Thursday, 29 September 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Frank Feighan: I take great pleasure in contributing to the debate. I come from a constituency that has been very much reliant on agriculture and tourism. The agriculture sector went through a difficult period but it has recovered. We are competing with other interests in the context of tourism. I grew up in Boyle, a small town, and 25 years ago, we had a thriving tourism industry based around Lough Key forest park and fishing. Every town and village along the River Shannon was visited annually by English fishermen who fished for trout, bream and pike. They were very much part of the community as they stayed in local pubs, bed and breakfast accommodation or hotels. Every night they joined the locals for a few drinks and there was great interaction between everybody with conversations concentrating on fishing and football and so on.
My constituency stretches from Roscommon town to the Border and, at the time, the English fishermen never allowed the Troubles in Northern Ireland to get in the way of travelling here. Every year they visited the area and they would come into my shop in the morning to buy newspapers and cigarettes but, unfortunately, we priced ourselves out of the market and a major issue emerged in regard to coarse fishing as the fish seemed to disappear. I have raised this question over the years and no matter what anybody says, the same volume of fish is not in our rivers as before. English fishermen now visit Holland and Denmark to fish large ponds. We lost sight of the fundamentals of a tourism industry, as we priced ourselves out of this revenue stream. The same happened with boating on the River Shannon. Tourists would visit every year from Germany and Austria to hire boats from Guinness cruisers and Carrickcraft. At the time it was expensive to do so but it was within their budget. We again priced ourselves out of that. Many of the boats that serviced the canal between Ballyconnell and Ballinamore have been transferred by major companies to France because we priced ourselves out of the market.
Lough Rynn Castle Hotel and Kilronan Castle Hotel and Spa opened in the area in recent years but we need more quality accommodation at budget prices. I was involved in the Lough Key forest park action group many years ago. In the 1980s, the park attracted 200,000 visitors annually and it was a major part of the local economy but it was allowed to deteriorate. In recent years, many initiatives have been undertaken with more than €10 million spent. However, if we had relied on the local authorities, Bord Fáilte and Coillte to think outside the box, nothing would have been done. The European Regional Development Fund provided 80% funding for tourism facilities but the park was owned by Coillte and it could not draw down the funding because it was a semi-State body. The local authority did not have access to the park and, therefore, I suggested that the council should take over part of the park in partnership with Coillte before applying to Brussels for the €8 million required to upgrade it. The officials who should have been running our business did not think that this was on. The local authority then went into partnership with Coillte. We now have control of the park following the investment of €10 million and it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. It is wiping its face but, more important, it is providing the foundation for tourism infrastructure in the west and we need more rooms to live off it.
I thank the Minister of State for his generosity in providing money for cycle and pedestrian paths between the park and Boyle town. Cycle paths and walking routes are the way forward. For example, if one takes a trip to Holland, one can stay in a town, cycle 50 or 60 miles the following day at a leisurely pace and then stop off for dinner before staying somewhere else. That is the way forward in this country, particularly in the midlands, and it would be beneficial to create these routes near rivers. Funding was also secured for a cycle path beside the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal. These were welcome developments and they have provided a new tourism product. Many people are also driving to the new cycle path between Westport and Mulranny in County Mayo. It is 30 km long and it is a great way to spend a day.
The OPW is in receipt of significant funding. If its officials had been thinking outside the box over the years, they would never have allowed Lough Key Forest and Activity Park to be put in the hands of a semi-State body such as Coillte. They should have recognised this as a major jewel in the crown in the context of our national parks and they should have taken control of it. The reason for this is the OPW had a set budget, which it spent on the same projects, and officials did not bother thinking outside the box. They do a great deal of good work but they have access to significant resources, which could be redistributed in consultation with voluntary organisations. King House, the home of the Connaught Rangers, is located in Boyle. During the Great War, many young men left the west to fight for freedom. They had been forgotten about but King House has been converted into a museum to honour the rangers.  The house has a significant and varied past in the context of the Easter Rising and the Great War and that has been recognised. Roscommon County Council, in particular, has invested significantly in this attraction and it is trying to maintain funding. However, we need to think outside the box regarding how these sites are developed and operated. An organisation similar to the National Trust could be established through which local volunteers could use the available resources because they know what is needed locally and many of them want to be part of the provision of tourism facilities in their communities. The OPW and other bodies could work together to ensure resources are better used while involving the community because the goodwill is there.
Agricultural tourism is becoming more important. During the Celtic tiger era, the generation of income in the agriculture industry was forgotten about. We decided we would have an economy based on international finance but effectively what we were doing was selling houses to one another, and we know where that got us. We are now back to thinking straight and I am pleased that agriculture, and agri-tourism, is doing well but we must put greater emphasis on tourism because 200,000 earn their living from the industry. With a little work we can increase that figure enormously. Incentives such as the reduction in the airport travel tax are welcome as is the reduction in VAT from 13.5% to9%, which will encourage people to go out and buy a cup of coffee. Many restaurant and coffee shop owners have telephoned me to say that VAT reduction gave them the incentive to hire extra staff.
We must develop centres of excellence. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has generously given a huge grant to Lough Rynn for a rowing centre, for which I thank him. This is an ideal lake as it is located in the centre of the country and is easily accessible from both Belfast and Dublin. That is the type of development we need. It has the facilities in place with the hotel beside it. That is an exciting development and is a way of looking at a different aspect of tourism.
There is another opportunity I have been examining for our own forest park. There are many thermal spas in Europe. For those Members who do not know what they are it is where the warm water comes up from the ground. They are in Budapest and elsewhere. Geothermal drilling is done three or four km into the ground to reach the water and it provides electricity for the national grid. We could examine providing water for an outdoor thermal spa, even in Dublin. We could do something in St. Stephen’s Green or the Phoenix Park. The water is below ground. The project may cost hundreds of thousands or millions of euro but it would be another aspect of tourism to consider. When one travels to Budapest in the middle of winter one wonders whether to go for a pint or to the cinema but another option is to sit outdoors in one of these thermal spas and be warm.
This is something that could attract people to this country and it would also provide electricity for the national grid. I am aware that one company with whom I have had discussions is drilling in Newcastle, in south Dublin. We would be providing electricity for the grid and it is something we should examine. I am aware the Minister is open to suggestions and that he will consider this aspect. He might also ensure it would go into Lough Key Forest Park, which is in the exciting Carrick-on-Shannon, Boyle, Drumshanbo and River Shannon tourism region. Our transport, car hire, food and accommodation costs have come down and we must keep our eye on the ball as regards tourism.
We must get more flights into Knock Airport which has an excellent management team. If the same management team was in charge of the Dublin Airport Authority we would not have the same problems and the white elephants we have now. That team is in charge of an airport in an area that otherwise would not have an airport. The members of the team have shown great professionalism and ingenuity in ensuring that more flights come into the country, although more flights are leaving the country as well.
A great deal has been done to promote surfing in this country. Every time I travel home from Dublin cars with surf boards on them pass me travelling back from the west or the north west. What has happened in that regard is phenomenal. Surfing championships were held recently in Bundoran and people came from all over the world to attend them. Who would have thought that would happen here? When we thought of surfing many years ago we thought of countries like Hawaii or elsewhere but they are surfing on the west coast of Ireland in their wetsuits, and they have all the rain gear also. I am sure the Minister has done his own surfing off the west coast as well.
Deputy Frank Feighan: That development was not of our own making. It was the Irish welcome and perhaps the pub culture or whatever but it is now on our doorstep and we did not notice it. We now see all those cars with surf boards on them travelling back to Dublin in the middle of winter. In Dublin Airport one can see people flying in from the United States to surf in Ireland. That must be recognised and welcomed, and it is the way forward.
