our laurels, particularly with the economic crisis that continues to prevail across Europe. There was growth in a number of European countries, but the forecast was not great, which means people will not be travelling. We will need to watch developments in the key markets from where people are still in a position to travel. Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland need to be flexible in recognising the state of other countries’ economies.
I do not want to play down the increase in tourist numbers, about which we are all happy. Some of the increase was as a result of not having an ash cloud this year as we did last year which impacted many businesses and resulted in a bad year.
I was not a big fan of the VAT reduction. When the full analysis is done in due course, I am not sure it will have shown the level of benefits we would like for the cost it has had on the pension sector. There are some suggestions it has not been passed on and even when it is passed on, one would need to eat out many times to save enough to buy a meal based on the VAT reduction, but we have had that debate before.
Since his appointment, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has strongly indicated his intention to work much more closely with the State airports in an effort to have aviation policy and tourism policy work together in a more coherent way, which I always believed was the right approach. He has considerable work to do regarding Cork and Shannon Airports. While I am not suggesting it is coming from the Department, some of the information coming through the media about Shannon Airport in particular is of concern. Some members of the airport’s board seem to suggest the solution is the development of a long lease and ultimately the privatisation of the airport through the backdoor, which would not be helpful. All of the State airports need to be considered together in a collective way. If any of the critical assets are simply considered in a profit and loss environment and focused exclusively on being a profit centre, the region or country is robbed of that facility in terms of being able to pull together the lot and develop a coherent policy.
We need to get away from the notion of the privatisation of things like airports and considering them only in terms of profit and loss. Nobody ever considers a road in terms of profit and loss; it is critical infrastructure for moving people from A to B and the same is true of our train services. We need to start to view our airports in the same way. Some local people seem to believe that if the airport was privatised and taken into local hands, they could run it much better. However, that moves such airports out of the central picture. We need a central authority running our three main airports, similar to what existed previously. I never agreed with the State Airports Act 2004 giving rise to the notion of airports being somehow in competition with each other. We do not adopt that approach to roads and suggest that as someone could reach a destination quicker on the N7 than on the N8, the road should be privatised to force them to take off a few bends allowing a driver to get there quicker, which would be daft. We need to get back to managing the assets in a way that gives everybody a fair share of the incoming tourists, but it must be done with proper regulation and governance, in a manner that utilises the facilities to meet the policies that are set.
Over the years we have talked at length about balanced regional development but have done little to support it other than throw in the planks of infrastructure by building the roads — the airports are there. There needs to be a management policy sitting over those assets to manage them in a coherent way that states that Shannon Airport will be for North American tourism, that we will brand that and that will be the product offered there, while doing something else with Dublin and Cork Airports. We must also examine other potential facilities around that including the pre-clearance of cargo, which while not related to tourism is an important aspect. As the Minister of State will be aware, the pre-clearance for passengers travelling to the United States has been successful; probably this asset has not been sweated as much as it should have been as this stage but it is an important feature of assisting airlines in identifying other opportunities in the United States. Hot on the heels of that, we must continue our efforts to develop pre-clearance for cargo. That would create a level of activity in Shannon Airport or Cork Airport, if it ever got to that level, and would have the capacity to underwrite a significant cost base at an airport that would make it more attractive for, say, Shannon Airport to be able to offer better deals to airlines that would generate passengers. That in itself would have a snowball effect because much of the cargo now travels in the hold of commercial aircraft. There is a good deal of work to be done in the Department in marrying the tourism component and the transport component through the aviation side and, additionally, examining with Enterprise Ireland the importance of bringing in the cargo component while it helps to support the activity thereafter.
I mentioned briefly the importance of supporting the micro activity in the tourism sector, particularly for tourists engaged in outdoor pursuits, be it walking, surfing or fishing. Surfing has become a very significant product on the western seaboard, particularly in Clare, with which I am most familiar, but it extends to the Minister of State’s county of Mayo and further afield.
I ask the Minister of State to use his office to ensure the tourism element of our future development is pulled together in a strong way with the transport initiative to ensure there is a coherent approach not only to the development of the product but a sustained marketing effort. I will not do what others did in the past and say we should spend, spend, spend. We must be careful about what we spend because we will not get the money from the Department of Finance in the first instance. More work can be done in identifying the tourism areas and opportunities. It is not all about having an advertisement on the front page of the New York Post but we could be on the front page of it with a story that is unique, different and has the capacity to attract interest rather than with a flat advertisement that is paid for by the Irish Exchequer at a phenomenal cost.
I know that some work is being done by the State agencies. I recognise the work of Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, Shannon Development and a myriad of other agencies involved in tourism activity. They often get bashed, usually by the Opposition side of the House. I will not engage in that because I know the difficulties and constraints under which they work. I wish the Minister and them well in their efforts ahead.
Deputy John Browne: I welcome the Bill. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, all the best in his portfolio, as this is the first opportunity I have had to do so. He was very vocal when he was on this side of the House, therefore, I am sure he will implement some of the ideas and suggestions he had. It is important to increase funding for this area. I am sure the Minister of State will fight his corner at the Cabinet table to ensure adequate funding is made available for the future development of tourism.
I might not be as complimentary as Deputy Dooley to some of the bodies. The mid-west and the Shannon area do very well from Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland but I am not so sure the south east or my county, the model county of Wexford, which is probably one of the most beautiful counties in Ireland, gets the same level of support and assistance from those two bodies. The general feeling in the south east, particularly in my county, is that it does not.
Many people are working in the tourism industry. It accounts for approximately 200,000 full-time and part-time jobs throughout the country. It is an important industry for the future development of this country. We in the south-east corner have been trying for many years to promote tourism to our region, particularly between our region and Wales. Wexford County Council has been twinned with Pembrokeshire. The local hotels and golf clubs have an interaction between parts of Wales and the south east and that works reasonably well. There is an exchange in terms of golfing expeditions, angling and different types of fishing. We have a huge influx of Welsh visitors in the south east during the rugby season. Many of them might not have a ticket for the match in the Aviva Stadium but they come and spend their time in the south east on match weekends and that is very welcome.
There are tremendous opportunities for the development of marine tourism. The Minister of State comes from the west coast and I come from the south-east coast. The old fishery boards were fairly active in this area but I am not sure that the new body is as active. I do not know if the Minister of State has met the representatives of it yet. It could do much more to develop angling, boating and surfing. We have miles and miles of coastline and such tourism is probably under exploited at present. I was in that Department for a year and we worked very closely with the fishery boards to promote such tourism. There was a good level of co-operation between local authorities and the fishery boards at that time in developing unique tourist attractions based on the marine sector. It is important that we continue to develop that work together to achieve that. However, it cannot be just left to Fáilte Ireland or Tourism Ireland. Local authorities and the Department have a major role to play in working together in that respect.
Many local authorities have been involved in tourism projects and I cite my local authority as an example. It has been involved in the development of the Hook Lighthouse, the heritage park in Wexford, the John F. Kennedy Park, the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross and many other projects. It is about developing tourism at local level. Nearly every large and small parish in my county has some unique tourism project that they encourage people to visit. If people come to the county, they do not only go the towns, the John F. Kennedy Park or the heritage park, they expand their trip and travel to the countryside.
I met representatives of the Wexford IFA on a number of occasions. I have often talked about the development of rural tourism or agricultural tourism, as I call it, because rural tourism is essentially agricultural tourism given that the farmers provide the land for walking schemes. Farmers are developing in-farm visits and farm holidays. That is another area where there is huge potential for development and expansion. Farmers are doing well at present and they are exploring alternative schemes. It is important that agriculture is tied into tourism development for the future.
Tourism Ireland has made great play this week of the 500,000 million fans it has on its website. I spoke to a hotelier this morning, who telephoned me about another matter, who said it is grand to have fans on the website but we need bodies in Ireland. It is important we get people to come here. He made the point that the same number of consumers are leaving the UK this year as left it five or ten years ago but they are not coming to Ireland. He said they are turning left and they are going to sunnier spots, to Germany or other counties, but they are not coming to Ireland. It is an area we need to examine and spend more time promoting Ireland as a destination to which the UK visitor would come.
The visits of the Queen and President Obama accounted for massive publicity for this country. We all enjoyed the few days they were here and the publicity Ireland received. I ask the Minister of State to say, when he replies to the debate, how he feels we should be able to exploit the visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama to this country. I read recently that there are approximately 40 million Irish Americans in the United States. If even one per cent of them visited Ireland on a regular basis we would be doing very well. This is an opportunity we should not lose. The previous and present Governments made brave decisions in inviting Queen Elizabeth to come here. We have had regular visits by Presidents of the United States. We should not lose this opportunity. We have tapped into the goodwill between the British and Irish people.
We should use whatever opportunities we have to encourage more United Kingdom people to come to Ireland. Ireland is now a safe place to come. We had our troubles in the past and people may have been afraid to come. Now, one can come and move freely in both North and South. We should get the message out that there are 32 counties in Ireland. The whole of Ireland is a good place to visit and we have many tourism sites that people would want to see. We should encourage second generation Irish people in the United Kingdom and the United States to visit Ireland.
A million visitors come through Rosslare port every year, but Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland seem to be more supportive of airports than of ports. It is important that ports be given the same publicity and promotion as airports. Wales is on the doorstep of the south east and is only a short hop across the water from Dublin. It is important that tourism bodies promote our ports as well as our airports. There should be a combined effort, as Deputy Dooley said. Waterford airport and other smaller airports around the country have huge potential. All opportunities should be taken to encourage people to come here, whether the traffic comes through ports or airports.
I thank the Minister of State for bringing the Bill before the House. It is one thing to enact legislation but I am sure the Minister of State will have to present his case to the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. However, if Deputy Ring is looking for money for Wexford I am sure he will have no problem with Deputy Brendan Howlin. If the Minister of State starts to look for money for that part of the country he will probably get it and he can then move on to the rest of the country.
Finally, I must mention the visit of the tall ships to Waterford. The event was a huge success and a tremendous opportunity to encourage people to come here. I hope they will return to the south-east in the next few years.
Deputy Sandra McLellan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I thank the Minister of State for his help since taking up his position and wish him all the best for the future. The Bill is a necessary step towards facilitating significant investment in our tourism product.
In the current economic climate the importance of tourism cannot be overstated. As an indigenous economic sector, it is unique in that it has an impact on all areas of the economy, rural and urban. The industry is a very significant employer and requires minimal import content to produce its output. The rationale for increased investment in the sector is particularly strong and is to be supported.
The recent performance of Irish tourism is encouraging. However, for tourism to keep making a positive contribution to the Irish economy, it will be necessary to make the right strategic choices over the coming period. It is essential that a measured approach is taken when deciding priorities.
In the 1990s, Ireland experienced unprecedented tourism growth and outperformed the rest of Europe as a tourist destination. However, since 2001, the sector has become less competitive due to a number of factors as highlighted in numerous Department and industry reports,including the lack of investment in product development, changes in demand and customer needs and more aggressive competition from other destinations. Indeed, on a number of indicators, such as the number of tourist visits and revenue generated, the tourism sector has experienced a period of overall decline in recent years. During the period 2005-10 the number of overseas visitors and holidaymakers to Ireland peaked in 2007 at 7.7 million and then declined year-on-year to 5.8 million in 2010. The number of visitors from each of our three largest markets — Britain, Europe and North America — has declined year on year since 2007, though the number of domestic trips actually increased in the same period. Tourism’s contribution to the broader economy in terms of GNP has remained relatively stable at between 3.7% to 4.0%.
The industry’s role in balanced regional and rural development is extremely important. From the beaches in Youghal or the Ring of Kerry to Newgrange and the Donegal Gaeltacht, every corner of Ireland has a unique selling point. Naturally, Dublin generates the largest proportion of tourism revenue in Ireland and will most likely continue to do so. The south-west and west regions continue to perform quite well. The Shannon, the east and midlands and the north west in particular need to be included in an inclusive strategy to maximise the potential of areas. This needs to be addressed going forward. The industry continues to be a major employer with the Central Statistics Office and Fáilte Ireland estimating that those working in the tourism and hospitality sector make up somewhere between 7% and 10% of total employment. The level has decreased over the last couple of years.
The Bill before the House on its own is a technicality which facilitates Fáilte Ireland to continue its business. It should, though, form the basis for a response to the tourism product development strategy produced by Fáilte Ireland, which outlined that competitor destinations in northern Europe are investing substantial sums of public money into tourism. In Norway, for example, public investment in tourism has been running at €43 million annually. In Scotland, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Agency spends up to €22 million annually on tourism. This investment is additional to the €52 million Government grant support provided by the Visit Scotland agency. Through its funding Visit Scotland is seeking to encourage the Scottish hospitality business to enhance its marketing campaigns. This initiative aims to address capacity utilisation in the industry which is centred on increasing occupancy rather than building more hotels. To this end, the hospitality industry is being encouraged to push off-season offers and use the internet for last minute marketing.
Similar initiatives here will need to address the overcapacity issue, particularly outside Dublin. Capital funding is necessarily supported by appropriate and extensive marketing of our product. This too is becoming increasingly competitive. I call on the Government in advance of its budgetary considerations, and in light of the responsibility on the Executive in the North to reciprocate, to increase funding in Tourism Ireland as an efficient way to maximise the marketing potential of our tourism product abroad.
There are undoubtedly opportunities to enhance further the way we manage our tourism industry here. Sinn Féin is committed to playing a constructive role in that debate on both sides of the Border. This opportunity should be taken to involve the sector, and indeed individual communities, in a real and meaningful way in the development of our tourism product.
Again looking at the Scottish example, Visit Scotland is seeking to encourage the hospitality industry to become involved in cross-selling which aims to involve local businesses in promotion and developing a comprehensive tourism package. Indeed, in Scotland, some local businesses have become involved in establishing destination marketing organisations. These are membership organisations made up of tourism businesses which come together to promote their area and develop the overall quality of the tourism product. Private businesses can promote themselves on the website, appear in literature such as pamphlets, and receive access and information on training and skills to enhance the tourism experience.
This model should be further developed here to include the local community, including community and voluntary sectors, as well as local businesses and in a collective effort to develop and improve their tourism product.
For example, I would support the people of Kells in their call to have the Book of Kells returned to the town, in the context of a broader plan to open up the tourist potential of the area which includes the Boyne Valley, Lough Crew and the Hill of Uisneach, subject, of course, to the appropriate facilities being in place.
The Department and its agencies need to look at how such big ticket items can provide the nucleus of an improved product. There is huge potential in every corner of the country for product development. In this regard, I think of my own area, with its beaches, the heritage town of Youghal, the harbour at Cobh and Fota island. Product development, marketing, innovation and co-ordination can transform the economic landscape and change people’s lives for the better.
Competitor countries are providing for substantial public investment in tourism product innovation. Examples include the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Eden Project near Bristol. Such investments by municipalities and other public authorities in iconic attractions offer compelling reasons which motivate visitors to choose to visit a destination. In a similar vein, individual major events with a significant tourism impact have also received public investment in competitor countries. The Edinburgh International Festival receives €5 million of public funds annually and plays an important role in attracting visitors.
For Ireland, cultural tourism continues to hold huge potential. It embraces the full range of experiences visitors can have to learn what makes a destination distinctive, including its lifestyle, heritage, the arts and its people. We have a rich cultural heritage, including megalithic tombs, Norman castles and Viking cities. The period during which the country declared its independence at the start of the last century also holds significance. No debate on tourism could pass without mentioning the potential to create a cultural and historical “Northern Quarter” in Dublin, including Moore Street, Moore Lane and O’Rahilly Parade, with the GPO at its heart. This area is rich in history and would act as a major national monument and a fantastic attraction for visitors from home and abroad. People who have visited cities such as Prague, Budapest and Berlin will be familiar with how such attractions add to the overall cultural experience and bring a nation’s history to life. These are the strategic decisions which would make a real difference and similar projects need to be prioritised here.
The Ulster Canal project holds enormous potential to open up the central Border region which has experienced economic disadvantage for many years owing to its location. Harnessing the potential positive impact on all towns and villages in the canal corridor would lead to significant regeneration and benefits through increased tourism, business development and prosperity, not to mention the many construction and ancillary jobs that would be created. Sinn Féin will continue to call on the Government to live up to its responsibilities in this regard.
The role of the film industry in promoting tourism is recognised in many countries, including Britain where it is estimated that one in five of the nation’s international tourists are inspired to visit by images in movies or on television programmes. The castle used as the location for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films saw a 120% rise in visitor numbers following the release of the first film in the series. Ireland has had some experience of this through films such as “Braveheart”, “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Quiet Man”, benefiting counties Meath, Wexford and Mayo. I welcome the news that a Bollywood blockbuster is to be made at Trinity College this year and encourage the Minister to work with his colleagues in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to maximise the tourism potential of such projects. This has been done in other areas by conducting national screen tourism campaigns based around specific films or television programmes; identifying specific countries for screen tourism marketing campaigns; undertaking promotions such as behind the scenes programmes, DVD extras and celebrity promotions; and creating a map showing the locations of films and television programmes shot in Ireland. North Wales Tourism has already done this and aims to exploit the interest in the movie and television industries by attracting an extra 30,000 visitors to the region each year.