Over the years we lost sight of the fundamentals of the tourism industry. We are now beginning to realise that this is the way forward and, working together, we will ensure that we can continue to have a tourism industry, and that there will be the Irish welcome once again.
I welcome the contribution by the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Michael Ring, on the Bill last weekend and commend the approach of the Department on this issue. I am aware the Bill is merely technical in nature but I welcome the lifting of the cap on the level of advances that may be made to the National Tourism Development Authority out of the capital moneys provided by the Oireachtas.
The Bill also provides us with ample opportunity to debate the issue of tourism. It allows us to step back and take a comprehensive look at the way we plan to prioritise tourism to improve revenue streams into this country from abroad and provide a boost to the Exchequer. Crucially, we also know that supporting tourism means supporting jobs. There is huge potential for job creation considering how employment rich the tourism industry can be.
The Bill states that the moneys provided are to support enterprises and projects relating to the development of tourist traffic and tourist facilities and services. I fully support the prioritisation of tourism in this way.
When this Government came into power, the reputation of this country on the international stage was at an all-time low. Our international reputation would not have encouraged people to visit here, and the figures bear that out. Tourism Ireland statistics for 2009 show that visitor numbers decreased by 12% and tourism revenue fell by 19%. Despite that, however, I commend the work of the National Tourism Development Authority, or Fáilte Ireland as most people know it, in its efforts to boost tourism, particularly when tourist numbers here are reflective of the global economic downturn and falling trends in international tourism.
Despite the reduction in the numbers of visitors to Ireland, recent CSO figures show that the numbers of Irish people travelling abroad are also decreasing. Fáilte Ireland has rightly seen this as an opportunity to encourage Irish people to holiday at home and to develop the domestic tourism market.
Fáilte Ireland’s tourism barometer for 2011 shows that the picture is already improving. For example, 43% of Irish hotels, 41% of self-catering accommodation and 46% of golf clubs reported an increase in business this year compared to their figures for 2010.
This Government is working hard to ensure we can hold our heads high on the international stage again. We must make Ireland an attractive place to visit once more. The Government made a serious commitment to tourism from the outset with its €8.5 million initiative to support inbound tourism from key overseas markets. The visa waiver scheme, for example, is an imaginative approach. Its aim is to boost tourism. The reduction in VAT in certain service industries was well received, bringing prices down in restaurants and hotels across the country.
Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor: However, the Government can only do so much and each of us is beholden to be an ambassador for our country. We cannot accept a rip-off culture. Hotels and restaurants must offer good value and high standards of food and accommodation
I hope you will forgive me, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and give me one extra minute so I can extol the virtues and tourism potential of my area, Dún Laoghaire. When I speak of the Dún Laoghaire area, I am talking about Blackrock, Killiney, Glasthule, Sandycove and Dalkey. Yesterday, I attended a briefing on tourism in Dalkey and I was encouraged by the co-operation between Dublin Tourism and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. Dún Laoghaire tourism received an unfortunate setback recently with Stena’s announcement that it is to cancel the HSS winter service from Holyhead to Dún Laoghaire. I am concerned that little attention has been paid to this issue. I understand the route had become unviable for Stena, particularly in light of rising fuel prices. However, the summer service must be retained so as to promote tourism in Dún Laoghaire. Jobs are also threatened. We must ensure that those jobs are retained so that we can have a summer service and bring tourists into Dún Laoghaire.
Local people are fighting to promote Dún Laoghaire themselves. We know that, as a beautiful harbour town, it really has something unique to offer. There is no point in our trying to compete for shoppers with the likes of Dundrum. The aim is to reposition Dún Laoghaire as a marine and leisure tourist destination. The plan for a diaspora centre is a clever one as it seeks to capitalise on the current public interest in genealogy. As Dún Laoghaire looks to the future, it is important that we are cognisant of our past and our common heritage. It is important, too, to remember the many people who left our shores in search of a better life. Projects such as the planned diaspora centre serve as a reminder that, while times are hard at present, we must work together to build a better Ireland.
The Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, the local authority, the business association and the chamber of commerce have done commendable work. We have restored the Metals project and put a new walkway over the DART line. Our National Maritime Museum is undergoing refurbishment. Dalkey Heritage Centre has ongoing events promoting the history and heritage of the area. The Pavilion Theatre is renowned for the high standards of its dramatic and musical performances. The recently launched Dún Laoghaire harbour masterplan has real potential for tourism, including a plan for the establishment of a diaspora centre. Dún Laoghaire harbour wishes to reposition itself as a destination for cruise tourists from around the world and I believe this should be explored. This summer saw numerous successful events and festivals in Dún Laoghaire which attracted international and domestic tourists in their thousands. Examples include the Solitaire du Figaro yacht festival, the third biggest sporting event in France; the Dún Laoghaire Mountains to Sea Book Festival; the Red Bull flugtag, which brought more than 100,000 people into the town; and the first celebration of Bloomsday in Dún Laoghaire town.
Deputy Jim Daly: On a serious note, that kind of competition between areas is great. We need more of it in order to bring out the best and the unique, wonderful diversity that Ireland has to offer. That is our strongest selling point.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. We often say that a debate is important, but this one is important because tourism has stood the test of time and shown itself to be sustainable, and it is a growing industry that is reaping great rewards. It is a clean industry and one with tangible results that spread far and wide. It is not restricted by place or by people but can move and fluctuate around any part of the country. I am delighted the Government has regarded tourism as important from day one. There is great evidence of that in many of the measures we have taken to date, particularly the jobs initiative. The specific, targeted initiatives directed at the tourism sector leave no one in any doubt about how much value the Government places on tourism. I recognised how seriously the Government takes tourism and that it has placed it firmly at the top of its priorities when I learned of the appointment of the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ring. We do not have a harder working Minister or one with more energy — I say that in all seriousness — so I was thrilled to see Deputy Ring go into the Department. I know the appointment is a measure of how seriously tourism is taken by the Taoiseach and the rest of the Administration. I wish the Minister every success and hope his energy will be put to wonderful use in the years ahead.
West Cork is a well-known and renowned tourist destination. I suppose its beauty is in the place, the sights that it holds and the food, which has a strong reputation. Without doubt, its people also represent a big attraction That has been shown in a number of surveys by Fáilte Ireland. When it asked visitors why they came to various parts of Ireland, the people came out at the top of the list of responses. The friendliness and unique character of the people is our biggest attraction. We must not lose sight of that. The district of Clonakilty, which I represent, was recognised as the first European destination of excellence back in 2007. We are very proud that it was the first destination in Ireland to be recognised by Europe. A number of other destinations have been recognised since then. I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of it but we just pipped Westport to take that coveted title. I hope he will not hold that against us and that it will not limit our opportunities in future. I am confident that Westport will have its day.
Notwithstanding the successes, we also have a number of challenges. One of the biggest challenges we have identified in growing the tourism industry in west Cork to an even bigger level is the lack of infrastructure for rainy days. As someone once said, this would be a beautiful country if we could only roof it, and that challenge continues in many areas. In west Cork it is a constant challenge to provide indoor activities and entertainment, which are particularly important for the family-friendly holidays we need at a time when we are trying to attract more families. We hope the budgetary process will allow for and facilitate an increase in the allocation of funding to the tourism authority, and we hope such an increase will come into play sooner rather than later. I urge the Government to continue its efforts to grow the infrastructure that will support indoor attractions and amenities.