I want to mention the potential appeal of Ireland as an outdoor activity destination. With a reasonably small investment, the waterways, walkways and cycle paths could be developed, enhanced and improved. The Minister will be familiar with the potential of such tourism. Fáilte Ireland’s current product development strategy identifies gaps in a number of tourism market segments. An audit of the Irish tourism product found that it needed to catch up with its EU competitors in a number of areas, including cycling tourism. It identifies the very limited cycle-route network, the lack of bike hire services and bicycle-friendly trains as impediments. The Great Western Greenway along the west coast is a project with which the Minister will be very familiar. It is one that should be replicated right across the country to cater for cyclists, walkers, trekkers, surfers, anglers and the vast number of outdoor enthusiasts who come here from near and far.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Since being elected, the new Administration has put the focus on its ambition to create jobs and, in particular, to develop the tourism sector in order to create jobs and generate revenue for the State. In spite of my deep differences with the Government on its economic policy and decision to adhere to what is the disastrous EU-IMF bank bailout and austerity programme, I share its belief that tourism represents an area which has great potential to create the jobs that we so badly need for the people and vital revenue for the State. In this context, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the opportunities to develop tourism and tourism related employment. I also welcome the fact that the Bill indicates a recognition that the Government has to act proactively to develop the tourism sector and increase the capital investment in developing tourism infrastructure.
Given that we are debating this important issue, we should ask what else could be done to develop the tourism sector and create tourism related jobs. We need to do a hell of a lot more and urgently. The simple fact is that in line with the disastrous economic plight of the country, the tourism sector has been hit significantly in the last few years. Many tourism related jobs have either gone or are under significant threat. As a first step, we must take measures and make investments to secure existing tourism related jobs and create new ones in a sector that we know has massive potential.
I would like to be localist and talk about my constituency of Dún Laoghaire. I want to do this not because I am just concerned about my constituency, but also because Dún Laoghaire is a port and still one of the main entry points for tourists to this country. It is a seaside town which has a particularly rich history, as well as a rich cultural, literary and architectural heritage. Located between Dublin, our major tourism hub, and County Wicklow, one of our most spectacular scenic landscapes, it has major tourism potential and many uniquely attractive features. The town is a microcosm not only of the country’s potential to develop tourism and employment but also of the obstacles to achieving these objectives and, in many areas, the failure to fully realise that potential for many years. Dún Laoghaire has many attractive features. People from all over Dublin and beyond used to visit the town to enjoy its vistas and harbour which, by any definition, is a fantastic heritage site and architectural feature. When it was first built, the harbour was the largest man-made harbour in the world and even now could challenge for designation as a world heritage site. Dún Laoghaire’s seaside vistas remain highly attractive and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of domestic and foreign tourists and visitors enjoy its walks, including those into beautiful heritage towns such as Dalkey and beyond to Killiney Hill, another beautiful feature of the area. The town reaches into the Dublin Mountains and has some beautiful forests and parks which have tremendous potential at many levels. As I stated, it also has a rich literary history and associations with writers going back to Joyce, Beckett and Shaw and, in later times, Maeve Binchy, the recently deceased Hugh Leonard and others. I do not need to elaborate on this aspect of the town’s heritage.
The potential of Dún Laoghaire has been grossly mismanaged during the years by the Government, local authorities and State agencies, in particular, the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, a semi-State company which comes under the aegis of the Department of Transport. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government also played a role in this regard to the extent that developments around the seafront and harbour usually take place in close collaboration with the local authority and the Department has an influence on getting this right.
The major problems facing the town which are, as I stated, symptomatic of those one sees elsewhere are evident in a number of areas. I will, first, address the town’s position as a key route into the country for passengers. Stena Line is trying to get rid of its remaining permanent staff in Dún Laoghaire. It first reduced its twice daily ferry service from the harbour to one sailing and in recent weeks announced it will reduce its year-round service to a seasonal service which will only run for six months of the year. Consequently, the company’s remaining permanent employees were informed in the past week or two that their jobs were to go. While the job losses remain subject to negotiation, management has thrown down the gauntlet. This development is a disaster for the town and will have a knock-on effect on the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company and its staff. As the ferry service has been run down, major pressure has been applied to the workforce in the harbour. For example, there have been five compulsory redundancies of harbour policemen and the company is seeking further redundancies, pay cuts and so forth. Workers in the company believe their jobs are under serious threat.
These developments are of major significance in several respects. First, the workers in question want to keep their jobs and do not want to be thrown on the dole. They will also have a significance, however, in terms of the harbour as an amenity and maintaining it as a working harbour and key route into the country and everything that goes with that role. The reduction in the number of harbour policemen diminishes the harbour as a public amenity. In recent years harbour policemen have saved a number of lives. Sadly, one of the less positive features of Dún Laoghaire Harbour is that occasionally people seeking to take their own lives have attempted to drive over or jump off its piers. On a number of occasions harbour policemen who were present acted quickly and conscientiously by jumping into the sea to save lives. More generally, they provide security for the thousands of walkers who traverse the harbour daily. When harbour policemen jobs are lost, the workers who want to work go on social welfare, creating costs for the State, and the harbour as an amenity is diminished.
If one goes back a little further, people who did simple things such as supervise the public toilets in the harbour also lost their jobs. All of the harbour’s public toilets have been shut down. It is a major sore point for users of the pier, particularly those with children, that they do not have access to such a basic amenity as a public toilet. It is not available because the harbour company places great emphasis on cost-cutting at the expense of public amenities. One hears visitors say they will not walk the length of the pier because toilet facilities are not available or they will not return to the town because of the lack of litter bins on the seafront.
One plank of the Government’s tourism development strategy is to drive down costs for tourists. It must be careful that by its actions we do not cut off our nose to spite our face. It would be a major mistake to cut the jobs and services provided by front-line tourism and amenity workers, including those employed in physically bringing visitors to the country, namely, Stena Line workers. To do so would diminish the tourism attractiveness and capacity of Dún Laoghaire which should be a jewel in the crown of Irish tourism. As a key entry point to the State, we should invest in and develop the town and secure jobs and services in the harbour. We appear, however, to be moving in the opposite direction.
Stena Line is engaging in an alarming Irish Ferries-type manoeuvre. Deputies will recall the famous Irish Ferries incident to which I refer. Stena Line, possibly in collusion with the harbour company, appears to be deliberately running down the ferry routes into Dún Laoghaire to put pressure on the workforce. By moving its service to Dublin Port, it intends to get rid of its workforce and, essentially, casualise it. It will then bring back in poorly paid workers and rebuild the route further down the road, with the loss of vital community jobs and many people ending up on social welfare. If a company replaces loyal workers who have been there for years in well paid jobs, it affects the money that is spent in the town and creates a workforce that is casualised and has less loyalty to the amenity and to the job they are doing, which does not help to make the place more attractive; it makes it worse. I appeal to the Government, even at that level, to say that Dún Laoghaire Port should remain, as it always has been, a key route into this country. It should put pressure on Stena to maintain its routes into Dún Laoghaire and on the harbour company not to run down the vital front-line workforce that makes Dún Laoghaire Harbour and port and the surrounding amenity what it is.
That is one side of the equation. The other side consists of stuff we really see too much of. The authorities presiding over this, while imposing cuts on front-line workers in the harbour, do not seem to be imposing the same cuts on themselves. They seem to be wasting money on themselves, on consultants and on frankly ridiculous plans that contribute nothing to developing the harbour and seafront in a way that would enhance Dún Laoghaire town as a tourist attraction. Currently, Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company is losing approximately €10,000 per week. The Deputies will have to check these figures, but this is what I understand. How much is it spending on consultants? Approximately €10,000 per week — a figure that has gone up significantly over recent years. In 2007, consultancy fees were €296,000 per year. I have an estimate for the amount spent in 2009 on consultancy fees, revenue development funds, service management fees, exceptional costs and so on — which will need to be verified because it is difficult these days to get accurate figures from the harbour company which talks about things like commercial sensitivity — of €480,000. At the same time, the company is slashing the jobs of the people who do the work in the port. I might add that the CEO of the harbour company is, in my opinion — although I cannot get accurate figures for this either — very well paid indeed, probably earning between €130,000 and €160,000 per year.
Here is another interesting fact. One of the board members of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company is a man called Mr. Gerry Nagle. Like all the board directors, he receives fees, which currently run at about €13,000 per year, for going to eight board meetings per year. In the last couple of years, however, Mr. Nagle has moved to Dubai. As a result, he has to be flown by the harbour board from Dubai to Ireland eight times a year, with his flights and overnight expenses paid for, to attend these meetings. This is extraordinary, particularly given the serious trouble the harbour company is in. I believe he is a former CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. What the hell are we doing using public money to pay for flights from Dubai for a guy who attends meetings eight times a year when, at the same time, harbour workers, who provide the real services and contribute to the amenity value of Dún Laoghaire Harbour, are having their wages slashed? At the moment the company is seeking pay cuts of between 20% and 40% from the workforce. These are workers who have already been hit with the universal social charge and have, as a result, lost about €200 per month from their earnings. Now the company wants more, while consultants are being paid fortunes and board members are being flown in from Dubai. It is frankly outrageous. I appeal to the Government to take a serious look at this.
What these consultants seem to be paid to do is to come up with plans and visions. We have had a lot of plans and visions for Dún Laoghaire over the last few years, and I find them interesting. They are all very expensive, and most of them come to nothing. We have had plans and visions aplenty, for example, for the site of Dún Laoghaire Baths, which sits right beside Dún Laoghaire Harbour and has been derelict for the last 20 years. The baths used to be a major tourist attraction and people from all over Dublin used to come and swim there. The local community used to think of it as the best babysitter that Dún Laoghaire ever had — a place to bring one’s children. It has sat there derelict for 20 years, but we have paid consultants a lot of money to come up with crazy plans for high-rise apartment blocks and so on. At one stage, there was a proposal for a 19-storey office block on the site of the sea front. Local residents resisted this fiercely with huge demonstrations and, thankfully, prevented it. In doing so, they did not just protect a vital sea-front amenity but, in the context of NAMA and the number of empty developments all over the country, probably saved the taxpayer in the region of half a billion euro.
This was followed by a proposal for a ten-storey apartment block on the Carlisle Pier. For people who do not know what the Carlisle Pier is, it is the site of the greatest emigration from this country by the Irish diaspora, the place where King George V arrived in Ireland in 1911 and where James Connolly organised a protest against this visit. Whatever side one takes politically, that is a historic moment that still has not been commemorated. The diaspora, one of the most important features of Irish history, and all the things that went on at that vital entry and exit point are not commemorated. Plans were drawn up, if one can believe it, to put a ten-storey apartment block on the pier, but they were resisted and defeated by the people. However, even now, after all the madness and chaos of the property bubble, the harbour company has come up with a new plan which includes putting 300 apartments in Dún Laoghaire Harbour. Are these people insane? We do not need any more apartments anywhere — certainly not in Dún Laoghaire nor arguably anywhere in the country. The people who have come up with this madness are being paid with public money. I am glad to say that as a result of public pressure a diaspora museum has been included in the plan. The Government should tell the harbour company we will have the diaspora museum but we do not need the 300 apartments. For God’s sake, we will ruin the harbour as a public amenity.
Here is something else to do with the local authority. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has agreed a capital budget with its major item of expenditure being €35 million for a plan to put a new library administrative headquarters in a beautiful green area just beside Dún Laoghaire Harbour called Moran Park. It contains a bowling green and the harbourmaster’s lodge, which is a protected building and is connected to the harbour and its historical heritage. There is a reservoir at the back which is now badly run down but used to pump water into ships, including mailboats, that docked at Carlisle Pier. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council wants to spend €35 million putting a big symmetrical library administrative headquarters on this site. At the same time, Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company has an empty building of six or seven storeys beside Dún Laoghaire County Council. Part of the library service is already situated in the top floor of that building in Harbour Court, which is known as Building No. 2. The rest of the building, which is in public ownership, is empty and it would cost nothing to install a library administrative headquarters there. We would not then have to spend €35 million to construct a building no one asked for, on a site of historical and heritage importance and one of the last remaining green areas on the seafront in Dún Laoghaire. If we were to do that we would have €35 million to spend on something else, for example, on what people have repeatedly asked for, namely, that Dún Laoghaire Baths be restored as a public swimming amenity. That would cost a fraction of €35 million, perhaps €10 million. It would fit in with the heritage element and is precisely the sort of item that attracts people to Dún Laoghaire. It would be an enormous boost to the town at a cost of €10 million.
We could invest the rest of the €35 million in the diaspora museum people have asked to be situated on the Carlisle Pier. There have even been suggestions of a planetarium and a maritime institute or museum in Dún Laoghaire Harbour. Would that not be a good idea and make for a tourist attraction? We do not have a planetarium in this country and it would link in with the maritime history and heritage of the area. I used to go to the planetarium in London and absolutely loved it. There used to be a small one in Schull which, sadly, has gone. Would a planetarium in Dún Laoghaire not be a good idea? It would create jobs, bring tourism and be an attraction we could sell on the international stage rather than have 300 apartments, or a library administrative building which is not needed because there are already many empty buildings nearby in public ownership. I simply do not understand this and I appeal to the Minister of State on this point. The proposal of the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, to take the Bank of Ireland site in College Green from the bank and develop it as a heritage site is a brilliant idea. Can we not apply that sort of imaginative thinking to places such as Dún Laoghaire and repeat it elsewhere?
I am not qualified to speak about fishing, but anyone connected with fishing ports around the country would say that the diminution of our fishing industry is a blow not only to the people who work in the industry but also hits at the unique character and heritage of this country. That is what attracts people to come here. They do not come for the weather but rather because of our history, heritage and landscape, the sense of community and so on. Such communities are destroyed when small fishing industries, working harbours and places such as Dún Laoghaire Baths are closed and replaced with bloody apartment blocks or buildings no one asked for. That is the sort of imaginative thinking we need.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I might as well use all my time. The issue of rates for small businesses and parking charges has recently been discussed by some of the Government and other Opposition Deputies. It is a larger issue and although it does not solely concern tourism, it impacts significantly on that industry. Dún Laoghaire has great potential as a small port-side town but its small businesses have been massacred by the imposition of parking charges and excessive rates. We have lost approximately 70 small business in recent years. All of the local businesses and the local population have asked repeatedly whether the parking charge of €2 per hour can be reduced. There is free parking in Dundrum Shopping Centre. This sucks trade out of the town and turns it into a ghost town. I strongly appeal to the county management to reduce parking charges to €1. Can we come up with a progressive rates scheme that would give a break to small and medium-sized business? Banks and big chain stores such as Tesco could afford to pay more. This would offer a break to small businesses and traders, precisely those elements which give character to heritage towns and make people want to visit places such as Dún Laoghaire.
I ask the Minister to examine the Stena Line issue and not permit the company to act towards its workers in the manner Irish Ferries did, thereby running down this historic port. He should insist that the harbour company and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council listen to the people of the area and that they take a sensible approach and focus on developing the heritage, keeping the jobs and making the most of the potential of the area rather than on what seem to be politically driven plans or a hangover from the property bubble. He should listen to the residents and small businesses which have the ideas and the imagination about how we might develop a place like Dún Laoghaire. He could then replicate that approach throughout the country and develop the jobs and tourism potential we know the country has.
Deputy John O’Mahony: I am glad of the opportunity to contribute to the debate on tourism and to support the Minister of State and Government policy in the efforts to promote and exploit the potential of tourism which can bring major revenue into the country. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, on his efforts since he took over. This is my first opportunity to do so publicly in the House. I have seen him on local media, on skateboards, surfboards, bicycles and all the rest of it. At one stage there was a good sum of money on the Minister of State to win Gaelforce in his native town. I wish him well in his efforts.
On a more serious note, I do not believe it is possible to overestimate the importance of tourism to this country, especially at present and into the future. All the evidence backs the rationale for continued investment. Given this background, it is imperative that we continue to provide the resources to tourism bodies like Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland to develop and maximise the immense potential for tourism growth in our country.
We are also aware of our competitors who are investing major resources. In Scotland, for example, the Highland and Islands Enterprise agency is investing £22 million annually on tourism in addition to the £52 million grant provided by the Visit Scotland agency. The challenge exists and on our part it is to ensure our spend is effective, gives us value for money and exploits the potential of all the regions throughout our island — north, south, east and west.
As a representative of the west, the constituency of Mayo, I am acutely aware of the vast potential the whole region has to provide the ideal destination for tourists. The attractions are there: blue flag beaches, watersports and fishing. Ballina is the salmon capital of Ireland. There is beautiful scenery and there are facilities to match. There are hotels and leisure centres, adventure centres, golf courses, and pilgrimage centres such as Croagh Patrick and Knock. The challenge for Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland is to work closely with and engage with the various tourism interests in the region to tap into the potential that exists. Although much good work is going on, we are still only scratching the surface if we continue the 2011 trend of increasing numbers. This came as a result of measures taken earlier this year by this Government to incentivise the tourism sector by reducing VAT to a range of labour-intensive tourism services and introducing the tourist waiver visa to which the Minister of State alluded.