Price competitiveness is another area in which we have to work collectively, and we have taken steps towards that under the jobs initiative. The industry is working hard and the hotel sector has been to the fore in cutting prices, but there are other areas where prices and competitiveness are still a challenge, such as little restaurants and cafes. We also have the continual challenge of connectivity through our airports and getting people into the area.
Deputy Joe Carey: I welcome the Bill and the opportunity to speak on the tourism industry. Since being appointed as Minister of State in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Michael Ring has taken on his brief with passion and enthusiasm. I thank him for taking such a special interest in County Clare. He has visited us on a number of occasions since he became Minister. To follow on from what Deputy Daly said, during the summer months, when I was on holiday in west Cork, I heard the Minister being interviewed on Matt Cooper’s radio programme. I want to put it on the record that the Minister played an absolute blinder in focusing on the positives of tourism in that interview. I know Mayo and Westport are particularly close to his heart, but we should export him at every available opportunity to sell the positives about Ireland, because his enthusiasm is infectious and it would go a long way towards filling jumbo jets and ferries with people and bringing them to Ireland. I congratulate him on the way in which he has begun his tenure in office.
Tourism is of vital importance to our economy. In 2010, the total spend by overseas visitors and domestic tourists was estimated to be some €4.7 billion. This year we have experienced a most notable and welcome increase in people travelling from Britain and North America. Coupled with this encouraging news are the data relating to visitors travelling from European countries being up by over 17%. This year in particular, Irish people bought into the concept of staying at home in Ireland for their holidays and in so doing gave a massive lift to the tourism industry.
It is important to keep this momentum and build upon this growth. The Bill before us today provides for that momentum to continue because it will enable the State to facilitate Fáilte Ireland continuing its programme of investment in capital expenditure on projects or enterprises. As the fund has been reduced to just €20 million it is now necessary to bring forward this amending legislation to increase the cap. I welcome the fact that agreement has been reached between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to establish a new legislative cap of €150 million.
The growth experienced in tourism was stimulated in part by the decision made in the jobs initiative to reduce from 13.5% to 9% the level of VAT that applies to labour intensive tourism services. The halving of employer’s PRSI for those on modest wages has given employers a real incentive to employ people in the tourism industry. Over the coming months and up to the Olympics 2012 we will also see the benefit of the visa waiver programme.
The New Horizons tourism action plan identified in 2006 a concern that Ireland’s tourism product had become somewhat tired and lacking in verve for many tourists. This weakness is borne out by the fact that in the years up to 2009, the number of visitors to Ireland who thought the overall experience was either poor or very poor showed a significant increase. The industry is obviously facing key challenges related to competitiveness, product renewal and innovation. The future key to success must be value for money. Having said this, tourism figures recently released covering the period to the end of July 2011 highlight the continued growth in overseas tourist numbers in comparison to 2010. Overseas trips to Ireland increased by 9.4% to 1,948,800, with increases in visitors from mainland Europe, Britain and North America. The largest percentage increase in tourist numbers, at 18% and 200,000 visitors, comes from the market designated as “other”. This indicates a lot of untapped potential around the world in markets and countries we may not have traditionally focused on when we sell Ireland as a destination.
I am delighted that this week in my own constituency of Clare, we had the announcement by Shannon Development that it is seeking tenders for the potential development of 120 acres adjoining Bunratty Folk Park and Castle along the lines of a theme park. A project such as this could have a significant impact on the whole of the mid-west and western region. The fact the lands are so close to Shannon Airport makes international accessibility easy. It is a project that is tailor made for aspects of this Bill. I would hope that this project will progress to the stage where Fáilte Ireland becomes involved.
At a different level, but just as important in scale, we saw last week the establishment of a sea-plane service, based at Mountshannon on the shores of Lough Derg. This is just the beginning of a service that is envisaged to link a beautiful part of east Clare with the rest of Ireland, the Aran Islands and indeed international destinations. It is this type of thinking and initiative we should facilitate and I hope that with the provisions of this Bill we will be in a position to do so.
I would also cite the potential regarding projects such as the provision of a pedestrian cable suspension bridge at Bishop’s Island, which is located off the Loop Head peninsula just outside Kilkee in County Clare. It is interesting to note that in this area of west Clare this summer the opening to the public of the Loop Head lighthouse has been an enormous success. A combination of many small ideas can provide a most attractive package for a geographical area. I would hope that this is borne in mind and that the headline projects do not take up all available funding.
I welcome the creation by this Government of the new Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. There is an obvious link between transport and tourism which has been copperfastened with the establishment of this new Department. I look forward to the synergy that will be created as a result of combining transport and tourism.
Shannon Airport is the key driver of economic activity in County Clare, the mid-west and western regions. In this regard, I welcome the invitation made by the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to the boards of Shannon, Cork and Dublin Airports for their views on how they would see the airports operating independent from the DAA. I have for a number of years advocated the path now being pursued by the Minister and have strongly suggested this approach in my discussions with him since the formation of the present Government. The Minister is fully aware of the importance of Shannon Airport to balanced regional development. The future of our airport is dependent on a proactive approach by Government and this initiative by the Minister clearly demonstrates that the indifference of the previous Administration in this, and so many other matters, is at an end.
A new Shannon Airport, with a new dynamic, energised and committed board, will in a relatively short period of time demonstrate what can be achieved. This board must be policy driven, with a policy which is anchored on a commitment to having a viable airport serving the needs of the region. To meet those diverse needs we should not necessarily reject state ownership. Any narrow vision that might suggest that Shannon is just an airport serving the narrow needs of an airport community must be rejected. The new Shannon Airport must integrate and interface with the various interests in the region who depend on the airport for their success and survival.
Those interests include those involved in the industry, tourism, education and balanced regional development. I look forward to further engagement with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on this issue. Put bluntly, it has been clear now for some time that the current structure has failed our airport. There is an opportunity now for a new and invigorating initiative for our airport which can benefit the region as a whole and bring significant national benefits and we must not let this opportunity pass.
The Tourism Research Forum is currently meeting in the Gibson Hotel. There is quite a line up of speakers, including some from the IT colleges, an important area in this sector. The courses they run in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland are vital and I hope those courses will not be diminished in any way.
We would all love to be a tourist on a day like today, with the lovely sunshine. We must look at Ireland as a holiday destination for those coming from abroad and for Irish people; that is what the tourism industry is about. Those holidays are also a source of jobs and tourism generates a great deal of revenue. On Private Members’ business this week, the Technical Group tabled a motion on jobs and the devastating effect job losses have been having on people and we all accept employment is central to economic growth. Some of us are extremely disappointed the State is still investing funds to honour the gambling debts of unguaranteed bondholders instead of investing the money in a job stimulus programme. I noted the Tánaiste’s remarks today, however, about announcements that will be made in the near future.
Tourism provides significant employment although it is difficult to get accurate figures for this. The Central Statistics Office gives the numbers directly employed in the hotels, restaurants, bars and catering while Fáilte Ireland’s figures include those working in other aspects of tourism and the hospitality industry. Some of them are part-time, some full-time and some of the work is seasonal.
This Bill seeks to increase the level of funding that can be provided for Fáilte Ireland for capital expenditure projects. The report by Fáilte Ireland, “Tourism Product Development Strategy”, stated that less support should be provided for accommodation, with more investment in tourism infrastructure. We can agree that we do not need any more hotels. Many hotels have been proactive in providing value in the breaks and programmes they are offering, a welcome relief from the astronomical prices some were charging during the economic boom. We need to make the same point about our restaurants, which charged ferocious prices in the Celtic tiger times when we were not getting value for money. Those prices did a disservice to our food industry and our great array of products, including meat, cheeses, breads, jams and honeys. The IFA’s recent invitation to Oireachtas Members to sample a display of food and wares demonstrated that. The RDS Christmas craft fair also has fantastic arrays of Irish foods and other produce.
There is a strong rationale for continued investment in the tourism sector. Apart from the employment aspect, it generates taxes for the Exchequer and attracts foreign and domestic revenue. A downside of the Celtic tiger was the extent of foreign holidays and shopping trips which certain sectors of Irish society enjoyed. We saw a decline in tourist visits here, both by Irish people and foreigners. We did not provide value for money, with a consequent drop in revenue. I was disappointed to see this reflected in a survey of visitors who were asked to consider their Irish tourism experience. Very good or good value ratings fell from 62% in 2000 to 28% in 2009. The number of visitors who rated their experience as poor or very poor increased from 12% to 40% in the same period. The survey covered the cost of eating out, drinking and the general cost of living. We have had a number of reports, and it is time to move on from them and take action. Tourism numbers peaked at 7.7 million in 2007 but declined to 5.8 million last year. I hope these figures are now on a upward trend. Taxation revenue from tourism in 2009 was €1.3 billion.
I was fortunate in having parents who felt it was important to see one’s own country first. We travelled the length and breadth of Ireland and became aware of what our country has to offer. We have the most amazing natural scenery — coastlines, mountains, cliffs, lakes and rivers — in all 32 counties. Our islands were neglected at various stages. I am struck by how the Blasket islanders were treated. Someone who lived there remarked to me that if a fraction of the money spent on the Blasket interpretative centre, fine as it is, had been available in the 1950s, the islanders might never have had to leave their homes. There was also a Government attempt to move people off Tory Island. Islands are a tourist attraction. We see people visiting them, creating revenue for them and seeing what they have to offer. The same is true of Gaeltacht areas.
We have historical tourist attractions such as Newgrange, which is older than the pyramids, the Céide Fields, Dún Aengus, An Grianán, Gallurus, Sceilg Mhíchíl and Clonmacnoise. Our historical tourism is extremely valuable and popular with visitors to our cities, particularly Dublin. We have wonderful museums just outside the door of Leinster House. The Hugh Lane Gallery and Trinity College are very near to Leinster House. Dublin has beautiful Georgian squares, and there are two on the north side of the city. I sometimes think politicians from abroad spend all their time on the south side of the Liffey. There are many opportunities to travel to the north side.
It is strange to think there were once plans to knock down Kilmainham Jail. I appeal for the appropriate restoration of the area surrounding the GPO, Moore Street, Moore Lane and Parnell Street, which is associated with the Easter Rising. Last week, I stood in the house in Moore Street where the leaders of the rising discussed the surrender. It was moving to be there but appalling to see the neglect of the building. Other restorations have been done very well. I note the restoration of Killarney House and I do not begrudge the millions of euro spent on it. However, I hope the locations associated with the Easter Rising will get the same attention. I compliment the guides in historical sites. Their training and personalities are wonderful.
Our literature has brought in cultural tourists. They follow in the steps of Patrick Kavanagh along the Grand Canal, Oscar Wilde, Seán O’Casey or James Joyce. Dublin City Libraries are currently running a terrific series of events in a variety of venues in Dublin commemorating great writing. The Four Courts will be the venue for an event called Scales of Justice, which will involve our modern crime writers such as Declan Hughes and Stuart Neville. I should also mention our theatres. The Dublin Fringe Festival, which is a great outlet for new talent, has just finished and the Dublin Theatre Festival is beginning. These promote Ireland as a tourist destination.
Every part of Ireland has done its best in organising local festivals. On the north side of Dublin we have the Five Lamps Arts Festival and Phizzfest. In my own area of East Wall our forthcoming history week will commemorate Seán O’Casey who lived in East Wall and North Wall. In central Dublin many communities are planning their Hallowe’en festivals. I am conscious of how much we have to offer. The Irish Film Board and the Arts Council have all contributed.
Sport is also important. The Minister of State attended this year’s Dublin Horse Show, which had a prize fund of almost €1 million. Golf, horse-racing, surfing championships in Donegal, the Rose of Tralee Festival and the Eurovision Song Contest all showcase Ireland and do wonders for ourselves as well as for the tourist industry.
A festival will be held in Cork this weekend called, Folk the Recession. Great Irish artists will play there. Our music is another major selling point. Other selling points include the range of accommodation we have, from luxury hotels to caravans, self-catering accommodation, farmhouses and our famous bed and breakfast establishments. Our weather is also a selling point. People do not come here for the sun. I recently met someone from one of the gulf states. He told me that when the temperature reaches the forties and fifties in those countries, all middle and upper income people leave for Europe. Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland could be proactive in those states.
Our transport system has improved immensely. The coach system is excellent, although our rail system can be expensive, depending on where one is going. Another selling point is our lack of distance. We are never too far from anything. In the United States, for example, one has a sense that each state has a different feeling. One can come to Ireland and get a sense of the whole country. We are making progress in providing facilities for people with disabilities but we cannot lose sight of this area.
Our current pub culture comes in for much negative criticism but our traditional pubs were places of meeting and conversation. They were not the super-pubs which are associated with binge drinking or with stag parties and hen parties, which do not give a positive impression of Ireland. Our biggest selling point is our people and the way we engage with visitors. Our people will get us out of the recession.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on Second Stage of the National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2011. While there has been much emphasis on the technical nature of the Bill, this should not undermine its purpose. Technical changes can be very important in bringing about improvements to the services we provide for our people. The Bill endeavours to bring about the next step in ensuring that every tool and instrument available to the State is fully utilised and harnessed. I commend the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and the Government on their approach in that regard.
Since the Government took office in February it has put a number of measures in place to help domestic tourism. Many of them have been alluded to by my colleagues. The jobs initiative was important and the visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama gave us an opportunity to showcase the many talents of the country and the warm welcome we can afford to international visitors.
The Olympic Games are to be hosted in London in 2012. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has had great success in terms of changes to visa regulations to allow people coming to the Olympics from afar to visit Ireland for a short period. Such visitors might not take that opportunity if they were not in a neighbouring country for the Olympic Games. The Department was also successful in getting the Olympic torch to visit this soil. Many people would have said these things simply would not happen but the Department has delivered. I commend the Minister for that.
The measures taken by the Office of Public Works to open various sites in each of our counties is a welcome development. Allowing free admission into these sites is an incentive not alone to foreign tourists but domestic tourists such as families who wish to experience more of our country but may be prohibited from doing so owing to cost. I welcome that.
The nub of the issue — Deputy Joe Carey referred to this in passing earlier — is that this Government on taking office decided to take tourism seriously and has brought together different strands of Departments to create a real economic Department. The new Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is responsible for all that we need to get this country back to work and to increase tourism numbers. The results to date have been positive.
The former Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism was viewed and ridiculed by the media as the Department of fun. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has brought together all the necessary strands in the new Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Infrastructure, the sporting talents of this country and our ability to market that on the international stage have been brought together under one Department, which is to be welcomed.
Fáilte Ireland recently upped its game, which I welcome. I represent County Wicklow. While many speakers were competing earlier about whose county is the best to visit, Wicklow is aptly, fondly and deservedly known as the garden of Ireland and as such wins that competition. Up to recently Fáilte Ireland referred to Wicklow and other counties as being on the doorstep of Dublin. That was the strategy for Wicklow. People who came to Dublin on their holidays were encouraged to pop down the road to Wicklow for the day and to return then to Dublin to eat in its restaurants and stay in its hotels. There was a real need for Fáilte Ireland to diversify and to ensure that the unique selling point of every county and region was put to work. I am delighted with Fáilte Ireland’s new Kildare-Wicklow strategy which recognises that counties within commuter distance of Dublin have a distinct identity and should be marketed in that way. That is a positive development.