I welcome the decision of the Minister of State to devote a significant proportion of the revenues taken in from the €3 travel tax that still remains to support inbound tourism. This support will create a fund of €8.5 million which can be used for co-operative marketing with airlines, airports, ferry companies and tour operators in respect of inbound routes into Ireland, with particular focus on the UK, Europe and the US.
In that context, Ireland West Airport Knock is a crucial point of access for County Mayo and the west and north-west regions. On a recent visit to the airport the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, witnessed, at first hand, the continuing efforts to bringing more tourists to County Mayo and the surrounding region. Ireland West Airport Knock will service ten different UK destinations this year and has the potential to attract 270,000 tourists into the region. This can support 1,000 jobs, create 1.2 million bed nights and generate over €85 million in tourism spending. Research carried out by Ireland West Airport Knock suggests that current promotions in the UK by the tourism bodies are not having a sufficient impact on realising this potential. In a recent survey it was discovered that 89% of visitors from the UK are coming here because they already know the region well because of contact with friends and relatives. None of the respondents to the survey indicated they had been motivated to travel there as a result of the promotion of the region. Greater investment in promoting and marketing of the region could have significant benefits both in terms of tourism revenue and job creation. I accept that the authorities in the region must be involved but our focus must be to target our marketing campaigns in a better way.
I was glad that, during his visit, the Minister praised the management and staff for the cost-effective and efficient manner in which the airport is being run and said that many lessons could be learned by our State airports from the lead given by Ireland West Airport Knock. While at the airport, the Minister launched a new service between Knock and Dusseldorf. This service which is due to commence next year, will be provided by Lufthansa, the fourth largest airline in the world. It will facilitate the west in tapping into a new market for tourists, which already shows a growth of 15.3% between January and June of this year. Germany has long been identified as a key market for Ireland and the service to which I refer will be of assistance in exploiting that market. I appeal to the tourism agencies to work with Ireland West Airport Knock in order to help it in delivering tourists to the region in the coming months and years. This will ensure that tourism numbers will continue to increase.
Since it was established in 2003, Fáilte Ireland has also played a key role in the industry. However, it must also continue to develop, adapt and change to meet the needs of 2011. These needs are different to those which obtained in the 1990s. A range of facilities — natural and man-made — have been developed in the intervening years. Chambers of commerce, local authorities and other tourism interests are seeking to sell their regions, facilities and advantages to the market. Fáilte Ireland must engage with, guide and work with these entities in order that they might develop the potential of their areas. A key role of Fáilte Ireland is to work in partnership with the industry and with other State bodies and act as a catalyst in the sector. I know this is happening to a certain extent but there is a need for the agency to intensify and focus its efforts.
I have a Discover Ireland brochure launched by the Minister earlier in the year. The brochure includes a map of the western region but the fourth largest town in County Mayo, namely, Claremorris, is not shown. This is the despite the fact Claremorris is located a few minutes away from numerous tourist attractions and facilities, including a railway station, an international airport, Knock shrine, greenways, walkways etc.
Last weekend I travelled to Dublin for the All-Ireland football final. I congratulate my friend, Pat Gilroy, and the Dublin team on their tremendous success and commiserate with the men of Kerry. I suppose the latter will undoubtedly return to haunt us all again. On Sunday it was interesting that messages from people all over the world were read out on radio and television. The individuals who sent them indicated where they are residing at present and also where they were watching the match. I agree with Deputy McLennan who referred to our heritage, culture and human resources. Why can Tourism Ireland or Fáilte Ireland not work closely with sporting organisations, particularly those which run golf and Gaelic games? I understand that during the summer capacity crowds were only achieved at three or four matches. Would it not be possible to develop packages with hotels in towns and cities which would also include match tickets? Those tickets could be provided at a reduced price and this would not cost the GAA or other sporting organisations anything because the attendance at matches or events would increase. Packages such as those to which I refer would guide people in the direction of music or sporting events, for example, and this would allow them to participate and experience our unique cultural identity and Irishness. They might also encourage many of the thousands of those who, unfortunately, may have been obliged to emigrate in the short term to return to their home country for a visit.
Deputy James Bannon: I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on doing a very fine job. I congratulate him on the fresh approach he has taken in respect of the tourism product. I would expect nothing less of a man who comes from one of the honey pots of Ireland, namely, Westport, County Mayo. I have great respect for the Minister of State and I have no doubt he will leave his mark on the development of tourism during his term of office.
In these times of economic constraint and restraint, the Bill, which relates to the very important area of tourism and which seeks to increase the level of funding for the National Tourism Development Authority, Fáilte Ireland, is welcome. Given that Longford is described as a tourism black-spot with Westmeath not far behind, I have a vested interested in the Bill. I am optimistic that funding will be made available to the midlands, despite or rather because of the neglect the region has endured in recent years. The infrastructural deficits relating to roads, broadband, substandard sewerage schemes which have impacted adversely on the tourism potential of the midlands have been well recorded by me and other Members. In that context, I will not rehearse them now. However, these deficits must not be overlooked and the rot of underfunding and withdrawal of essential services must be halted.
From the departure tax to various other stealth taxes, the previous Government brought the tourism industry to its knees. The Bill before us brings hope of growth at a time when tourism figures are indicative of international confidence in our country, although it could be said that it is merely paying lip service. Members are aware that the Bill is a purely an enabling provision and that funding is totally budget-driven. Tourism is particularly important to our economy, particularly as it attracts both domestic and foreign revenue and is a key employment sector. In 2009, some 190,000 people were employed in the tourism area and this figure can rise as our input into the sector increases.
One need only consider the investment other northern European countries, including our near neighbours in Northern Ireland, have made in tourism industry projects to realise the obvious fact of input equating to output holds particularly strongly in respect of this sector. Since the heyday of the 1990s, levels of competitiveness and innovation in Ireland have decreased dramatically. Tourism in Ireland is an area of huge potential but it cannot survive and prosper without Government input and funding. Failure to offer a helping hand in this regard would be self-defeating and counterproductive. The helping hand to which I refer could be extended to older UK citizens who have free travel but who cannot avail of it in this country. When one sees trains and buses, often half empty, crisscrossing the countryside, it seems obvious we should attract this valuable group of tourists. As the number of visitors from the UK continues to fall, any initiative that targets older visitors would be beneficial, particularly outside the main season — the traditional high season in our hotels. The level of funding given to Fáilte Ireland for supporting capital expenditure projects, as proposed in the amendment to the National Development Authority Act 2003, will increase from €65 million to €150 million. Such remedial action is necessary because tourism numbers, which peaked at 7.7 million in 2007, decreased to 5.8 million in 2010. There was a marked decline in visitors from Britain, mainland Europe and North America. In tandem with this decrease, foreign exchange earnings declined to €3.4 billion in 2010 from a high of €4.9 billion in 2007.
We need to take a fresh look at the structures that are in place to promote tourism. I have said repeatedly that we need to make changes to the regional tourism boards, which have outlived their usefulness. Aside from central government, there is an overriding need for local authorities to come together at regional level to maximise the tourism potential and opportunities of the regions. This was done in the midlands when a new brand, midlandsireland.ie, was launched. The goal of this initiative is to develop and market a unique image for the midlands and encourage investment and economic activity. The profile of rural communities will be strengthened in tandem with urban centres to highlight the unique nature of these areas as a cohesive whole, while recognising the individual characteristics of Counties Longford, Westmeath, Laois and Offaly. These counties, which are in the heart of Ireland, could become viable centres of a dynamic tourist sector in tandem with industrial, academic and infrastructural advancement.
We need to examine how personnel are trained in this country. Many visitors to this country say that the tourism offices gave them information and brochures, but that needs to be followed up on. Tourism personnel need to be trained to answer queries and to be familiar with the areas in which they operate. This is essential if tourism is to be promoted. The staff employed in tourism offices should have a friendly disposition. It is very important to give tourists a good impression and a warm feeling for the country. The value of any country is its people. It is important to have the right people who can promote and develop the tourism industry properly.
The natural profile of the midlands area that gives it its unique beauty and tourist appeal — its lakes, canals and boglands — has been dismissed for too long. These features are now at the centre of the tourist experience. Highlights of pre-Celtic, Bronze Age and medieval Ireland are to be found in the midlands and must be promoted. The reopening of stretches of the Royal Canal has been a huge tourism success for counties Longford, Westmeath and all others from Dublin through the midlands. It is very important for the Minister to put in place a marketing and promotion plan for this unique development, which cost the State a great deal of money during the Celtic tiger years.
The Government needs to have a proactive approach to the development of tourism in the midlands. It is heartbreaking that at the height of the tourism industry in 2007, Longford was excluded from the mid-Shannon area tourism tax incentive scheme, although Westmeath did benefit. Although tourism had the potential to be a major part of Longford’s economic development, with the River Shannon being a particularly valuable tourist amenity, the Government of the day decided it was economically sound to omit Longford from this exciting and valuable tourism scheme. I am hopeful that under the new Government, Longford and the midlands will be given the recognition and funding they deserve. Longford and the River Shannon go hand in hand. If we enhance the parts of the river within its boundaries, we will increase the tourism potential of counties Longford and Westmeath. We have seen the benefits of the extension of the Royal Canal into Clondra. It is essential that it be extended as far as Longford town harbour for the benefit of tourism in County Longford.
Deputy James Bannon: I am almost finished. Our waterways are an ongoing attraction for tourists looking for water-based activities. The tourism infrastructure of the midlands is under-developed to a great extent. If the midlands area is to maximise the benefit it derives from our tourism, the Government and the private sector need to engage in forward planning and make a substantial investment. The growth of, and benefits from, tourism have not been evenly spread to rural counties outside the main honey pots of Dublin and other cities. It is time for the honey to be spread more evenly. Dublin has been established as one of the major tourism city destinations in Europe. We must target the development of tourism in neglected rural areas that have much to offer Deputies.
Deputy Barry Cowen: I could listen to Deputy Bannon all day. I would have had no problem allowing him to continue to sing the virtues of his county. Deputies on this side of the House welcome this Bill and have no objections to it. We acknowledge and appreciate that the original Act provided that further legislation would have to be brought before the House if the €65 million cap was reached. It is no harm. I am sure it seemed like a colossal sum of money at the time. That this Bill is required proves there has been huge investment in tourism infrastructure in recent years. It has been upgraded substantially — directly by the Government and indirectly by Government agencies including Bord Fáilte, which is now Fáilte Ireland, and local authorities throughout the country. Local authorities have worked hand in hand with local representatives, organisations and associations affiliated to the tourism industry and to those who benefit directly from the industry.
Significant sums of money have been invested in the infrastructure of regions and population centres that depend on tourism. Basic infrastructure like water, sewerage and transport facilities needed to be upgraded and put on a footing that would serve these local areas well into the future. We hoped these improvements would benefit the sector and bring more visitors into these areas. As we know, this work was aided by various schemes and forms of grant aid. Deputy Bannon mentioned many of the tax incentive-based schemes that existed in these regions. These schemes have been the subject of much derision in the past ten or 15 years, but it cannot be denied that many centres of population that depend on the tourism industry were greatly enhanced by virtue of them. The accommodation associated with these centres is now on a footing which can be sustained into the future. The facilities in the vicinity of any such developments have also been upgraded, which is to be welcomed.
Having done this, it was then incumbent on the relevant authorities to upgrade and re-engage with existing attractions which had been successful during the years. There was much investment in areas such as Clonmacnoise and Bunratty Castle which one might call the old reliables that have proved popular for many visitors from throughout the world. Such work has been welcome. Like infrastructural development, these attractions now are on a sound footing for all those associated with their promotion to attract visitors, including new ones.
In recent years and from here on, as per all of the reports commissioned by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and others, the emphasis has been and should be on improving facilities and coming forward with new ideas and suggestions for attractions which can appeal to new generations and tourists who have never come to our shores. We are thinking of green, sports and educational tourism and looking at areas in which lifestyles and standards of living have improved in the past 20 to 30 years and from which we can seek to attract visitors to our shores. The means by which we do this are most important, too.
It is my belief and, I think, that of the holders of office that we must think outside the box in terms of the old reliables, as there is now a much more sophisticated audience to attract. For examples, many Deputies have pointed to their areas. The midlands region includes the counties of Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Roscommon, etc. Unfortunately, when one looks at their performance, it is consistently in the bottom ten, but that is not to say there is not a great deal of good work being done. It is the job of the Government to offer extra facilities and services and give attention to these areas in order to reach the level expected. As I stated, the transport system has improved considerably — road, rail and air transport. People can now get around the country much more easily and in a short space of time, which is to be welcomed. However, we must look at specific regions which are underdeveloped and offer better and more assistance to them, whether it be financial or in the form of promotion.
One new programme in my area offers mountain biking in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. This is a popular activity in Scotland and Wales which are visited by many people from here on a regular basis. There is a group in County Offaly which received funding, initially from Fáilte Ireland, to carry out a study of how successful such a venture might be. It has proved that the group’s plans are sound and that the venture can be profitable, both for the region and the country. We await the provision of further funding towards the cost of this worthwhile project. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has seen it on his desk and that he will do everything possible to expedite it in order to give it the support it deserves and prove such events and programmes synonymous with an area can prove very successful for the country also. As I stated, that must be the thrust of future investment.
When looking at the regions, we must look at what a region has to offer that is distinct and what assistance the Minister can give, including capital funding towards the cost of building tracks, walkways and pathways to provide access to new attractions. Accessibility must be to the forefront of everything the Minister does. There are so many tourism groups and organisations doing all they can for their areas and it is incumbent on the Government to ensure there is synergy between them because the last thing we want is to have them all fighting their own battles and winning none. It is important that there be synergy in each region to identify and investigate new ideas to see how they can be advanced and improved upon.
We have invested heavily in the tourism sector. The Government has played its part in recent times, through the VAT reduction in the restaurant and hotel sector, which I welcomed. It has been of benefit to the sector which greatly appreciates it, as we all do. We all hope we will continue to come forward with such suggestions in order to improve the sector and, importantly, build up morale. There is some progress being made in this regard. This is imperative. I do not want to be party-political on this or any other issue in that regard because the consequences for the country are too serious to do anything else. There will be plenty of other occasions in years to come to win old battles and have slagging matches across the floor. Everything must be done to improve sectors such as this.
In recent times we have seen improvements in the agriculture industry and the synergy within all of its sectors with reference to Food Harvest 2020. We acknowledge that the Government has taken on board this document and is pursuing the input made by the previous Government. Every effort will be made by everybody concerned on the CAP proposals to ensure they will be successful and have no detrimental effect on rural areas, of which the agriculture industry is the bedrock. In these depressed times, with the aid of the Leader programme and county development organisations, etc., those involved in it have also diversified and provided extra tourism attractions to sustain the sector. This, too, must be acknowledged.
It is imperative that we get the basics right and the rest will follow. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring’s heart is in the right place. He comes from a rural background in the west and is aware of the benefit of the sector to his constituency. He is also aware of the benefit of Knock airport, etc. Not only did it attract many people who had emigrated back to their locality, it also made it much easier to visit the region more often. The emphasis must now be on hitting new targets, for example, the Asian community. We must also work with the providers of education services, sports travel and a raft of other services to tap in to the tourism potential of each area.
I, too, welcome the Bill. It is welcome that we are raising the cap on the sum allowed to be spent on tourism related projects, from €65 million, as set out in the National Tourism Development Act 2003, to €150 million. Tourism has a vital role to play as we try to rebuild the economy. The sector is to be acknowledged for the work it has done to date but, as I think everyone would agree, it can play a much greater role in rebuilding the economy. Deputy Cowen referred to the decrease in VAT which the new Government introduced earlier this year. That has played a role in helping the tourism sector, the hospitality sector in particular. I spoke recently to a restaurateur who suggested it had had a major impact on his business. He went on to extend the VAT decrease across every line in the business. He did not restrict it to the Government changes and he stated that it had had a positive impact on his business.
We can spend as much as we wish on tourist attractions but unless we market them well, the money is not well spent. The situation in County Westmeath at the moment is that the local authority has failed to renew the contract of the tourism officer because of the embargo on the recruitment of public sector employees. This is having a worrying effect on the tourism and hospitality sectors in County Westmeath.
Fáilte Ireland is excellent at promoting what Deputy Bannon referred to as the honey spots such as Dublin and Killarney, but one seldom sees it promoting less well-known destinations in Ireland. I wish to put on the record of the House today that those of us in County Westmeath have a great deal to offer. There are lakes in County Westmeath as well as Belvedere House gardens and park in which the local authority, Westmeath County Council, has invested a considerable amount of money since it bought it in 1982. Locke’s distillery is in Kilbeggan, there are dog tracks in counties Westmeath and Longford and there is a racecourse in Kilbeggan. Ardagh in County Longford is a beautiful village which won the tidy towns competition some years ago, and the River Shannon runs by as well. These facilities are not marketed well enough. While we welcome that additional money will be spent on new tourism projects, the Minister of State should consider whether each local authority or region should have a dedicated tourism officer with sole responsibility for marketing the various attractions within his or her region. Tourist figures this year are up 300,000 on the same period last year, and this is welcome given the bad times. Nevertheless, we must market and sell ourselves better.
As Deputies are aware, tomorrow is culture night throughout Ireland. This is an ideal opportunity for us to set out our cultural institutions and venues. Let us consider the various attractions on the list for tomorrow night. I understand Leinster House will be open tomorrow night for tours on the hour. This is an opportunity for us to sell ourselves as a cultural destination. Fáilte Ireland has stated that cultural tourists spend more than ordinary tourists. It is important we sell our cultural institutions but not only in Ireland. We should begin to consider selling and marketing them more vigorously on the international stage.
Ireland is a favourite spot for Americans and the English, but we should consider emerging economies and the Far East as well. We should consider China and India and try to increase our visitor numbers from these regions. We should consider the new diaspora, those who have come from other countries and studied and received their education here, whether in Trinity College, UCD, DCU or wherever. They hold a certain loyalty to Ireland because they came here and studied for between three and seven years, depending on the course of study. They have studied here and retain a great loyalty to Ireland. We should try to tap into the resource these people represent. They have gone back to the own countries and made good there and they are keen to give something back to the country which educated them.
It boils down to having dedicated marketing officers, whether for each county or region. The national tidy towns competition plays a pivotal role, especially for small rural towns. For example, those in Abbeyshrule, County Longford, were glad of the recognition it received this year. Deputy Bannon alluded to the opening of the Royal Canal as far as Clondra where it meets the River Shannon. This has had a major impact on small rural villages such as my village of Ballynacargy, County Westmeath. This year we saw boats coming up from the River Shannon. Some people might ask what the big deal is about it, but the canal was closed for the best part of 30 years and no boats came up, so it is a big deal and it has created a great atmosphere to see them coming from the River Shannon this year. Some ten years ago the boats came from Dublin when the canal was being renovated and upgraded. It is a considerable tourist attraction and a good deal of money was spent on the Royal Canal by the previous Government. A great deal of work has been done by the Royal Canal Amenity Group as well. Many people have given of their time and effort voluntarily to ensure the canal remains open despite the proposal some years ago to close it in and make a roadway out of it. That would have been disappointing, but it did not happen. It is a welcome addition to the towns and villages through which it flows.
I welcome the Bill. Anything which invests money in the tourism industry is welcome. The Minister of State should take on board the need to have marketing officers for the various counties or regions, even if a cap on staff numbers is in place. I call on the Minister of State to consider the position in County Westmeath where we are losing our tourism officer. I took a holiday this year in County Mayo and it was very welcoming.
Deputy Robert Troy: The Minister of State was on the radio on the day we were driving down to County Mayo and he was extolling the great things it had to offer. It was very enjoyable. We should be marketing within our own country as well.
Deputy Michael Conaghan: I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, on his elevation to his current post. I have always thought of him as one of the most distinctive and compelling voices of the Dáil. The core purpose of the legislation being debated today is to allow the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to increase the level of funding that can be made available to Fáilte Ireland, the national tourism development authority, for the purpose of supporting enterprises and projects relating to the development of tourism facilities in the country. I welcome this legislation and I commend the Minister and the Government on the steps they have taken already in promoting the tourism industry.
Speakers have referred to how tourism is vital to the economy and how it has been identified by the Government as a key industry in leading our national recovery. Tourism is one of the strongest indigenous industries. The jobs created and supported by tourism cannot be transferred out of Ireland. It is not multinational in its character, nor is it geographically specific. Urban and more remote areas alike can benefit from tourism. Often it is the more remote areas, those bypassed by industrial and commercial development and therefore remaining unspoiled, that have the greatest natural charm, draw and beauty to offer to our visitors.
The value of tourism to our economy can be easily demonstrated. Tourism attracts both foreign and domestic revenue. It is an important employer with 180,000 people employed in the sector. Many of these jobs are in geographically remote areas, for example, along the western seaboard, and are vital to the local economies. Tourism is also a very important source of tax revenue. In 2007, tourism contributed almost €3 billion to the Exchequer, but unfortunately this dropped to €1.3 billion in 2009. Ireland experienced unprecedented tourism growth in the 1990s but since 2008 the industry has been in decline, with visitor numbers, total tourism revenue, Government revenue and employment numbers all falling. The total number of overseas visitors peaked at 7.7 million in 2007 but declined year-on-year to reach 5.8 million in 2010. Visitor numbers from each of the three largest markets — Britain, mainland Europe and North America — have also declined year-on-year since 2007. As I mentioned, the tax take from tourism has dropped by nearly two thirds over the same period.
On the reasons for our decline, the period of economic growth which saw our economy grow and allowed us to invest significantly in our tourism infrastructure had the knock-on effect of raising prices and damaging Ireland’s competitiveness. For example, a survey conducted by Fáilte Ireland showed that while in 2000 some 68% of visitors felt that Ireland offered “very good” or ‘”good” value for money, this figure had fallen to just 28% in 2009. In addition to the competitiveness issue, the Tourism Action Plan Implementation Group identified in 2006 a concern that Ireland’s tourism product had become somewhat “tired” and lacking in “bounce” and “verve” for many tourists. Some of the existing facilities do not seem to provide a compelling reason for visitors to come to Ireland. This weakness is borne out by the fact that, in 2009, 40% of visitors to Ireland thought the overall experience was either “poor” or “very poor”.
The value and significance of tourism to Irish jobs and the economy is huge, and the recent decline is therefore of major concern. The Government has identified the tourism industry as one which can lead in Ireland’s economic renewal, and I welcome the work that has been done to date. The programme for Government makes a clear commitment to improving Ireland’s tourism product and outlines measures which can boost visitor numbers from key markets. Recovery of our share of the British market has been identified as a key priority and marketing strategies are being developed for emerging long-haul markets.
The jobs initiative unveiled in May of this year further shows the Government’s commitment to boosting tourism. The cut in the VAT rate on services relating to tourism from 13.5% to 9% will help with competitiveness in the industry and create jobs. I commend the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, on his willingness to drop the €3 travel tax, coupled with his refusal to be held to ransom by the airlines. The removal of this tax will benefit the travel industry and has the potential to increase tourist traffic into Ireland, but this must be met and matched by the airlines, which must play their part in opening and re-opening routes which will bring tourists to our shores.
There is a continuing and strong rationale for making more funds available, as per this Bill, for further investment in our tourism industry. The World Tourism Organisation is forecasting that, globally, tourism will increase and has great potential for future growth. For example, travel to Northern Europe is forecast to grow by an average of 3.8% per annum. Tourism is a competitive industry and we must not rest on our laurels. Competitor destinations, particularly in northern Europe, are investing substantial sums of public money in tourism. For example, the Highland and Islands Enterprise agency in Scotland spends up to €22 million annually on tourism, in addition to €52 million spent yearly to support the Visit Scotland agency.
There is no doubting the rationale behind continuing to invest in tourism, and for that reason this Bill is very welcome. However, it is essential that we invest wisely to maximise the benefit to our economy, and we must take on board the recommendations of Fáilte Ireland and other expert bodies. For too long, tourism policy has been accommodation-led and based on an attitude of “build the hotels and the tourists will come”. Indeed, the culture of cosy relationships between policy makers and property developers led to lax regulation and a subsequent saturation of the market. The drop in tourist numbers means that many hotels now stand empty for months each year and many are struggling to keep their doors open. There has been a growing realisation that, in a competitive market, hotels alone cannot attract tourists to Ireland.
It is worth noting that many of our competitors are investing in signature capital projects, iconic attractions which can offer a compelling reason for visitors to choose the destination. For example, in Northern Ireland huge investment is currently being made in two major symbolic attractions — the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre and the Titanic quarter development. In 2007, the tourism product development strategy published by Fáilte Ireland recognised that Irish tourism was at a critical point. After an audit of all tourist attractions, events and activities, the strategy concluded that less support should be provided for accommodation and more investment should be made in tourism products and events that will attract visitors and provide a stimulating and rewarding experience for customers. More recent strategy documents have stated that the stock of attractions needs to be maintained and enhanced, and that progress is necessary in developing a select number of new attractions, as well as upgrading some major attractions.
In my constituency, I have seen the value and success of amenity and attraction-led tourism. Through the development of three major tourist attractions, the Kilmainham-Inchicore area has become a major focus for tourism in Dublin. Last year, as many as 100,000 people visited the Kilmainham-Inchicore area, mainly to see these three big attractions — Kilmainham Gaol, the Royal Hospital and the Irish National War Memorial Park.
Some 40 years ago, visitors to the Kilmainham-Inchicore area were rare. Kilmainham Gaol was almost in ruins 60 years ago. Local people took the lead. They brought out their ladders and tools and commenced a campaign for restoration and recognition. They were joined by community leaders and the actions and passion of the community forced the OPW and the Government of the day into saving this local icon. It is impossible now to imagine Dublin’s historic landscape without it. The same story was played out with the Royal Hospital and the memorial park. We remember when cows grazed in the ruins of the Royal Hospital and youths and young men rallied cars across the lawns of the memorial park. However, agitation from local people convinced of the authentic nature of these attractions fought to have them conserved, and they have proved a great success.
In addition to existing major attractions in the Kilmainham-Inchicore area, there are a number of other features in the district which have huge potential to drive tourism in the area, if properly developed. The Kilmainham-Inchicore area has the potential to be a real cultural tourism quarter in this city, something now recognised by Dublin City Council in its most recent development plan. Alongside the gaol, the Royal Hospital and the memorial park, I would like to refer to three additional sites in the Kilmainham-Inchicore district that have massive cultural tourism potential.
One of these, the old St. Michael’s CBS, now vacant, was once part of Richmond Barracks in Inchicore and was the scene of some of the pivotal events of the 1916 Rising. It was here that the penultimate act of the rebellion played out, where the leaders of the Rising were brought, held, screened, court martialled, sentenced to death and then marched down Emmet Road to Kilmainham Gaol. It was here that Pearse and the other leaders met their fate. I would like to see this important historical site reinvigorated and restored in time for the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Indeed, the local heritage group has submitted a plan to Government for the reinvigoration of this old barracks building and has received quite a positive reply.
I now turn to the two other projects in the Kilmainham-Inchicore area, which relate to our industrial heritage. One of the greatest advantages Ireland has in attracting tourists is the rich heritage we have on this island. Ireland is rightly renowned for its cultural heritage, music, literary tradition and the arts in general. One aspect of our heritage is consistently overlooked, however, namely, the field of human endeavour that is our industrial heritage. Although we have the raw material in the form of the historic legacy, unlike in many other countries this key part of our material culture is neglected in Ireland. Action must be taken to recognise and celebrate great moments of inventiveness and genius in Ireland’s industrial activity. For example, the harnessing of the force of flowing water to drive the production process was best mastered in the Kilmainham-Inchicore area in the valley of the Camac. As for the harnessing of steam to drive the great locomotives, the city’s key legacy from the industrial revolution is the Inchicore railway works. In particular, the mill in Kilmainham is one of Ireland’s most important industrial sites and is the last and best preserved example of the innovation of this period. It has been identified by the leading industrial archaeologist in Ireland as potentially the third leg of a significant cultural tourism cluster together with the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and Kilmainham Gaol.
Other countries do not abandon the celebration of their industrial past so easily. For example, I have visited an old industrial works in Brisbane, Australia, where visitors young and old learned and marvelled at their industrial tradition. Incidentally, when some of the old men there asked me where I was from, I replied I was Irish. They then speculated that I probably knew of the Inchicore railway works because they knew where the great railway works of Europe had been. These men had worked in the railway works and had been brought back there by the local tourism body to demonstrate to children, adults and visitors how pieces of ore resembling stone could be transformed into metal. Children queued and watched in awe as these men demonstrated their craft. At the same location, people could take simulated trips in old steam trains. They could inspect the great craft that went into the making of such giant features of the industrial revolution. I also have visited the old industrial city of Porto in northern Portugal, which recognises fully its industrial past. The built fabric of this old industrial town, which is home of the port industry and many amazing examples of transport history, is now protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. Porto, which was not a typical tourist destination, now draws thousands of visitors to see the authentic legacy the city bequeathed to the world and which is protected by UNESCO.
In Ireland, however, our monuments to the industrial revolution like the Inchicore railway works lie neglected. A previous speaker mentioned the old Locke’s distillery, which constitutes a good example of the conservation and retention of our industrial heritage. The discerning cultural tourist has an interest in all fields of human endeavour. Industrial attractions such as the sites to which I referred have an authentic tourism value, as evidenced by the experience of the aforementioned two overseas locations. This glaring deficit must be recognised and Ireland’s great industrial heritage must be invoked, safeguarded and celebrated. Moreover, select pieces therefrom must be retained in tangible forms because, by so doing, the great work and craft of ordinary people will be celebrated, as will that of those inventors and engineers who were part of this great endeavour. I intend to write to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and ask them to consider the idea of commemorating our industrial heritage through developing an industrial heritage facility in the Inchicore-Kilmainham district. I firmly believe this would be a great attraction which would add unique value to the Irish tourism product.
Dublin City Council’s development plan for 2011 to 2017 envisages the creation of an urban cultural tourism quarter in the Kilmainham-Inchicore area. The combination of the aforementioned attractions, including both those currently in operation and those in desperate need of restoration before they are lost, will result in this area having the city of Dublin’s largest and most diverse cluster of archaeological, architectural, political, cultural, ecclesiastical and social heritage sites. This has been recognised in the city development plan and is one of the plan’s objectives. Furthermore, the development of this district as a hub of cultural tourism fulfils all the criteria for the sensible development of our tourism industry. It is in exact alignment with the reports’ findings on authentic products that have a universal appeal and real, as opposed to concocted, character. Fáilte Ireland has clearly outlined the need to focus our tourism efforts on attractions that will increase tourist traffic and stimulate the industry. This can be done by opening up this previously untapped aspect of our material heritage. This Bill will allow for significant future investment in tourism which, if deployed prudently, can help the industry play its part in Ireland’s economic renewal. I commend it to the House.
I will take another minute, if I may. I have rarely spoken in the Chamber, although I often speak in committees and elsewhere. I wish to thank those who have supported me in local elections for the past 25 years in Ballyfermot, Inchicore, Kilmainham and Chapelizod, as well as the people of Dublin South-Central, who sent me to the Dáil this time. I also invoke the name of the late Jim Kemmy, the Limerick socialist who was a close friend and who was the main influence on my entry into electoral politics.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this new legislation. Before going into details, I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on his promotion and wish him well and the best of luck when dealing with the issues relating to his important portfolio. I welcome both the National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2011 and, in particular, the broader debate on tourism and its considerable potential for development as a job creation strategy. Members must be more creative in respect of its two major aspects, however, namely, local home tourism and international visitors. In addition, the arts should be included as an important aspect of this debate. That sector constitutes a major resource on the international stage and the image of Ireland is highly positive in this regard. This area must be developed and the relevant audience targeted. In addition, the local population must be encouraged to support their neighbours and friends who are directly involved in the tourism industry, by which I mean restaurants, public houses, bed and breakfasts and small hotels. It is particularly important that as legislators and people who are in the public eye, Members commend and work hard to support the people who are directly involved in the tourism industry.
I holidayed at home this year in counties Wicklow and Kerry. I was again reminded at first hand of our country’s beauty with its beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes and beaches. While we never will have the fantastic weather enjoyed elsewhere in Europe, this means we must develop alternative types of holidays. We also must monitor our cost base to avoid frightening off potential visitors. At the same time, quality and standards must be our focus to ensure that on the visitors’ return home, they tell other potential customers. Moreover, good manners and respect also are issues that must be discussed, and during the so-called Celtic tiger years, the great historical personal touch possessed by many Irish people may have been lost. During the Celtic tiger years, we went through a phase of being highly self-centred and, at times, not particularly nice to visitors.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to provide the statutory basis to allow the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, to increase the aggregate level of advances that may be made to the National Tourism Development Authority out of the capital moneys provided by the Oireachtas for the purpose of supporting enterprises and projects related to the development of tourist traffic and the development of tourist facilities and services. In this regard, I welcome the plan to support enterprises and projects relating to tourist traffic. However, a common-sense approach is also required with a focus, as I noted earlier, on a quality service and job creation. On foot of the changes in the market economy and the advent of mass unemployment, this must be at the top of the tourism agenda. Only yesterday, I disagreed strongly with the Government decision regarding the development of the casino in County Tipperary.
If people have ideas to create jobs, we should take them seriously. People who attack those who want to gamble a few bob on a horse or showjumping event are out of touch with the vast majority of those who want to participate in such pastimes.