The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has specific responsibility for sport. We must put our sporting talents and achievements to work. Following Ireland’s spate of golf wins, Ryanair ran an interesting advertisement in the British media which stated “Come to Ireland Home of Golf”. It also used the term “Come to Ireland Home of Cricket” on another occasion. We must market our country as a place for people with an interest in sport to visit. We should go further and look to some of our internationally known sports stars to front tourism campaigns and to be the face of extending an invitation to visit Ireland.
As I see it, the big problem for tourism at local level is a lack of co-ordination. I was previously a member of Wicklow Town Council, Wicklow County Council, the board of directors of Wicklow Tourism and the Greystones Town Council tourism committee, all of which, including the chamber of commerce, had a view on tourism. We need to pull all of these agencies together. When no one in particular is in charge, things fall through the cracks. I believe we should also put our embassies to work. The Tánaiste must ensure our embassies market Ireland not alone as a trade destination, but as a country for people to visit. Our embassies and ambassadors abroad, which cost us a significant amount, must be utilised.
Culture night, held on 23 September, was a huge success in Dublin and countrywide. Leinster House was open so that people could visit this Chamber. In London, one can visit Westminster to see the workings of Parliament and learn about the history of the building. A person wishing to visit Leinster House must be sponsored by a Member of the Oireachtas. We need to address that.
Deputy Arthur Spring: I commend Deputy O’Sullivan, who as a non-government Member, spoke so favourably on this issue. It is not often one hears that on this side of the House. I thank the Deputy for her contribution.
This is essentially a housekeeping exercise which gives us an opportunity also to acknowledge what tourism means. Tourism, energy, agribusiness and micro-enterprise, TEAM, are the four pillars for the recovery of large chunks of this country. I agree with the proposal to increase the cap on capital expenditure. However, I do not believe it is the solution. We have the raw product which we must market to the essential areas. For example, Kerry Airport, which is being supported by the country, is a net contributor to the Exchequer and is vital to the promotion of tourism, yet there are 34.5 million people living within one hour’s drive of airports which operate flights into Kerry Airport. We need a strategic marketing element that attracts people here. We have the product on many fronts. For instance, we have what is considered the activity based tourism mecca of Europe, namely, hill walking. It is the largest tourist activity in Europe. We have an abundance of hill walking sites but we need to invest a little capital to bring them up to the standard of hill walking sites in Austria, Sweden and other developed areas.
Tourism is now the largest industry in the world. For us to not compete and develop our product would be ridiculous at this point. The national agencies have dialled up and are doing a better job, but they are doing it in isolation. Trades, including hotels, restaurants and pubs, all have problems which are often regional. I travel to meetings on tourism up and down the south west and I have been told by a group formed in the area that the agencies are not identifying what the Minister of State terms “honey pots” or working with the airlines to attract people to the region. I met with Mr. Michael O’Leary and Mr. Padraig O’Ceidigh and asked them if they would work with us to bring people to the area. We have developed what is termed the “Go Kerry” initiative which seeks to brand Kerry as an identity in places such as Manchester to which flights into and from Kerry Airport operate. There are 8 million people living in the greater Manchester area. While one can play on the diaspora, one must also play on the product.
The “Rose of Tralee” gets massive national television coverage. The Rose of Tralee ball in Toronto, which is attended by up to 600 people, is a platform from which we can launch our country and product. Our hill walking, golfing and fishing facilities need to be developed. Fishing is the second largest activity in the US. There are more people in the UK fishing on a Saturday afternoon than there are watching premiership soccer. With a little energy, we could harness these activities. We must work with the small agencies and groups and provide those which prove themselves credible with some financial support. I am currently working on a concept with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, in relation to how to develop the skill set of those selling Ireland. It is not always about capital investment; it is about developing our product, which is to be applauded. Our product must be renewed and refreshed. This legislation is a positive step.
We must strive to do things better. Ireland is the land of “cead míle fáilte”. As such, we should be spending money on marketing and training. Everyone has a part to play. While today we are acknowledging that in this forum, it also needs to be said across the airwaves. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on the job he is doing in that regard.
Deputy Michael McNamara: Like previous speakers, I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who, as Deputy Joe Carey said, has been in Clare numerous times. I thank him for his commitment to Clare and for furthering sport and tourism there.
As stated by previous speakers, this is essentially a technical Bill to increase the funding cap for spending on capital tourism projects and enterprises from €65 million to €150 million. This increase was identified as necessary in a relatively recent report by the tourism action plan implementation group. It was stated in that report that Ireland’s tourism product had become tired and was lacking in verve or bounce for many tourists. I am glad that a number of initiatives have been taken since publication of that report, including in my constituency of Clare.
Those in the tourism industry are increasingly realising the need to deliver greater value for money, which is beginning to happen. There is a need, however, to develop more innovative tourism products too. My home town, Scarriff, will have its first walking festival in October. There are few places on these islands more suited to walking than Scarriff as it is surrounded by Slieve Aughty and Slieve Bernagh, both of which overlook Lough Derg. Most of these lands are in Coillte plantations. While not enough is being done by Coillte, at least the local community through this festival will do what it can to develop a walking tourism infrastructure in the area.
Like Deputy Carey, I commend the Shannon Development proposal to develop an adventure park near Shannon Airport and Bunratty Castle. However, I have more reservations about this project than Deputy Carey. The way it is being dealt with only highlights the current weaknesses of the development structures in the mid-west. Shannon Development must put this project out to tender. While the agency has been involved in many innovative projects in the past, it has no real funding.
While Fáilte Ireland receives funding to promote tourism across the country, it is not specifically tasked with developing tourism in the mid-west. Shannon Development, on the other hand, the body tasked with promoting tourism in the region, does not have the cash to do so. The agency has some excellent people with some excellent development plans but it has no money to put them into practice. Now is not a time when we can afford institutional battles between various agencies. We need a solution that works for Clare, north Tipperary and Limerick.
The post office network could also be used to develop our tourism infrastructure. Every village has a post office in which it may be possible to provide interactive tourism information services. For example, a basic touch-screen information point could be provided in each post office which would allow tourists to access specific local information.
Deputy Harris referred to the link between sport and tourism. My region, along with many others, would like to tap into the tourism potential of the upcoming London Olympics. Tourists, and even sportspeople, could visit Ireland during or in preparation for the Olympics. Limerick university has excellent sporting facilities at which athletes could prepare for the Olympics.
Seaside towns in Clare, such as Kilkee and Lahinch, depend very much on tourism. However, it has been suggested their swimming pools, important tourism attractions, may be closed due to lack of funding. I appreciate funding is tight. While the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport has secured funding for the swimming pool in Shannon, will the Minister consider extending it to Lahinch and Kilkee? Both swimming pools are important parts of the tourism, as well as the sports, infrastructure of those towns.
As we consider the sale of a minority shareholding in the ESB, it must be remembered the Shannon and all its tributary rivers and lakes are vested in the company. Angling has much tourism potential. However, local angling clubs around Lough Derg had to take the ESB to the steps of the High Court to force it to maintain those fisheries. While it is now maintaining them, there is huge scope for angling-based tourism in the mid west and throughout the country. With this legislation raising the cap on spending on tourism infrastructure a little, one area that would provide a return to the Exchequer on its investment is fishing. Some approach with the ESB to tap into the tourism potential of the Shannon fisheries must be worked out.
Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy: I welcome the publication of this technical Bill to increase the level of funding to be provided to the National Tourism Development Authority for capital expenditure projects. Increasing the funding cap to €150 million will enable the authority to develop and enhance our tourism product. I commend the Minister for bringing it forward.
Tourism is a key priority for the Government, demonstrated already by such measures as the reduction in VAT, halving employers’ PRSI and the introduction of the tourism visa waiver. The €3 travel tax is still in a position to be suspended if the airlines reinstate cancelled routes and restore lost capacity. While it is still in place, much of the revenue generated is being used to support inbound tourism. Tourism is vital to our economy, not only through the jobs it provides but also as an opportunity to showcase the country on the international stage.
Tourism is a competitive market with our keenest competitors investing heavily in their tourism infrastructure. Fáilte Ireland has identified that Scotland spends up to €74 million annually in public funds while Norway spends €43 million. Some countries are taking the approach to invest in innovative tourism products such as the Guggenheim in Spain and the Eden project in England.
I have visited the latter myself which is an example of how an exhausted chalk mine in Cornwall, no longer providing mining employment, became an exciting, sustainable visitor site, creating a new and welcome type of employment. The project is funded by various means, including significant public funding and philanthropy, and is now attracting tourists from all over the world to visit the park’s biomes, attend concerts and art exhibitions and learn more about sustainability and low-impact living.
In County Offaly, we have a wonderful example of how a harvested bog can be transformed into something new and exciting. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will have an opportunity soon to visit the Lough Boora parkland.
Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy: Bord na Móna has worked in partnership with the local authority and other agencies to provide the Lough Boora parkland which includes lakes for fishing, trails for walking and cycling through the bog and a sculpture park which attracts international artists. Artists come into the community and, with local help, create something thought provoking and in keeping with the landscape. It is a haven for wildlife and is used by locals and visitors alike.
Like the Eden project, the Lough Boora parkland takes a site with a previous use to develop it into a different and new tourism product. I welcome Bord na Móna’s plans to expand and develop this exciting project. Other examples in Offaly of using such sites could include using disused railway lines as walking and cycling tracks and developing and enhancing walks in the Slieve Bloom mountains, ideas which should be examined by our tourism bodies.
Our key markets are Britain, the United States, France and Germany. This year’s figures show that the number of visitors from Britain has increased by 9.3% compared with last year’s. We should ask ourselves why people visit Ireland instead of other countries. Research has shown that our scenery, friendly people, safe environment and cultural and historical attractions are the main reasons.
We have many wonderful products and attractions, but the potential of the garden visitor has not been realised. Many beautiful gardens across the country, both large and small, have been developed over the years. They are an attraction for specific tourists, but they have not been sufficiently marketed. For example, 500,000 people visited the Botanic Gardens last year. Surely this would be an outstanding location to access further information about other gardens around the country that can be visited by members of the public. In my region, we have the internationally renowned Birr Castle and gardens in County Offaly and Heywood Gardens in County Laois. The visitors to Birr Castle and gardens contribute €250,000 annually to the local economy in bed nights and other spend. This is not to be sniffed at in a small area and should be encouraged.
Were a visitor interested in gardens, how would I learn where to access these attractions? We are losing opportunities to highlight the presence of these wonderful attractions at international shows such as the Chelsea Flower Show and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in England. Demographically speaking, visitors to these types of show are those who can stay, spend large amounts and visit during the off season.
Counties Laois and Offaly have a rich ecclesiastical history with ancient sites at Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Seir Kieran, Aghaboe Abbey, the Rock of Dunamaise and the round tower at Timahoe. I draw the Minister of State’s attention to Durrow Abbey near Tullamore, which is undergoing restoration and conservation work. The high cross is located within the abbey, but there is a difficulty with providing safe access to the site. I understand that Fáilte Ireland has a strategy to develop hard tourism products. County Offaly has such a project in Durrow Abbey, but the problem arises in that it is only allowed to spend its funding on specific types of project. We need flexibility in the provision of funding to develop this product. Cross-departmental co-operation with national bodies and local authorities would help to solve these road blocks and ensure that, in these financially straitened times, we make good use of scarce funding and think outside the box as we continue to develop tourism projects.
People visit Ireland for a variety of reasons, including our arts and theatre. The amount of employment and enjoyment that can be gleaned from participating in these is good for Ireland and visitors. The number of people who visit Ireland after seeing images of Ireland on the big screen, put there by film companies working here, is also interesting. We should not underestimate the potential of attracting visitors to locations where films have been shot. We should develop trails around areas where beautiful images of our countryside and cities have been shot. People could have an opportunity to see them in an organised and simple way.
I have probably run out of time, but I would like to discuss other matters such as fishing and tourism officers in each county to support festivals. We need to focus on tourism, given how much we have to offer. Other countries would love to have what we have.
Deputy Pat Breen: Previous speakers have done their bit to promote tourism in their regions. It was a pity there were not more people present to hear them. I have heard great things about County Kerry, even from my two colleagues from County Clare. I must add my bit. Deputy Corcoran Kennedy did her bit for County Offaly.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who has travelled throughout Ireland promoting tourism. He has been an excellent ambassador for domestic tourism. I do not know whether it is because he is in office, but the figures for the first seven months of the year look good.
Tourism is important to our economy, particularly in the middle of this recession. The industry generates approximately €4.8 billion in business, amounting to some 5.5% of GDP. Between full-time, part-time and seasonal employment, it employs the equivalent of 145,000 full-time jobs or one in 12 people at work at the moment. This is an important factor. The recent CSO figures on the number of overseas visitors are encouraging. This is despite the fact that we have had some bad weather. Today is beautiful and many tourists are around Dublin. The ash crisis was a factor early last year, but we have done well, in particular in the US, UK and European markets. There is no room for complacency and we have a great deal of work to do to increase numbers next year but we are moving in the right direction.
On a positive note, the Government has introduced many initiatives prioritising tourism as a key area for growth. Consequently, there is a renewed optimism in the sector. The reduction in VAT levels to 9%, the halving of employers’ PRSI and the introduction of the tourist visa waiver for those from certain countries who have valid UK visas and want to travel on to Ireland are all having an impact on the ground. From travelling around the country, this is evident.
During the summer months, many tourism providers with whom I spoke painted a positive picture of tourism this year. While the weather has been uncertain, people do not visit Ireland for our weather. Rather, they come to Ireland for its beauty. More than 36 million people in the US, some 11% of its population, claim Irish ancestry and most American tourists visit us to find their heritage. I was in the US last week and was delighted to hear that the Tánaiste, who was also in the US, had presented the first certificate of heritage to Joe Hunter’s mother. Our consul general, Mr. Noel Kilkenny, attended the event and told me it made him a proud Irishman. Mr. Hunter’s mother came from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s constituency in County Galway. A member of the fire service, Mr. Hunter was killed on 11 September 2001. The presentation in New York was a moving ceremony.
This initiative is already proving a considerable success with the Irish diaspora all over the world. It is the brain child of Mr. Gerry O’Neill, a native of Dublin living in Quin. A good initiative, it was well supported in the US last week. The many Americans who visit Ireland to explore their Irish heritage can generate a significant level of revenue for our tourism industry.