I congratulate the Dublin team, in particular Pat Gilroy. I was in St. Vincent’s GAA club with the Sam Maguire and it was a fantastic night. There was a great celebration attended by hundreds of people. Young people got their photograph taken with Pat Gilroy, Paul Conlon and the rest of the squad. It brought a lot of people out on a Monday night in Marino. Small businesses, shops, and pubs gained from it and there was a great happy atmosphere. Sport is very important for tourism.
I left Croke Park last Sunday and went to Gaffney’s in Fairview. It was like Italia 90, with people on the street having a drink and a chat. I spoke to some of the bar staff and found extra staff were taken on for the day. People forget that such events are also part of the tourism industry.
Another controversial issue which has arisen in the past few days is related to the tourism sector. I would love to see the country become an international centre for conflict resolution. With our history and recent past, in terms of the peace process, Ireland could become a hub for developing peace strategies internationally and human rights. We have learned from the mistakes in our history. Many people across the world in the middle of a conflict would love an independent, neutral country that is respectful of human rights, peace and justice to help them. Ireland could be a centre of excellence for conflict resolution.
During the debate on the presidential election an issue has arisen with the intervention of Martin McGuinness. We have to examine our mindset. The people in the Twenty-six Counties need to decide whether they accept the Good Friday Agreement and support democratic or inclusive politics. A section of the population does not seem to accept this. If Northern Unionists and Nationalists can swallow tough decisions why are some people in the Twenty-six Counties antagonistic? It is related to the tourism industry.
There is huge potential for people who have learnt from the hurt and conflict during the years to open an international centre. We need to examine the mindset reality of the situation. At all times we must be respectful of all the victims of the conflict in this country. We could use the model of the peace and reconciliation forum internationally. Instead of closing centres such as Glencree we should start inviting people to the country to see if we can assist them.
I was pleasantly surprised to see camping is becoming very fashionable again for many families, in particular those with children between the ages of four and 12 years, despite the weather. Caravans and campsites have benefited from the recession as families have sought cheaper accommodation. The domestic market is expected to be strong and if the weather stays fine it could be developed. The Irish Caravanning and Camping Council said camping is becoming trendy again with families and together with the recession and good weather it could have a bumper season. It also said it was hopeful for a good domestic market this summer to make up for the loss of other tourists. It is a sector with potential.
There are other reasons to be positive about tourism. There is a general feeling the industry’s performance is slowly starting to pick up following two extremely difficult years. The travel tax has been abolished, VAT has been reduced and improved roads and airports have made it easier for the industry to function. We should acknowledge these positive developments. If somebody tries to do something about VAT or the travel tax we should not be afraid to commend him or her. There is room for optimism about developing the tourism sector.
We have to face issues such as accommodation, which is connected to the boom years. There is overcapacity in many areas. The biggest issue facing the accommodation sector is that there are too many beds for the available demand. Consequently, many hotels, especially those which are financed by NAMA or owned by banks, are slashing prices to a level with which it is impossible for other operators to compete. Bed and breakfast establishments face difficulties because they cannot cross-subsidise room revenue with bar and restaurant revenue as hotels can. I urge people to consider the problem. Such businesses employee two or three people to serve breakfast and clean linen. We often forget such jobs are part of the domestic economy.
When I talked to people in the tourism sector I found soaring fuel prices have squeezed margins. The transport sector has been hit particularly hard and there is a limit to what it can pass on to consumers in the current economic climate. Aer Lingus stated. “Rising fuel costs eat into the profits, so we need to find other ways to cut costs.”
The Fáilte Ireland tourism barometer is a survey of tourism businesses designed to provide an insight into tourism performance for the year to date and the prospects for the remainder of the season. It has concerns about visitor levels in hotels, self-catering accommodation and golf clubs. One hears a lot of smart comments about golf clubs but they bring a lot of tourists into the country. People like to come to Ireland and play a game of golf.
We need to be very careful about our rivers and lakes and conscious of pollution. I have experience of fishing on Lough Derg in the Dromineer area in Tipperary. German tourists want clean lakes and rivers. There is a huge market in Germany for such tourism. Such visitors stay in bed and breakfasts and small local hotels, have a few drinks and spend a few bob. It is very important.
I note visitor levels for the year to date are reasonably good for hotels, with 43% reporting an increase. There was a 41% increase in self-catering numbers and 46% of golf clubs reported an increase in visitor volumes compared to 2010. There are signs that we can do something and be positive.
The Minister will be aware of an old friend of mine, Councillor Christy Hyland of Westport, who is very involved in the bed and breakfast trade and would say it is tough going at times. One in five bed and breakfasts is reporting increased visitor numbers but the majority, 59%, reported a decrease. We need to ensure we look after such persons and that they are supported in any way possible.
The key overseas market of Britain is not performing as well as we thought, something which we have had to address. We should not be afraid to encourage our families in England, Scotland and Wales to visit Ireland on their holidays. We should not forget the industry is not just about marketing brand Ireland but also developing the economy.
Many hotels and businesses in the tourism industry are labour-intensive, something which is important to consider. The industry employs low paid workers but if people are in the system, paying their taxes and making a contribution it is a positive thing which can be developed. I am reticent to use the phrase “turning the corner” because many people have used it in the past and it did not happen.
One way to turn the corner is by developing tourism. I mentioned the arts earlier, an area where we have an international brand that could be developed strongly. The brand is out there and we have quality artists and musicians on the international stage who will attract many people to the State.
Section 1 amends section 24(2) of the National Tourism Development Authority Act 2003 to provide that the aggregate level of advances that may be made to the authority out of the capital moneys provided by the Oireachtas for the purpose of supporting enterprises and projects relating to the development of tourist traffic and the development of tourist facilities and services is increased from €65 million to €150 million. We are talking about tourist facilities and services. There are no direct budgetary or financial implications in the proposals contained in the Bill. It is an enabling provision and the annual amount of capital expenditure by Fáilte Ireland will be determined in accordance with the normal budgetary process. There are no staffing implications.
Many good people work for Fáilte Ireland, but we need fresh ideas and people coming onto the pitch. One of my dreams would be to see the country become an international centre for conflict resolution. We should use the experience of the Good Friday Agreement and overcoming conflict on the island. I recently spoke to a group of Palestinians who visited Leinster House. From the welcome they got they knew the majority of the Irish people are supportive of assisting them to get the out of the mess they are in by starting their own state, in which I wish them well. They said they would love to come to Ireland if there was any potential for serious talks between themselves and the Israelis. When travelling abroad I hear people referring to our experience in that regard. The Government should consider making Ireland a hub for conflict resolution. We should have an international centre and bring in people from across the world, which would give a very positive image of the country.
I welcome the discussion on tourism. I look forward to being able to develop this process. I would like to see people from north and south of the Border develop an all-Ireland approach. When talking about Ireland we should not stop at the Border. We should encourage people to go to the North as well to see the beauty of the Ards Peninsula in County Down and all the way around to Derry. That will also facilitate the development of our own people and assist in bringing peace and reconciliation. There is nothing like going to stay in a home or hotel in another area which one might not normally visit. In the past 20 years I have learned in that regard. That is the kind of people politics we want on the island. I urge the Government to consider that. There are some magnificent parliamentarians in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the Oireachtas. Some of them are working closely together and there is no reason not to focus on an all-Ireland strategy to develop tourism. Developing tourism will create jobs which will assist the country to get out of this economic mess.
Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: The main purpose of the Bill is to amend the National Tourism Development Authority Act 2003 to increase the level of funding for capital expenditure projects. The proposed change to the legislation is required to allow funding for tourism product development as set out in the annual Estimate to be provided to Fáilte Ireland. The Bill offers an opportunity to highlight the Government’s commitment to the tourism sector.
The National Tourism Development Authority Act 2003 resulted in the dissolution of Bord Fáilte Éireann and CERT Limited, and the development of the National Tourism Development Authority, Fáilte Ireland. Section 24(2) of the 2003 Act, however, placed a cap of €65 million on the total level of funding which can be granted to Fáilte Ireland to spend on capital expenditure projects or enterprises which support the development of tourism traffic or the marketing of tourist facilities and services. Section 24(1) of the 2003 Act gives the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, the power to advance out of the money provided by the Oireachtas such sums as the Minister may determine.
In the 1990s Ireland experienced large tourism growth and outperformed the rest of Europe as a tourist destination. Since 2001, however, the sector has become less competitive owing to a number of factors, including changes in demand and customer needs and more aggressive competition from other destinations. The tourism sector has experienced a decline in recent years. The total level of financial support for tourism provided by Oireachtas grants has fluctuated in the period from 2007 to 2010. Just over €20 million is available to advance to Fáilte Ireland before amending legislation is required. It is anticipated that the existing cap will be exceeded in the course of 2011 and 2012. The Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and Finance have agreed a figure of €150 million based on this year’s allocation and likely future allocations.
Fáilte Ireland has published a tourism product development strategy 2007-13 which states that less support will be provided for accommodation but more investment is required for tourism infrastructure. The strategy identifies priority areas for capital investment based on a comprehensive audit of tourism attractions, activities and events. The strategy also outlines that competitor destinations in northern Europe are investing substantial sums of public money in tourism, including the development of capital projects. Fáilte Ireland has responsibility for supporting the tourism industry in the areas of product development, marketing of domestic tourism on the island of Ireland, training and education, research and strategic planning, specialist product marketing and promotions, and the implementation of special initiatives to attract international sports events to Ireland. The Bill will ensure increased capital funding is made available to Fáilte Ireland, which will enable the agency to compete favourably with other northern European countries.
I express my satisfaction at Dublin winning the all-Ireland football championship last Sunday. While there is a big recession in the country, based on what I saw in Croke Park on Sunday, I do not believe there is a recession in Dublin. I wish the wee county, Louth, the best of luck as it will need luck in the future.
Deputy Brian Walsh: It is wonderful to have someone of the calibre of the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, at the helm in the area of tourism within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. As a west of Ireland man, like me, he has a deep appreciation and understanding of the value of tourism to the economy. He has already started his own initiatives which will reap rewards and benefits in the years to come. I understand this is the first legislation he has brought before the House and he could not have picked a more significant Bill.
Our tourism sector is one of the tools we need to use to repair our broken economy. The sector has immense potential. Tourism was worth €45.3 billion to the economy in 2009 and contributed more than €1.3 billion in tax revenues to the Exchequer. It also provides jobs for up to 190,000 people. However, the needs of the industry have been neglected in recent times. While the previous Government stoked the dulling embers of the building boom, in many respects the tourism industry was not given the same level of attention and was left to suckle from the hind teat for far too long. After a period of unprecedented growth in the 1990s, investment under the stewardship of the previous Government was inadequate to overcome the aggressive marketing strategies of competing destinations and revenue here fell as a result. By 2009 funding for capital development in the tourism sector, which the Bill addresses, had been slashed to just a quarter of the amount provided for in 2007 and, accordingly, revenues fell by €1 billion during the same period.
We also lost much of our competitiveness during the time. Inflationary pressures saw prices soar and prospective visitors decided to look elsewhere and seek value for money in other destinations. All of this has brought the tourism sector to a critical point. This Bill is part of the rebuilding process and it will dictate the fortunes of the industry for years into the future.
The World Tourism Organization has forecast vast growth between now and 2020 with Europe poised to be the main beneficiary of this growth. If we are to avail of this trend, however, decisive action is required now. Decisive action has already been taken by the Government. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald yesterday described the jobs initiative as a failure when speaking in reaction to the announcements by Aviva Healthcare. It was a breath of fresh air when the Minister for Finance introduced that initiative. He said what could be achieved by it was modest. It was not intended to assist the insurance industry, rather it was clearly targeted at the tourism industry. The VAT reduction has been successfully passed on in most cases to the consumer. That is helping to restore the competitiveness we lost in recent years. The reduction in employers’ PRSI will also facilitate job creation in the sector. I commend my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, for introducing the visa waiver scheme which has positioned Ireland ideally to capitalise on the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the United Kingdom for the London Olympics next year.
We reduced and signalled that we intend to abolish the travel tax subject to a deal being hammered out with the airlines here. There was much huffing and puffing and banging on the table by the chief executive officers of airlines here as they told us the travel tax was damaging the industry and the number of visitors coming to the country, but they have not responded to the invitation by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to show where they can increase the capacity of visitors coming here. If they do that and demonstrate how they will do that, the travel tax will be abolished.
Visitor numbers and tourism revenues have fallen steadily from their peak in 2007 but there are reasons for hope. After years of troubling decline, we have had a 13% increase in overseas visits. That was witnessed in the first half of this year, signalling that Ireland is open for business. Figures from North America and other long-haul markets are almost back to levels last seen in 2008. The number of people choosing to rediscover what their own country has to offer, rather than holidaying abroad, has also increased in recent years. I holidayed in Killarney this year and despite the inclement weather, we had a most enjoyable holiday. The country has a huge amount to offer. Galway, the area I represent, no more than the area the Leas-Cheann Comhairle represents, is a thriving centre of excellence in the arts, music, literature and theatre. It has benefited a great deal from the jobs initiative and businesses there are quick to remark on the benefits that have accrued to them as a result of the initiatives introduced earlier this year.
The Galway Harbour Company has ambitious plans for the development of a new harbour facility in Galway. Tomorrow evening I am due to meet representatives of the harbour company and some of the largest cruise line operators in the world whose cruise liners visit Galway and who have pledged their support for bringing their vessels into Galway Harbour if we can increase the capacity there. That is an example of where infrastructural investment can reap rewards locally.
The success of the high profile visits of President Obama and Queen Elizabeth II also generated worldwide positive coverage. Members opposite — not necessarily the Members present — who occupy the far-right hand corner of the House, although they may be offended by me describing them as being on the right, had questioned the cost associated with these visits. The benefits that will accrue to this city far outweigh the costs that accrued to the State from these visits. Time will tell that the huge exposure we got was invaluable. We cannot become complacent, however, notwithstanding the progress that has been made in recent times, as competition destinations are heavily investing in marketing and infrastructure. We must do all we can to bring visitors back to our shores, and this Bill is an example of our doing that. I commend it and I will be entirely supportive of it. I wish the Minister of State, who has temporarily left the Chamber, well during his tenure in office.
Deputy Tom Barry: I welcome the Bill which highlights the Government’s commitment to the vital tourism sector, and I warmly welcome the extremely encouraging figures in terms of visitor numbers. Our main markets, Britain and the United States, which account for more than 60% of all visitors to Ireland, saw increases of 8% and 15%, respectively, in visitor numbers, and the figures from Europe are also particularly encouraging. Visitor numbers from the Benelux countries are up an impressive 28%, France 23% and Scandinavian visitor numbers have increased by 21%. These increases must be recognised.
The domestic market, however, generates €1.3 billion in revenue and we must remember that the so-called staycation is very important. Competitiveness is improving and the direct intervention of the Government in that regard has been crucial. The jobs initiative not only reduced the VAT level to 9% for labour-intensive services, it also halved PRSI contributions for many employers in that sector through work placements and internships and offered a helping hand to struggling businesses. We know from our constituents that the VAT reduction is certainly working on the ground.
In the programme for Government there was a commitment to target available resources at developing and co-ordinating niche tourism products and activity packages, and in that regard we must not forget cultural and literary tourism. This is a significant area that is largely unexplored in many parts of the country and has phenomenal potential.
I wish to refer to the Avondhu Blackwater Partnership in Cork which launched the Blackwater Valley heritage trail at the beginning of this month. The innovative series of tours were developed by the local development company to promote the rich heritage of the Blackwater Valley and to enhance the major tourism potential of north Cork. To augment the tours, a free high quality brochure was published featuring 23 heritage sites encompassing an area from Blarney to Mallow and Fermoy to Lismore. The brochure gives an historic summary of sites such as Bridgetown Priory near Castletownroche, Labbacallee megalithic tomb near Glanworth, and Ballysaggartmore towers in Lismore. In addition, interpretative panels are also now on display at each site. People can drive the trail route or they can avail of the new guided bus tours which Avordhu Blackwater is co-ordinating, using local guides with priceless local knowledge. Avondhu Blackwater also offers specifically designed heritage trails for schools, tour groups and other organisations such as active retirement groups in exploring the rich heritage of the area.
To make the tours a reality, Avondhu Blackwater Partnership teamed up with Fáilte Ireland, an initiative in which I was glad to be involved, to offer a new high quality tour guide training course aimed at people who have a general interest in local heritage and history and who would like to learn more about the tourism industry and, importantly, how to guide groups in a professional manner in local areas. They recognised that the right local people are the key to unlocking an area’s tourism potential. The training was free of charge and the tours are already proving a hit with visitors from as far away as New Zealand. In essence, the local community is taking ownership of the local tourism.
The tourism capital investment programme grants scheme is an excellent tool which will develop new attractions for visitors and also upgrade existing amenities. We often talk, rightly so, about sectors such as agriculture being a natural resource, but our heritage is one of our greatest natural resources. It is immensely valuable and has huge potential as we revert to what we do best, which is providing exceptional holidays for visitors from at home and abroad.
We cannot and do not want to sell Ireland as a sun destination, which would be a bit of a hit and miss scenario. The tourism capital investment programme grant scheme must take into account our rivers which flow through all our counties, and we have the River Blackwater in Cork. The potential for water sports and cruises to bring life to our rivers cannot be ignored. Also of merit is the E8 European walking route, which traverses through mainland Europe, Bulgaria into the United Kingdom and from there into Ireland. Capital funding to fund and create spurs off this E8 walking route would be very beneficial to rural tourism.
Deputy Tom Barry: It is, as you can see, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Capital funding should be available to create tourism apps for specific regions, which would be really helpful. This would allow the tourist to custom plan his or her journey. Informing the public of the huge choice available to it is crucial. Tourism is like any business. It must be marketed in an accessible, cost effective and up-to-date fashion.
As I listen to the debate, it is clear that we are all referring to our own areas. However, the collection of the proposals shows the range of what is available nationally. Sometimes the local becomes the national when everything is knitted together. I have heard some really good ideas and I am sure the Minister of State will have a difficulty in confining them to the amount of money available.
While we are doing well from a tourism point of view, I would like to highlight some things we could do better. One of our biggest tourism destinations is the Cliffs of Moher where the visitors’ centre is absolutely beautiful and knits well into the landscape. However, there was a massive overspend when the centre was developed and the prices have now been pitched to recoup that overspend rather than at the pockets of visitors. While the staff are great, one of the biggest let-downs is the Atlantic Edge Exhibition. An animated bird flies around which could represent anywhere in the world. However, the visual landscape has a real wow factor. Why can a helicopter not go up and show people what the cliffs look like from a distance? I do not think the exhibition is what the tourist expects to see. It certainly was a let-down for me, and I think the same is true for others. We can do better. We need to take stock of the lack of engagement with tourists and the lack of responsiveness. At the Cliffs of Moher visitors are charged according to the number of people in a car, not per car. When added to the cost of food, this is prohibitive. While this is a great destination, we seem to be telling people they should go there, while warning them that it is costly. We might, thereby, be eliminating some repeat business. We must pay attention to this.
Those tourists who come to Ireland now spend less than in previous years and they choose cheaper options. The bus tour sector has been holding its own. We spent years developing Kilkenny Castle and the lovely walkway in front of it. However, it is very difficult to park a bus there. The development was not designed with buses in mind, yet the buses are bringing people to spend time there. Let us be a little more thoughtful.
There appears to be an old boys’ network with regard to who is asked for ideas. Some recent entrants to the tourism market need to be included. The cost of inclusion in Fáilte Ireland brochures is prohibitive for smaller companies which want to get a foothold. A tourist will expect to receive impartial advice in a tourist office, but the brochures may only contain information on the products that can afford to be included. We do not allow the new generation to come through. We are doing well, but we could do better. The same could be said of OPW sites. The same operators continue to be facilitated. New operators could be brought to these wonderful sites which have been developed using public money.
Arthur’s Day could become our second St. Patrick’s Day. As today is Arthur’s Day, let us not scoff at the idea. The House must pardon me if I refer to a local connection. Arthur Guinness was born in Celbridge, brewed his first pint in Leixlip and is buried in Ardclough, which are all in my constituency. We have some claim to him. The Guinness Storehouse is a huge tourist attraction, but we do not take it that stage further.
We could do things that do not compete with each other but are complementary. In my constituency Carton House, Castletown House and Leixlip Castle are all marketed separately. We do not look at these attractions from the point of view of a tourist who wants to have things packaged. We need to make connections.
We often take a fragmented approach to doing things. One of my biggest hobbies is researching family history. I have been doing this for years and constantly find new bits and pieces to add to the richness of my family history. Everybody has this richness. I have almost completed writing a guidebook to family history and hope to do so when I get time. I noted today that the website ancestry.co.uk has introduced 40 million records onto the site. Why are we not doing some of these things ourselves? I have a long Dublin family background. The last of my family to settle in Dublin arrived in the 1870s, but I have found linkages in Limerick, Westmeath, Belfast, Omagh and Laois. I know at first hand the importance of finding these origins. I have gone back to those places on numerous occasions and bought every guidebook and history book I could find about them. I have spent money in these locations and will be a repeat tourist in them. I think I am the prototype for others to do the same thing. We are punching above our weight in this regard. David McWilliams put it together when he talked about the Irish Diaspora and Ireland being the mother ship. Genealogy could be the way to introduce people to a much richer engagement with Ireland and provide for repeat tourism.
Because of the loss of records, particularly what remained of 19th century census records, in the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922, there is a perception that it is very difficult to trace Irish family histories. There is, in fact, a huge source of information, if one looks for it. Much of it has been put together through State investment and voluntarism and we are giving this away. I acknowledge the approach taken by the former Government and the motivation of the current Minister in making the genealogical records freely available on-line. The 1901 and 1911 census returns have been very well used.
Let me give some examples of things we have done which we could have done better. We spent €10 million digitising the register of births, marriages and deaths in the General Register Office in Roscommon. Most of these records commenced in 1864. I recently asked, in a parliamentary question, why I was able to search the index, on which we spent the €10 million, on-line through the website of the Church of Latter-Day Saints but could not do it on the website of the General Register Office. The GRO website does not even mention the possibility of searching the records on-line through the website of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I have no problem with the church having the records because it has been a terrific resource worldwide. The GRO website tells one it is necessary to queue up in the research room of the office, search the indexes manually in the big books and then request the record. That could be done much more effectively as we are not making use of that resource. I have no problem with charging people for searching some of the records, but we charge €6 to do a particular search. When I started it cost €2, then it was raised to €4 and now it costs €6. That is fine if someone is not trying to research a common name like Mary Murphy or Patrick Byrne, where one would have to do 20 searches to get the right record. Twenty searches costs €120 and that is prohibitive. Let us be careful about how we charge for these services.
Digitising these records is very labour intensive, but it may well be an initiative that is worth the investment. We could do it through something like a FÁS scheme to advance the process. I was also told that there could be privacy and fraud issues when making these records available online. Why were these not issues when we were putting the census records online? The same range of information is being provided. We may have to limit the years back to a certain date, say 1930, in order that we are providing privacy, but anyone can walk off the street and get those records if they want them; therefore, there is no privacy issue in that instance. We are not being sensible about this. Griffith’s Valuation is available on a free to view basis, but other records like the Cancelled Valuation Books could be digitised.
I commend the staff of the National Archives for their work, but the National Archives building is too small. I have had the pleasure of going to Kew on several occasions and searching in the British Public Record Office, and it is a huge tourism attraction. We do not have that kind of interface here. We have a fragmented approach. There is a genealogical service in the National Library which is really about pointing people in the right direction. Instead of our service being a one-stop-shop, we give people a map and tell them to go here, there and everywhere. We are not really putting our best foot forward.
There seems to be some dispute on whether www.ancestry.co.uk has a legal entitlement to put the church records on-line, but those records are already on-line in most cases, and I know Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú had an involvement in the Family History Foundation. Much of the money that goes through its pay per view goes back to developing the records. We need that money to develop the rest of the records, but I am not sure we are giving ourselves the opportunity to do this.
I was lucky with my own family history in that there was a Guinness archive that I could search, and I am sure there are other industries which could add to that source. If we had the records office to do that, it would be possible. I wonder if we have a NAMA building that could hold a bigger and better National Archives. Boland’s Mill will be an embarrassment in 2016. Are there some things down there that could be used for archives that have a historical connection? Everyone is thinking outside the box on this issue.
There are many records, such as the railway records and the Garda records that go back to Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police records, to which we are not paying attention. If we really cared about the Diaspora, wanted them to be connected and saw them as a resource, we would have to be looking at doing something to take the lead in co-ordinating some of the efforts that are being made in this area. Much of it is happening with volunteers. It may well be that a small amount of effort in assisting those volunteers could produce serious returns.
I am a bit obsessive about this, but there are great opportunities in it. I would like us to take those opportunities rather than them being easily taken away by a site that has the resources required, such as that which I described. We could do more with it ourselves.
Deputy Olivia Mitchell: I am sharing time with Deputy Michelle Mulherin. I add my good wishes to the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, in his new job. I cannot think of anyone more suited to this job through geography, experience and inclination. It will be an extremely important job in restoring the fortunes of the economy.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, and the opportunity it affords to debate the industry, which has always been important to Ireland. In recent times and for the foreseeable future, it assumes an even greater importance because it has been identified as one of the industries with the potential to drive the domestic recovery. It has the potential to create high levels employment and to bring jobs not just to Dublin and the cities, but to every town and village in the country.
I am happy to support the raising of the cap placed on capital spending in the 2003 Act, from €65 million to €150 million. It is vital, even in difficult times, not only to continue to upgrade existing facilities, but also to invest in new ones. Demand in this industry is constantly changing. People’s tastes are changing and we need new products. Tourism products become very tired if they are not constantly renewed and we would find it increasingly difficult to compete with other non-sun destinations if we did not continually refresh what we have on offer.
I listened with interest to what Deputy Catherine Murphy had to say because I was going to mention the need for investment in our cultural institutions. I realise they do not come under this particular tranche of money but we really need to restore and improve the buildings that house our national cultural institutions. Little was done in this regard during the Celtic tiger years, and the National Archives is one those institutions that comes to mind immediately. It is such an important area for genealogical tourism, which is a major growth area. It is particularly significant in a country that has had wave after wave of emigration, but the National Archives building is in a woeful state. It is a tribute to the dedicated specialist staff there that they are able to maintain access to so many of our archives. That access has been increased enormously by the digitisation of records and I understand that the process of digitisation, which will make things more available to people, is continuing. If the Minister of State does find the money or the NAMA building that was mentioned which could house the archives, I would recommend it be considered as a priority for the Government.
A second priority is the National Library. I mention these two institutions because their material is degrading as a result of not having the proper conditions for storage. Whatever about the tourists, let us ensure we do not let it degrade any further.
Probably the most important area for capital investment is in e-tourism. No matter how wonderful and imaginative a product is, if it is not on the web, it does not exist for the majority of people, especially those outside Ireland. This means we must invest in high quality nationwide broadband, which would facilitate marketing, booking and buying over the Internet. I know that great progress has been made by Fáilte Ireland in facilitating and training in e-marketing, but we cannot take our foot off the pedal if we are to compete. Internet capability must be available to all players, from the smallest bed and breakfast establishment to the largest facility in the country. Technology must also be made available and used to improve access to the tourism product because if one’s product is not on the shelf, it cannot be bought. The Internet is the most important shelf as far as tourism is concerned and everyone knows it is the main source of information on holiday destinations, hotels and so forth. Even those who want to go away for one night do not telephone Bord Fáilte or another tourism body but check the Internet, perhaps via an app.
Since the collapse of tourism in the middle of the last decade Fáilte Ireland has targeted its marketing efforts at our traditional markets, the very markets which dried up when the Celtic tiger died. I have questioned the decision to concentrate exclusively on these markets. While Britain and the United States will always be important, other countries on which we have not focused marketing efforts show greater potential for growth. I refer specifically to the new European Union member states from which we do not have many tourists, despite a significant number of air connections. We must target our tourism efforts at cities with which we have good air links. Unlike Thailand or Australia, people do not tend to visit Ireland for three weeks or one month but come instead for a few days and, in many cases, only a weekend. Our tourist catchment area is those areas that have ready access to an air link to Ireland. Given that no one will take two flights to travel abroad for a weekend or three or four days, our tourism marketing efforts should be targeted at cities with air links to this country.
We must also focus our efforts on trying to maintain current air links. In this respect, I am pleased the Government chose to link tourism and transport in one Department, as I had strongly recommended. Until now, there has been a disconnect between tourism and transport. It is pointless to market Ireland as a tourist destination in European towns and cities with which we do not have an air link.
I welcome the reduction in the travel tax and introduction of the Dublin Airport incentive scheme to encourage the opening of new routes. We will not know whether the scheme is working until the beginning of next year. I ask the Minister to monitor the effectiveness of the incentives in place and, if necessary, revise and re-target them to ensure they increase passenger numbers and encourage the opening of new routes.
I am pleased Fáilte Ireland is adopting a destination management approach. The future of tourism lies in this area and Fáilte Ireland needs to go further in this regard. The role of State bodies must be to co-ordinate and integrate the provision of accommodation and access to facilities, whether small or large, local or national, cultural, recreational, sports or heritage in nature. They must ensure all facilities are co-operating at local level to avail of the synergies of proximity. For instance, local hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation providers should provide transport to the starting point of planned walks, which are increasing in number. I welcome, for example, the recent opening of one such walk in the Minister of State’s constituency. Visitors must be able to reach the starting points of walks because most of those who come here on a walking holiday do not arrive by car. They also need to be collected and such services must be provided locally.
Walking holidays offer major potential as walks do not require good weather and walking routes require only minimal capital investment. In many cases, local authorities and Coillte have already provided all that is required. However, most walks are isolated and on their own do not justify someone travelling from abroad. The way forward is to connect walks and market them to potential tourists as a national or regional package and easily accessible. Fáilte Ireland, as the over-arching tourism body, should bring together diverse providers to produce an infinitely superior product than can be provided by one individual player. No other body is in a position to do this job.
Country houses and gardens are another area for which one does not need a wonderful climate and that is experiencing growth in Europe and globally. It is difficult for individual private operators to attract tourists. Marketing every country house with a nice garden separately would entail considerable duplication. To maximise growth in this area Fáilte Ireland should market holiday packages and ensure tourists can move with great ease from one country house or garden to another.
I welcomed the establishment of a cultural and heritage tourism group in the dying days of the previous Government to connect State agencies and tour operators bringing people into the country in numbers. Tours are an important area of tourism which has significant growth potential. Until now, the services and products provided by the Office of Public Works and other organisations have not been matched up with what tourists want. I understand a meeting of this group has been arranged. I ask the Minister to ensure the group continues with this important initiative.
In these difficult times, when there is little money available, we must examine everything we do to ascertain if we can do it better. I have strong views on the proliferation of bodies which duplicate each other’s work and deliver their services in a less effective manner than would a single body. I am not convinced it is necessary to have two separate tourism bodies, Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland. Many local bodies should share over-arching jobs such as marketing and sales and collaborate rather than compete with one another to improve effectiveness. While the various State agencies at national, regional, county and local level are all worthy and do good work, their value is diminished by the lack of a more cohesive approach.
It is great that tourism numbers have turned around and are heading in the right direction for the first time in a number of years. This development is a vindication of the Government’s policy of recognising the need to reduce costs in tourism and other industries. Measures to change wage setting mechanisms, reduce VAT and employers’ PRSI are beginning to pay off. Tourism has been correctly identified as a growth industry. It is a sector in which Ireland has a natural advantage and, as an export service, it is a foreign currency earner. The growing middle classes of the emerging economies offer considerable potential. For this reason, I welcome measures to make it easier to obtain a visa to visit this country, as the difficulty in securing a visa acts as a significant deterrent for people from emerging economies such as China who wish to visit here.
Deputy Michelle Mulherin: It is great to see the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, dealing with this matter. I am delighted we are in government, which gives us an opportunity to take stock of what is happening in the tourism industry and the area of tourism promotion. Tourism is one of the pillars on which we hope to build our economic recovery. It is an area in which the Minister of State has great experience, as well as an appetite to see it succeed. The background is that in 2007, 7.7 million tourists came into the country, while in 2010 the figure was 5.5 million. Certain measures have been taken by the Government as an indication of its support for tourism, such as the VAT reduction, the reduction in employer’s PRSI and the changes in the system of visa applications to make us more accessible to people who want to travel. These are all welcome.
The country has never had more tourism products. Everyone’s area has something, whether it is activities such as golf courses, fishing, deep sea angling or walking routes, which are being developed, or our natural and built heritage, including national monuments, and there has never been more investment. It is no big deal to put a package together. I believe that should be the job of golf courses, hotels and so on. The next question is how we actually get people in, which is the responsibility of Tourism Ireland. The products are available and Tourism Ireland must market them. There is a big question over this. Whether we get it right or wrong will decide the success of our ambitions to see the tourism industry grow. Instead of putting together packages and so on, Tourism Ireland should be working with our airports, airlines and ferries, all of which represent gateways for tourists to get into Ireland. If they are not physically coming into the country, we can have all the packages and products we want and spend all the money we want, but it will not help the tourism industry. The likes of Ryanair and Aer Lingus are bringing 20% fewer people into the country. This represents not only fewer flights and fewer tourists but also fewer jobs, whether in the airlines or in the tourism sector. Having a focused approach and working with the airlines would resolve a problem which is of strategic significance, that is, how to get people onto this island.