To be parochial, Councillor Gabriel Keating drove a new initiative in County Clare this year, namely, opening up the Loop Head lighthouse, a 19th century building. Initiated on a trial basis, more than 12,000 people have already visited the lighthouse and climbed the 74 steps to see the breathtaking views of the west Clare Peninsula. The initiative has been a considerable success and has been extended until October. Clare County Council, possibly working with the Minister of State, is already working on expanding the project next year. It created five temporary jobs and was a boost to local restaurants, pubs and bed and breakfasts. The Cuban ambassador will visit the lighthouse this weekend when she opens the Che Guevara festival in Kilkee.  The lighthouse has also been visited by a number of Chinese visitors. The Minister of State might want to know that the Taoiseach has a family link to the lighthouse, in that his grandfather, Mr. Joseph McGinley, served as a keeper there in the 1930s. I look forward to the Taoiseach visiting this area in the very near future and I hope he gets the opportunity to see the lighthouse.
Others Members referred to festivals and events supported by Fáilte Ireland. The Government is providing approximately €3.8 million in this regard, which is great for every county. Festivals are becoming very popular again. County Clare hosted the FAI Festival of Football this year and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, attended. There were festivities for a week. The FAI visits the county and concentrates on youth and children. It was a great spectacle for the region and I congratulate Mr. John Delaney on it. The event created a great buzz in the county for the week.
Some of my colleagues referred to Shannon Development having sought expressions of interest to develop the 120-acre site at Bunratty Castle. It will be a very good project. One must reinvent tourism all the time. Tourism and projects get tired. One must cater for the current market. The Bunratty project was great but needs to be reinvented. The medieval banquets are still doing extremely well. I hope Fáilte Ireland takes a particular interest in Shannon Development’s 120-acre site because many projects could be developed there, including a diaspora centre, a theme park and, given the close proximity to Shannon Airport, an aviation theme park. I hope funding can be found for this. Deputy McNamara stated Shannon Development does not have funding but I am sure that, with the initiative of Fáilte Ireland, funding could be found because the project is very exciting.
We are very fortunate that the Burren and Cliffs of Moher were awarded UNESCO-supported Global Geoparks status at the tenth European Geoparks conference, which took place recently in Norway. This was a great boost for the Burren, which is very important to tourism in County Clare. A total of 345,000 visitors have enjoyed the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience in the first six months of this year, representing a 19% increase on last year’s figure. Tourism is the icing of the cake for north Clare. If the Cliffs of Moher are named as one of the seven wonders of the world on 11 November, what a bonus it will be. I urge everybody to propose the cliffs for nomination so as to put them on the map.
Inbound access to the regions is critical. We are lucky to have Shannon Airport in County Clare. It is a pity the airlines did not respond to the proposals of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in the budget last year in regard to the air travel tax. As part of the jobs initiative, this tax was reduced from €10 to €3 and the plan was to suspend the tax altogether provided an agreement was reached with airlines to reinstate cancelled routes or restore capacity. However, to date, the airlines have not taken up the offer. I am disappointed in that. Approximately €8.5 million is being collected from the €3 travel tax and I very much welcome the innovative way in which this fund is being used for marketing. Tourism Ireland, the airlines, ferry companies, tour operators and airports are now working together to encourage tourists from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, France and Belgium to come here. It is very important to concentrate on mainland Europe.
I read recently that Ryanair has teamed up with Fáilte Ireland, given Ireland’s popularity as a golfing destination, to provide a “golf bags fly free” offer on flights from UK airports to the six Irish airports from 1 September to 7 November. This is very encouraging also. I flew in from New York last Friday morning and when I was waiting for my case to arrive at the baggage carousel, I could not but notice all the golf bags. I spoke to some staff and they told me Americans are very attracted to playing golf in Ireland in September. This is very encouraging because we have beautiful golf courses in every county. Last weekend, Ireland hosted the Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle. Doonbeg and Lahinch golf courses in County Clare are worthy of mention, although I do not want to mention them all. They all have added attractions for tourists. It is encouraging to hear the airlines are teaming up with tourism authorities. Aer Lingus will probably expand its scheme in the near future, providing a much-needed boost for Shannon Airport, and complement the efforts being made locally to extend the tourism season.
We have been examining the opportunities for the Olympics tourism spin-off. I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is chairman of the London 2012 co-ordinating committee. Efforts are being made with a number of countries to get some teams to stay in them, at least for some time before the Olympics. That is important. Access is extremely important. County Clare can be accessed from London and the United States. I suggest that Fáilte Ireland meet various airlines to determine whether we could extend the promotional scheme to encourage Olympics tourists to travel here after the games. This is important also.
There is much discussion in the media about the future of Shannon Airport. I do not have enough time to deal with it this afternoon; suffice it to say that from my discussions with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, I noted no discussions have been had on the future of the airport. It is extremely important to point that out. The Minister is evaluating proposals that he has received from various stakeholders as to the best way forward for the airport. This is extremely important. Shannon Airport has a strong history of innovation. Under Dr. Brendan O’Regan, the airport developed the first duty-free shop, and the first Irish coffee was invented there. There is much history associated with the airport. It has a big future if the correct initiatives are put in place. I hope the Minister listens to the views of the people in the area, takes them on board and works with them.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me an opportunity to speak on this Bill. Balanced regional development must be strengthened as it is extremely important. The purpose of this Bill is to allow for the funding of tourism product development, as set out in the annual estimates provided by Fáilte Ireland.
Deputy Noel Harrington: I welcome the introduction of the Bill. I am very pleased the Fine Gael-led Government has decided to increase investment in the vital tourism sector, including in my constituency, Cork South-West. As mentioned, the primary focus of the Bill is the increase in funding to Fáilte Ireland from €65 million to €150 million. It is not just the increase in funding that makes this Bill significant. It and the fiscal measures introduced recently by the Government send out a strong declaration that the Government intends to focus on the tourism sector to provide much-needed employment, not just in areas such as Dublin but also throughout the regions. Dublin has led the charge in terms of tourism revenue, particularly that generated by tourists from abroad. However, the reality is that regions such as Cork South-West have been very strong on local tourism. People from the east and Dublin always look to the west, south and north when going on holiday. The sources of revenue in this regard are very much spread evenly throughout the country.
The tourism project is a multi-agency effort. Nobody expects the Minister to be at every airport greeting every passenger, for example. That is not how it works. However, his enthusiasm and passion for the sector have been infectious and should drive the multi-strand numerous agencies involved in tourism to up their effort and identify the advantages to the economy offered by tourism.
Every Deputy has mentioned tourism issues in his or her constituency and I would like to focus on those which deserve attention in my area. One such issue is access, as without access there is no tourism sector. I acknowledge the efforts of West Cork Tourism to replace the Cork to Swansea ferry service. This was kick-started by raising €3 million locally through pledges from 300 shareholders in the tourism and other sectors. This type of very local effort can provide a national infrastructure to help our economy. The West Cork Tourism co-operative and those who supported it, the Department and the Government deserve to be mentioned in this regard.
A great example of a multi-agency approach to improve our tourism sector is the re-opening of the Mizen Head bridge which is a huge engineering feat completed with co-operation between Cork County Council, the Commissioners of Irish Lights and Fáilte Ireland. It is up for an Engineers Ireland award and I ask everybody to look at www.engineersireland.ie to see what has been done and when convinced that it is worth voting for, to do so.
The western division of Cork County Council has developed a marine leisure strategy which can be replicated throughout the country. Marine leisure is an underutilised resource through which we can attract a huge amount of revenue. With regard to military history tourism, one can follow a military archaeological and history trail west from Spike Island to Bere Island. The tourism season for this can last 12 months a year as there is genuine interest in countries such as the UK in this sector. We have overlooked it and it has huge potential.