I have a serious question for the Minister of State about the accountability of Tourism Ireland. We give it a budget, but how do we measure the results we get and whether the company has been innovative? It is all very well to say the money is accounted for and to show what it was spent on. The question is whether it is being spent in the best way and whether we are getting the best return. For example, Tourism Ireland has pulled out of sponsoring strategic golf tournaments. We have the best golfers in the world. We have never had more golf courses and they have never been so competitive. They are open for business and they want to bring money in, so they would be amenable to various initiatives. It may be said that golf is expensive, but no holiday is cheap. The people who have these products have a hunger to bring in tourists.
One possible market is the Irish Diaspora. There are 80 million people around the world who claim to be of Irish descent and who are proud to be of Irish descent. Are we happy with 5.5 million tourists coming into the country, not all of whom are of Irish descent? It is a pretty small number, and that is just one measuring stick. I am not aware of how tourism numbers are measured. Tourism Ireland will give us figures at the end of the year and we will cry and say things are too expensive and so on, but a great deal of money is being pumped into marketing, and I wonder how effective that is.
I will mention a case in point, with which the Minister of State will be familiar. I do not feel I have received a satisfactory answer to this. Knock airport, in our region, is a growing airport and a success story. However, when a survey was carried out at the airport of people travelling from Great Britain, where Tourism Ireland is active in promoting this country, it found that 99% of those people were coming to Knock airport because they had family or friends in the area or had been recommended to do so by family or friends. Only 1% reported exposure to any sort of marketing. What about all the other British people who have no Irish blood in them, so to speak? Should we not be encouraging them to come over? We had a great success story with the visits of the Queen of England and President Obama, which earned us a lot of political capital and goodwill. This was a Red C survey. It is a shocking indictment of Tourism Ireland and I do not see how it has explained itself. As I understand it, even three quarters of the way through the year, it has no records of visitor numbers and no indication of whether targets are being achieved. It waits until the end of the year to compile the numbers. Thus, instead of having the ability to take correctional measures during the year if required, it is always a year behind.
That is my main point. I do not think we are getting value for money. We could have all the tourism products in the world but it would not make any difference. We have a few gems, such as the Minister of State’s town of Westport as well as Killarney and Galway. There is a lot more to offer in the country. Tourism Ireland should not be lazy; it should be innovative. Let us measure its progress. Hard-earned taxpayers’ money is being spent on marketing, but it is all a bit fluffy at the moment. We need to pin it down a little more.
Deputy Tom Fleming: I welcome the Bill, which is a positive initiative. As a growth industry, tourism is one of the prime indigenous products we have. Our tourism infrastructure needs to be expanded and developed. So far this year, the trend has been that American and continental visitor numbers are up by approximately 15% or 16%, but visitor numbers from Britain, our nearest neighbour and biggest market, have not recovered to this extent. The United Kingdom was always our stable tourist market. We will have to analyse this. I believe visitor numbers from the UK are up by only 8%. We will need to identify the reasons for this and deal with the issues in the short term.
In the south west we have excellent access for UK visitors who wish to bring their own transport such as cars or caravans via the Cork-Swansea ferry or the Rosslare ferry. The viability of the Cork-Swansea ferry in particular is dependent on numbers rising to what they were in the mid-2000s. The return of the Kerry-Dublin public service obligation is vital for the tourism industry and the economy of County Kerry. The continuation of flights between Kerry Airport and the United Kingdom and the Continent is also vital.
As well as our traditional strongholds in the countries I have mentioned, we must seek new and vibrant markets to boost visitor numbers. For example, Russia is a high potential and lucrative market that we should explore and pursue vigorously. It takes only three hours to fly to Ireland from Moscow, compared with over six hours from the east coast of the USA. The Russian economy is performing reasonably and the middle to high earners have good disposable incomes. There have been links between Shannon Airport and Russia in the past, with the setting up of a duty free zone in Moscow.
With regard to product development, the skills are available. Tourism is a labour-intensive industry and our hotel and catering staff across the hospitality sector are highly trained and efficient. A hotel employing up to 100 people is invaluable to the local economy and, subject to its performing well, provides good and sustainable jobs. The tourism season is getting longer. Unlike many companies, such as Aetna in Castleisland, County Kerry, and TalkTalk in Waterford, not to mention the recent speculation about Aviva, a hotel will not up sticks and move on.
Regarding the decline in visitors in recent years, it is obvious that tourists are looking for more than just scenery. Value for money and visitor attractions are paramount. We must ensure tourists are happy and satisfied with their experience here and that they spread a good image of Ireland abroad.
We have an abundance of natural amenities for promoting activity holidays such as, for example, the rural and mountain walks being created throughout the country. Our landscape is ideal, being safe and suitable for these activities which cater for both walkers and cyclists. There is a great initiative in County Kerry whereby Pat Falvey who has taken part in several expeditions, including to Mount Everest and the South Pole, is promoting mountain walks in the Carrauntoohil area. It is proving to be very popular. In the Minister of State’s county, Mayo, there is a great walking and cycling route between Newport and Mulranny. These initiatives are being replicated throughout the country and make great use of our natural resources.
Inland fisheries are another great under-utilised resource. Rivers and lakes need restocking and refurbishing, a most important factor, having regard to the salmon from the Atlantic Ocean that spawn in them. We must develop fishing stands for people with disabilities and promote and concentrate on fishing by ladies because up to now it has been a male dominated recreational activity. There is an initiative in south Kerry whereby fishing stands for the disabled are being developed in conjunction with the promotion of ladies fishing, both of which offer great potential. On the west coast, surfing sites are among the best in the world, receiving global recognition and attracting enthusiasts from all over the world.
On genealogy, we need a central headquarters where all allied information and records would be made available. The records currently available are fragmented and members of the Irish Diaspora often find it difficult to trace their ancestry in a straightforward method. I suggest Killarney House which is being refurbished be the designated centre. As Killarney is the capital of the Irish tourism industry and a worldwide brand, it would be appropriate to have this service centrally located in Killarney House when it has been restored to its original condition. One hopes that will happen in the near future.
We need to provide for an all-inclusive transport system travel ticket for all ground transport throughout the country, including bus, rail and Luas. We could then liaise with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and extend the scheme to cover the whole island. Currently, visitors have to operate in a piecemeal fashion, whereas in their own countries they are able to purchase all-inclusive transport tickets. We must pursue this matter.
It was drawn to my attention recently that senior citizens, or persons aged over 70 years, coming to this country were experiencing great difficulty in finding self-drive cars. Some have been refused. One individual travelled across the Border to Belfast and, with his full licence, had no difficulty in getting such a car which he was very glad to be able to drive around the country. Unfortunately, he had to travel from Dublin to Belfast to get it, which gives a very bad image of the country and makes people feel most unwelcome. When they return to their homeland and talk to their fellow citizens, they spread a negative perception of the country.
The film industry also offers great potential to attract visitors, whether from Hollywood or Bollywood. A film is being shot on the streets of Dublin with a company which will be located in the city for a number of weeks. This will generate much needed revenue and is great for the local economy. In addition, the scenery at all of the locations filmed will be shown on a worldwide stage, which is most important.
We must concentrate on and emphasise the food product we have available in this country, including artisan products for sale at country markets. We must get the catering industry to buy into and promote this aspect. Our image is of pollution free lands and rivers because we escaped the industrial revolution in other countries which will stand to our good in the coming years. We need to engage in much more promotion in this regard because there is a ready market available that we should develop.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill and wish to refer to the significance of the tourism industry to the island of Ireland. The Bill ensures there will not be a situation where Fáilte Ireland will not be able to provide funding, given that the tourism industry will play a unique part in our national recovery. Tourism is one of the key industries in which we hope to focus on job creation and also offers a way of stimulating domestic demand for local business.
I am Chairman of the Good Friday Agreement Implementation Committee and have meetings with Tourism Ireland on a regular basis. It is one of the all-island bodies formed under the Good Friday Agreement and one of its key objectives is to sell the island of Ireland abroad and to support Northern Ireland to reach its tourism potential. It has told me that it is seeing a change in international perceptions since the peace agreement. Year on year, more people see the island of Ireland as a safe place to visit, which is good news and correlates with the growth of our tourist market.
Tourism Ireland is funded by grants from Fáilte Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Its key action is to spread the message that Ireland is a good place to visit on holidays. It is focusing on key markets in Germany, the USA, France and Great Britain because these markets account for approximately three quarters of all overseas visitors. I note Deputy Fleming’s remarks about markets such as Russia and China being potentially large sources of tourists and that we could do more work in that regard. However, it is important to recognise that the vast majority of tourists comes from the four markets cited and these are the markets in which we can get best bang for our buck in terms of investment in the tourism industry.
The island is being sold abroad as one tourism commodity in order to bring international visitors to destinations on both sides of the Border. This is being done via on-line media, targeted promotional advertising and stands at festivals and trade events. Targeted events and campaigns are being used to focus on the Diaspora, for example. We are putting particular emphasis on the Scots-Irish and Ulster-Scots in the United States and Canada.
If any Member is interested, there are up-to-date figures available which show how the tourism industry is performing. I note Deputy Mulherin’s remark on the necessity of having such figures. We have them from as recently as this morning and they tell us there has been 10% growth in the first six months of the year, which is great news. For the Republic, the figure is 12%, with a slightly lower figure for the North. This is one of the consequences of the Government’s attempts to generate jobs through initiatives such as the 9% VAT rate for tourist and service industries. This has allowed us to compete and, as a result, attract more visitors to the country. The key factor in attracting additional tourists is ensuring we have something attractive for them to see.
For example, in 2013 Derry will be the UK’s City of Culture and I am sure we can expect many tourists to travel from that city to the Republic during at that time. In recent months, hordes of tourists attended events such as the Rose of Tralee and the Lisdoonvarna festival. This afternoon the Solheim Cup will begin in County Meath. This will be the largest golfing event to be held in the country in many years, and 80,000 visitors are expected to attend the event over the weekend. President McAleese is due to take part in the opening ceremony later today. Events of this nature, which are put together by many agencies, can assist in attracting additional tourists to the country. I congratulate Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and local tourism boards on their efforts in ensuring more tourists visit the country. The latter leads to the creation of many local jobs, which are badly needed at this stage.
Deputy Kevin Humphreys: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. I also welcome the increase in funding to €150 million for future capital investment. There are some fine examples of the impact such investment can have and one which comes readily to mind and which was opened recently is the Mayo greenway. This project, which has won wide acclaim, shows how we can generate tourism in an eco-friendly manner. As Deputy Hannigan stated, the tourism market has grown by 12% during the past six months. This is evidence of the investment the Government has made in the tourism sector through the jobs initiative and the reduction in VAT. It also highlights the impact of increased advertising in respect of quality holiday destinations in Ireland. There is a need to obtain value for money in respect of the money we are investing, and a long-term analysis must be carried out to ensure such value for money will be forthcoming. In that context, some form of review mechanism must be put in place.
There is one area in which there is major potential in respect of tourism in Ireland and that is the cruise ship industry. In the current year alone some 80 cruise ships will visit Dublin. This industry could be expanded to Cork and Galway. People who take cruises are high-end, valued tourists and they contribute to the economy in a substantial manner. I request that a proportion of the money we are intent on investing in tourism be set aside for the purpose of investigating the possibility of developing a terminal in this country at which cruise liners could commence and end their voyages. This would give rise to added value through the creation of additional bed nights. Evidence from other countries shows the benefits to which cruise liner terminals can give rise. For example, only ten years ago the city of Boston in the United States only received visits from 50 cruise liners per year. However, when a terminal was put in place, this number increased to between 80 and 100 per year and additional bed nights resulted. There is a great opportunity for Ireland to develop this type of high-end tourism product.
I am concerned with regard to one statistic, namely, that which relates to the service price and value. Tourism surveys show that the latter has been falling off in recent years. We must increase our efforts in this regard. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. If a tourist comes to Ireland, returns home and states that he or she had a good time and obtained good value, that is worth more than any newspaper or television advertisement. We must ensure tourists have a good experience when they visit this country.
I ask the Minister of State to give serious consideration to developing the aspect of the tourism industry which relates to cruise liners, particularly in respect of major cities such as Galway, Cork and Dublin. An investment in this regard would realise a massive return over a number of years. It must be remembered that when a cruise liner docks in a port, it brings with it approximately 3,500 tourists.
Deputy Seán Kenny: I welcome the Bill, the primary purpose of which is to allow the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to increase the level of funding to the National Tourism Development Authority — Fáilte Ireland — from €65 million to €150 million. In that context, I wish to refer to Howth Tourism, an organisation which comprises a group of businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors in Howth. The businesses to which I refer co-operate with each other to promote the town as a tourism destination for visitors from Ireland and abroad. Using its own funding, Howth Tourism has printed thousands of maps which highlight for visitors all the town has to offer. It has also developed a website and organised events and annual festivals to promote Howth as a tourism destination.
Not only does Howth Tourism want to sustain the 500 tourism related jobs that already exist in the town, it also wants to expand its efforts and activities. In that context, it is investigating the possibility of developing Howth, which has a number of very fine restaurants, as a destination for culinary tourists into the future. It is also seeking to attract tourists in search of outdoor pursuits such as hill walking. The summit of Howth Head and the peninsula on which the town is located are ideal for such pursuits. In addition, Howth Tourism is examining the possibility of developing the town as a destination for tourism related retail businesses.
I agree with Howth Tourism’s belief that there is a growing marine leisure industry in this country. There is obvious evidence in this regard with the Volvo ocean race and the tall ships race both taking place in and around the coast of Ireland. I would like Howth to capitalise on the potential in this area. The Burke-McIver report into fishery harbour centres, which was published in 2009, states that there is a huge opportunity to develop marine leisure pursuits in this country and makes specific reference to Howth in that context. Howth Tourism is working closely with Fáilte Ireland in developing a tourism strategy for the town and has been selected to lead the Dublin coastal villages project. Fáilte Ireland has also been investigating the marine leisure tourism business and I understand it will issue a new report later this month which will highlight the importance of this business.
One major obstacle to the development of Howth in the ways to which I refer relates to the fact that the harbour is under the management of the marine division of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I have learned that the harbourmaster in Howth has no tourism remit and is under no obligation to host events, activities or promotions in the harbour area. While I accept that the harbour is a working area and that this must be a primary consideration when examining the possibility of developing tourism activities, it is also the case that the working nature of the harbour impedes this development. As a result, there is a need to utilise the major attraction that is the harbour itself and also arrive at a point where tourism activities can be developed there in a way which will not interfere with the harbour’s operation, with shipping, and so on.
Any increase in funding that may be available should be used to enable Fáilte Ireland to work more closely with the marine division of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in order that a tourism function might be provided at Howth Harbour in the interests of exploiting the tourism potential that exists there. The issue of tourism in Howth Harbour is an excellent example of how what is envisaged in the Bill could be of benefit in developing tourism in general. I ask the Minister of State to pursue this matter with the relevant authorities to ensure that what I have outlined can be achieved in order that we might improve the position in respect of tourism.
Deputy Ann Phelan: As most of the previous speakers have already covered the points I wish to make, I will not, if Members will excuse the pun, labour those points. I welcome the Bill, which has been introduced at a time when opportunities to create jobs in the traditional industrial and support services sectors are severely limited. I also welcome the opportunity to examine ways for the State to invest in a tangible, people-intensive industry such as tourism. Fáilte Ireland was established in 2003 as a result of the need to streamline and integrate the delivery of the range of State supports relating to tourism activities and to facilitate product marketing and development, human resource development and training within the tourism industry. I am delighted that recovery of our market share in Britain is a priority in the Bill.
We could not have bought the type of exposure across the globe that Ireland enjoyed during the recent visits of President Obama and Queen Elizabeth ll. Not only did these visits do a great deal for our image abroad, they also made people here feel good about themselves. In the light of the bad times we have endured in recent years, it was great that everyone was so upbeat during the week in which the visits took place. We were delighted to take part in what occurred earlier this year.
In the context of capital projects, Rothe House in Kilkenny is a particularly fine example of a tourism product and the staff who work there are very committed to delivering a really good service to the many people who visit the house. I know they welcome a large number of visitors.
Kilkenny is known as the cultural heart of Ireland. However, I have not forgotten indigenous tourism which also needs to attract investment if alternative options are to be offered to the people. We must make an attempt to offer real value in valley periods of the market, in the interests of our balance of payments and in the light of the need to encourage people to invest in jobs at home. I can think of many alternative outdoor pursuits in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, including boating and fishing on the natural asset that is the River Barrow. There is excellent mountaineering and the very best of eco-tourism in the area. We need to increase the appreciation of our beautiful counties of Carlow and Kilkenny. Given that it is full of arts and crafts and heritage interests, it is right that Kilkenny is regarded as the cultural heart of Ireland.
State investment through the Government, Leader and other partnership groups, locally and regionally promoted tourism interests and local authorities deserves to be acknowledged and encouraged. I would like to see a link between all of these in order that there is no overlap of resources. Those involved with the Leader programme, the remit of which centres on rural development but also extends to tourism, are doing extremely good work. I would like to see a link with them also. Their interests must be embedded in whatever emerges from the changes to the National Tourism Development Authority Act.
Food is becoming a huge attraction for tourists. The many small food festivals throughout the country are hugely important for the economies of small communities and villages. I would like Fáilte Ireland to provide grant aid for these small festivals, if possible. Those who organise these events obtain a substantial return from the limited amount of voluntary work and resources for which they look. Perhaps we can support, or continue to support, such festivals. It should not be very difficult for them to fill in the various returns. They are looking for small amounts of money, on which they will deliver significantly.
Deputy Eric Byrne: I want to make a specific case for the development of serious tourism amenities in the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains region. It is fantastic that Dublin is ideally located with its bay, rivers and mountains in close proximity. Some of these mountains are on the doorstep of the capital, within a 15-minute drive. If one is up early enough on a Sunday morning, one can drive to the heart of the Wicklow Mountains from Dublin in one hour. If one does not want to go into the depths of the mountains, one can get to closer areas in half an hour. I know these mountains intimately and suggest their tourism potential has not yet been exploited.
Although there has been an increase in the level of domestic walking — usually involving clubs and groups — there has been no comparable increase in the number of walking tourists from overseas. Any capital city would be blessed to have such a spectacularly beautiful range of mountains on its doorstep. I accept that there is a national park in County Wicklow, but if we were really serious about attracting tourists to these mountains, we would start by managing them. It is intimidating and frightening to see the outrageous destruction being caused by excessive walking in certain areas. The use of motorbikes and quad bikes is destroying some of our pre-Christian cairns. If the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, has had the time to look at the damage done near Kilbride, he will know what I am talking about.
I applaud those charged with responsibility for the creation of facilities such as the wonderful boardwalk around Glendalough. If one travels away from that area on a misty day into the Wicklow Mountains proper — towards Lough Firrib, for example — one will not encounter any markings. Irish mountain ranges have practically no markings on their summits. There is usually no indication of how long it might take to get from one peak to another. I have walked in the High Tatras in France and on most of the mountains in Ireland. It is practically impossible to get lost while walking in France or in the High Tatras because the walks are so well marked. Markings tend to be painted on rocks or trees. In Ireland, however, we are in the infancy of the management of our mountains.
I appeal to the Minister of State to accept that the potential of our mountains is phenomenal and fantastic. There has been an increase in the footfall of local indigenous walkers, as I have said, but there has been no comparable increase in the number of tourists coming here to walk. If we are to attract such individuals, we must ensure they will feel safe in our mountain ranges and that the ways are marked. As the Minister of State is aware, weather conditions can change in minutes. The Wicklow Mountains are beautiful on a lovely sunny day, but the sun can disappear quickly. When the mist comes down, one can be in blizzard conditions before very long. I have experienced such conditions. It can be dangerous for those not well acquainted with maps and compasses. Statistics show how many have died or got lost on our mountains. Figures are available to show how frequently mountain rescue teams have to be brought out.
Deputy Eric Byrne: I believe someone had to be rescued in County Donegal the other day. The point I am making is that there is a phenomenal mountain range on the doorstep of the capital city. If one travels 30 minutes from the city, one can experience isolation, wilderness and pure beauty. However, we are not marketing these mountains properly.
I will conclude by congratulating those who help to maintain our mountain boardwalks. There is a little boardwalk on the way up Djouce Mountain from near Lough Dan. There is phenomenal erosion in areas not covered by these small boardwalks. The destruction caused by those who regularly bring quad bikes and mountain bikes onto the mountains is frightening. I remind the Minister of State that if we want to attract tourists, we need to manage our delicate mountain environment. Sadly, our mountain ranges are not being managed.
Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan: Time will tell whether I use all the time available to me. Having listened to Deputy Byrne, can I suggest a skiing industry be developed in the mountains he mentioned? It sounds like they have potential. I have to say I would be a little scared to go up them after hearing what the Deputy had to say. I do not like the idea that I might get caught on them.
I intend to vote in favour of this very good Bill. However, I would prefer if the cap was raised above the €150 million level proposed in the Bill. The country is short of money, obviously, but money is being spent on things we could do without. The footpath outside my house seems to be replaced every couple of years. No one asks for this to be done, but there is always money for it to be done. I would like the level of investment in the tourism industry to be ramped up beyond €150 million. The additional amount to be spent will be just over €100 million, because €43 million of the limited €65 million fund has already been spent. I would like this sum to be increased further. There is actually money available. We have lovely footpaths, as I said, and one would never have a problem getting anywhere on them. The problem is that when one uses them, there are not enough places to go to. It would be better to concentrate a little more on developing the destination, rather than the route to it.
When I learned I had to talk about the Bill for up to 20 minutes, I wondered what I could say about it for such a length of time. I suppose I would have no problem in talking for 20 minutes if I were to expand on its relevance to many other areas, as other Deputies seem to be doing.
There is massive potential for tourism to develop in those areas on which the industry has not concentrated. I am not saying one should not try to develop tourism further in Deputy Fleming’s area, Galway or Dublin where I accept tourist numbers have decreased. The potential for the industry to grow in such areas is more limited than it is in areas such as those from where I come. As I know my own locality best, I have more to say about it. It has massive tourism potential and there is absolutely wonderful access to it. This was not the case a number of years ago, but things have changed. There are two train lines going through my constituency — three, if one includes where it splits at Athlone and goes to Galway and to Westport. There is a fabulous airport at Knock which in my case, if one knows the correct road from my house, is only 17 minutes away. There is also one of the other major ingredients, potential accommodation. In our area, there are not enough hotels. That would require a great deal of investment. What there is, which suits family holidays, something I would not have understood a few years ago but do now that I have a family, is self-catering accommodation. Investment in this area could turn something that puts people off coming to many areas, namely ghost housing estates and empty apartment blocks, into a plus by developing these apartment blocks, where suitable. One would not put a tourist near some of them and if one put tourists in them, they would never come back to the country, but there is considerable potential in some areas. For example, there is an apartment block in my town with, I think, 35 empty apartments and nothing is happening with it bar that the bank we own now owns it. We own it and I suggest funding should be put in because then there would be accommodation in the area. There is access and accommodation, and there definitely is a product.
Galway, where I lived for many years, is a fabulous place, but is it eight times more interesting than south Leitrim and Roscommon? According to the figures in my possession, remarkably it is. Some €400 million was spent on tourism there in 2010, which is one hell of a figure considering how much of it has come back, but the most accurate comparable figure I could get for south Leitrim and Roscommon was €53 million. This is not an insult to where I come from, but we will never get to the level that Galway is at. If we aspire to reach one third the level of tourism revenue that Galway gets, then, going by the figures in my possession where for every €30,000 revenue created in this sector one gets a new job, we have the potential to create between 2,500 and 3,000 jobs.
We have the longest border with the River Shannon, the mightiest river in either Great Britain or Ireland, and its tributaries, including the River Suck. If one lives in an area, no more than those who live beside Niagara Falls who do not hear them anymore, you do not necessarily appreciate it. The River Suck was featured on a documentary on one of the national stations, either RTE or TG4, and after seeing it I thought it is such a fabulous river that one would nearly have to try not to get tourists in. Investment is needed in that area, for example, through, as Deputy Fleming and others stated, putting in fishing stands for those with a disability. The fishing stands would work equally as well for men and women — one would not need different ones. The Department needs to put in that infrastructure.
We are very close to having the perfect product but we need a little more investment to create a few more facilities in areas so there are clusters. As one of the Deputies opposite stated, tourists will not come for only one amenity; they will come for many. If there are a few amenities together, they will have a greater reason to come.
I do not know what it is in the nature of many Irish people that they are quick to run their own town down. I do not know why that is so but it spreads a negative message about an area. When one looks closely at rural areas such as mine, they are amazing. They are wonderful and unique. They offer something that Killarney, Dublin and Galway do not offer. They offer tranquility. One will not go to Galway city for tranquility. One will go there for a hell of a time rather than tranquility and we should be marketing and selling rural areas accordingly.
There are examples of where moving funding from areas, such as the building of unnecessary footpaths, into other projects can create significant employment. For example, in my first few weeks as a councillor I sought to get my local swimming pool opened all year round and was told there was not enough money. Over a six month period, they spent approximately €280,000 on three projects in my town that no-one wanted, no-one asked for and no-one would be bothered if they never happened, but the people would have been elated if that funding had been spent on the swimming pool, for local reasons as well as from the point of view of developing tourism.
I hope the Government will consider increasing this cap above €150 million because when one spreads around the country the €100 million that will be left after this, it will not go too far. If the Government did increase the cap, it would certainly pay for itself rather quickly. For example, the swimming pool project on which I am working needs €475,000, which would ensure a pool that is currently losing approximately €75,000 every summer — it is open for three months of the year — could be brought to a position where it would employ six or seven staff, would no longer lose money, would bring people into the local area and would be that last piece in the jigsaw in making family holidays viable. Also, with the €470,000 or €480,000 that the Government would spend on it, so much would come in in taxes, whether from the staff employed, VAT, etc. that one is not talking about such considerable expenditure, and yet one would have a final piece in a jigsaw which would make tourism viable in my area. As a parent who goes on holidays with his kids who always want to go to a swimming pool, if there is not one in an area, we do not go within miles of the place because it is no good. The same is the case for many who want to go on holidays.
Another matter mentioned earlier is the Internet and mobile technology using Bluetooth, etc. That must be developed much further. Many Members will have an app on their iPhone where they can tap the map, it zooms in on the area the more one taps, and it goes to any town in Ireland and reveals tags in individual businesses in each area on what is happening. This means that in areas such as mine — it is not sustainable to have a tourist office in every town as it would not make sense — one has now a virtual tourist office in every town. Whatever it would take to get more people in these areas onto those maps should be done so businesses which, perhaps, thought it was not worth their while would be given an incentive.
Another area that needs to be explored is that of more joined-up thinking. At this stage, it is nearly tedious to mention joined-up thinking, because it has been around for so long and no-one ever seems to adopt it. The Government can spend all of this money but tourism will not grow if it does not create a tie-in from all the other areas, such as the local authorities, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
I mention the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from the point of view of food tourism and developing the area of markets so that if a tourist comes into a town, he or she does not end up having to go to one of the German superstores, the only advantage of which is that they know exactly where the bread is because it is in the same place as where they came from. The Department should get involved in helping develop markets. Unfortunately, since the 1950s and the 1960s, when Ireland was far from perfect and when in many ways I would not have liked to lived there, a town such as mine, Roscommon town, Strokestown and Mohill in Leitrim, all had markets and were teeming with life. There were cows on the street and cabbage plants for sale. There was loads of different things, such as those one sees now in France and Italy. There was more life in evidence. If funding could be put into that area, which is why I think the funding the Department is spending on this needs to be raised, it would help considerably.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government needs to come on board on this because the countryside is strewn with rubbish and litter. When I was addressing this issue last week to the Minister, Deputy Hogan, I made the point that the polluter pays principle is a great idea but asked what happens if the polluter cannot afford to pay and what will the Department do as rubbish will end up in the wrong place. Also, there are many people who can afford to get rid of their rubbish but do not do it either — I am not picking out a particular person. Nevertheless, all of these items are required to be put right before we can maximise the potential of tourism.
There is also a role for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and especially local authorities when it comes to fixing a bad bend on a road. Although it is the policy of many councils to replace a ditch or hedging when they remove a bend, in general, one ends up with a chain-link fence and concrete posts which are not very attractive to tourists and for which they do not come here. There is also the replacement of stone walls with concrete mass structures. Are we trying to run people who come here out of the country? This is a recipe for disaster. They may believe they are saving money, but it will simply cost them a great deal more in the long run.
I have referred to ghost housing estates and how unsightly they appear, but there is also the issue of derelict buildings. There are derelict buildings in many towns throughout the country with which people have no money to do anything. If they try to do something with such a building, they must do certain things to maintain its heritage and must do so in the right way, rightly so. However, this often leads to a situation where it costs a ridiculous amount of money to do the work and the building falls into disrepair or down around everyone’s ears, which makes the place appear rather untidy and not the type of place to which one might wish to go on holiday.
We should concentrate on getting costs down also. My parliamentary assistant who must be too well paid, was on holidays in Germany two weeks ago. He came back with the news that one could have a slap-up meal and two pints in Berlin for €10. This is in Germany, a highly developed economy, possibly one of the most developed in the world. Where could one do that here? One cannot. One can buy a pint of beer in Berlin for €2.10 and it is nicer beer than what is produced here. We must bring down costs to try to compete with this and the way to do so is to do something about rates. My suggestion to bring them down is to get rid of all the directors of services and use the money spent on them to reduce rates. Also, we should get rid of 75% of councillors because they do not have any power; therefore, there is no point in having them. In that way one could reduce rates and businesses could bring down their costs. Obviously, people would be more likely to come here as a result.
The high level of wages is another issue. Wages do not appear to be especially high when one is living in this country because the cost of everything else is also high, including one’s mortgage. However, as long as there is a situation where someone working in an hotel has a €200,000 or €400,000 mortgage to service, we will never be able to bring down costs. Something must be done about the amount of people’s outputs if we are to become more competitive. The person who works in the Bierstube in Berlin does not have to pay out €1,000 or €2,000 to repay his or her mortgage and as a result does not need as much money on which to live. People here would be happier on less money if they could buy more with their money. In such circumstances visitors would be more likely to come here.
The euro currency has crippled us when it comes to the British market. The currency is fine for Germany and the Netherlands. It is appropriate for their economies, but it makes us highly uncompetitive. I realise everyone might be horrified at the prospect that we might be obliged to leave the euro, but I foresee many advantages if we could leave it in a managed way. At this stage being part of the euro is like being part of a religion my mother warned me against. She said, “It is easy to get in, but they will not let you back out again.” This seems to be the case with the euro.
All of these measures could help. Certainly, I do not have all the answers, but some of my suggestions could help greatly. Those living in areas such as where I come from will not see a vast number of jobs being created by multinationals in the years ahead; therefore, we must go with what we have. They cannot transfer our beauty spots to another country and the jobs with them. They cannot take our great food which we can continue to produce forever. I will vote for this measure. I would prefer to see more money being invested because it would be the best money ever spent in the country if done in the right way since the potential of the tourism industry is phenomenal in the area from which I come and other similar areas that have not been exploited to their true and full potential.
Deputy Frank Feighan: I welcome the Bill. In recent years tourism and agriculture have been largely forgotten about. There had been a strong market during the years, but, unfortunately, we experienced the so-called building boom. When people were selling houses to one another, we took our eye off the potential of the tourism industry. I welcome the Government’s announcements, especially on Lough Rynn in my constituency, where funding has been granted for a rowing centre. This is part of the thinking outside the box of how to invest in local tourism ventures.
Before I became involved in politics, I was involved in an action group, the Lough Key Forest Park action group. Coillte was handed a vast park and had no mandate to make money from tourism initiatives. As a consequence, it could do nothing with the park. I brought the matter to the attention of the local authority and people in the area sought control of the park. They were afraid that, being a semi-State body, Coillte could sell it. At the time funding was available from the European Regional Development Fund which was able to grant aid any project to a figure of 80%. I approached the then local authority manager with a proposal and suggested the local authority get involved with Coillte in order that we could draw down project funding of €8 million from the European Union. The total cost would be €10 million. However, the manager declined my proposal, suggesting it presented too much of a risk. Some eight years ago a new country manager arrived and we had a sum of €2 million. We received €8 million from the European Union and now Lough Key Forest Park attracts more than 200,000 visitors per year. It has resulted in significant investment in the area but it is also a win-win for the local authority. There is a facility worth approximately €10 million which forms part of the tourism infrastructure and more could take place there.
I agree with Deputy ‘Ming’ Flanagan that a great deal more could be attained from investment in tourism. I thank the Government for getting rid of the travel tax. This provided an incentive and reducing the VAT rate has also brought down costs. However, there is more to be done. I travel to Germany, the United Kingdom and France where accommodation is a good deal cheaper. Previously, we lost sight of the fundamentals. One must offer value and a welcome. We have brought down costs in the past two years. However, prior to that, it was galling and embarrassing. I recall travelling to Switzerland 25 years ago. We almost could not afford to buy a drink because it was so expensive. When I returned there three years ago, the price of a pint was two thirds of the cost in Ireland which shows that we lost sight of what was happening and that we had killed the market by raising prices here.
There are many initiatives that could be taken. We should consider the position of the United Kingdom. However, we have a unique selling point, that is, the Irish welcome which we should exploit. We should consider what has taken place during the years. I am keen to see certain things happen. In this regard, the provision of walking routes and cycleways is important. The Government has provided for some investment to open cycle paths and there is talk of getting people from A to B, but in Holland it is easy to cycle 40 to 50 miles because the cycle paths and other infrastructure is in place.
There are many aspects, such as our music and heritage. Many people who come to Ireland visit places like Croghan in Roscommon. We have a great difficulty with Ryanair and Aer Lingus flights coming into Dublin because we need to get people away from the city. It is our fault as well in that we will go to Paris or Düsseldorf and then tell everyone we have been to France or Germany.
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