Our waymarked ways and hill walking have been mentioned. Not only do they encourage tourism but they encourage locals and actively promote better health. The benefits of every euro spent on these is immeasurable not only to the visitors, but to locals. Waymarked ways such as the Beara Way walk, the Sheep’s Head Way walk and the Beara Breffni walk which goes throughout the country are pioneers in this regard. It is good to see that landowners are being acknowledged; they do not receive great money but it is acknowledged that they have opened up their land-holdings to visitors. In places such as west Cork, we can truly state the land is open and available and that people who wish to walk the hills and waymarked ways are quite welcome to do so. This is very important.
The arts and literature sectors are very important in areas such as west Cork, in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s county and in the Minister of State’s county. These sectors deserve great support and quite often they are overlooked in the mainstream. However, they add a great amount to our tourism revenues and play a very important part in the social life of these areas.
The tourism sector plays at various levels from the big stakes of large lucrative developments to complementing farming or fishing in smaller regional areas, whereby people can earn a little from the tourism sector and supplement their on-farm income. This cannot be overestimated. It is very important to maintain this through a multi-agency approach.
We must maintain communication with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and local authorities on improving infrastructure and signage. Locals know the shortest route from point A to point B. When developing signage, we must assume it is for a visitor. We must encourage better signage in association with local authorities to make it far more attractive to travel the highways.
Fáilte Ireland has moved away from supporting small-scale projects and towards larger projects such as the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway. These larger projects are very lucrative and this is how it should go, but it should not forget the festivals in small villages and towns. The Minister of State has a great role to play in this, not through direct funding but through the passion he has for developing these, particularly in areas which have historically had high emigration. Many who emigrate look for an excuse to return for a week or two and these festivals will bring them back. They will know they will meet people whom they met the year before or whom they have not met for 20 years. While these festivals are small-scale and may not appear in Fáilte Ireland’s horizon, they are very important for regional areas in my constituency and those of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister of State.
Deputy John Paul Phelan: I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. This is the first time I have spoken on tourism as a Member of the House and I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, the very best in his role. He is doing a very good job. I also wish the very best to the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. As previous speakers mentioned, the tourism industry is vital to our economic recovery. The initiatives taken by the Government since coming to office have highlighted that the Cabinet realises the potential for development in this sector.
I agree with a number of the points made by Deputy Harrington, particularly with regard to genealogical tourism. Prior to coming to the Chamber I was watching the debate on the monitor in my office. My intern is from New England and like many from that part of the world, from throughout the United States and from further afield she has roots in this country. She does not know where exactly these roots are, but she is determined to find out from where her ancestors left. There is great potential in this sector.
I also agree wholeheartedly with Deputy Harrington’s comments on signage and I very much want to bring this to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. One of the few legacies of the Celtic tiger is very good road infrastructure throughout the country, with motorways from Dublin to all of the cities and other parts of the country. However, in my part of the world significant difficulties exist with the NRA with regard to providing signage for some tourist facilities in the Waterford, Kilkenny and Carlow areas. The NRA has rules, which are necessary as I agree one cannot have an over-proliferation of signage on the new motorways, but some leeway should be given for people investing money in providing tourism products in regional rural Ireland, such as the part of the world from which the Minister of State comes. These areas are bypassed by the motorways but their facilities cannot in any way be acknowledged in the signage that exists on the motorways.
I am a firm supporter of the efforts of Mount Juliet to attract international golfing events to Ireland. I have never golfed myself but I believe the potential of the industry is great and Mount Juliet is a fantastic facility. It is allowed to have a sign on the new motorway to Waterford but other golf courses are not, and I know of one which like Mount Juliet is a private venture. A little inequality seems to exist with regard to who is allowed signage and who is not. Will the Minister of State work with the National Roads Authority and the tourism authorities to ensure more reasonable rules are put in place with regard to who can get signage on these routes? I represent Carlow and Kilkenny which have always had a strong tourism industry. I commend the Government on its efforts with the jobs initiative in particular which was aimed at targeting the tourism sector for expansion. The reductions in the VAT rates were especially beneficial but also the introduction of the visa waiver scheme. I know from talking to people involved in the tourism and catering sectors in Kilkenny that there was a significant improvement this summer as a result of the VAT decrease. That is acknowledged by people who work in the industry.
I agree with previous speakers about the potential to attract major international sporting events to the country. This week the Solheim Cup in County Meath proved to be a fantastic success. The Ryder Cup was held in this country a few years ago and previously Walker Cup competitions were also held here. The golf tourism sector has potential to attract vast numbers of people and expenditure in the tourism sector in the regions. The beauty of the golfing product as a tourism attraction is that it is something that can spread throughout the country because there are quality golf courses in every county. More must be done in that regard to attract similar events to this country in the future.
I was pleased to hear Deputy Breen speak previously about the Olympics because that is one of the points I wish to make. Next year the Olympics is the biggest international sporting event in the world and it will arguably never be closer to us in our lifetime. Deputy Breen indicated that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is chairing a committee which is aimed at attracting benefits to this country, the economy and the tourism sector given the proximity of the Olympics next year. The visa waiver scheme was designed specifically with the location of the Olympics in London next year in mind. There is great potential in attracting people who are coming from all over the world to the events which will be taking place in the United Kingdom. While people are at this side of the world they could cross the Irish Sea and spend time in this country. I refer not just to participants in the Olympic Games but to spectators.
In the past ten to 15 years there has been significant investment in tourism infrastructure especially in the provision of hotel beds. In my area of Kilkenny we have gone from a situation where there was limited hotel accommodation a few years ago to a greatly expanded number currently. Previous Governments invested in the sector by way of tax relief for the building of hotels. Taxpayers’ money helped to build many of the facilities and it is important that the investment is followed up to realise the potential that exists to attract and cater for tourists right across the country.
A few developments which have taken place in my area in recent years are worthy of note. I agree with what Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy said about the potential to attract tourists to this country. She referred to garden tourism. One of the best of the facilities which have been developed is Woodstock Gardens in Inistioge, County Kilkenny, which is near where I live. It was developed in co-operation with the tourism authorities and Kilkenny County Council in recent years. It is a spectacular Victorian era garden in south County Kilkenny.  There has also been a significant investment in the Castlecomer Demesne in north Kilkenny and the development of a walkway from Kilkenny city to Inistioge through the Nore valley, a walk of more than 20 km. There is potential to extend the walk down the entire length of the Nore valley and even into New Ross and the Barrow valley. I hope that can be considered in the future.
Deputy Tony McLoughlin: The aim of the Bill is simple, namely, to allow an increase in the level of funding which can be provided to the National Tourism Development Authority, Fáilte Ireland, for capital expenditure projects from €65 million to €150 million. The proposal by Government to continue investment in tourism is justified based on the 11% rise in tourism numbers published last week. The tourism industry generated €1.3 billion for the Irish economy in 2009.
In the tourism strategy produced by Bord Fáilte for 2007 to 2013, it was envisaged that less support would be provided for accommodation but more public money would be provided for tourism infrastructure. The strategy was soundly based on a comprehensive audit of tourism attractions, activities and events. I emphatically endorse the policy. I wish to concentrate in particular on the region I come from to emphasise that point and my support for the Bill. Traditionally, the north-west region has been the poor relation in terms of tourism numbers compared to other regions. We pale into insignificance when the numbers who travel to the south-west region are compared to the north-west region. Many might ask why that is so.
There are many reasons, however, the basic tourism infrastructural deficit of the north-west region has contributed to the reduced numbers for many years. Significant spend in that regard in recent years is now addressing the problem. In counties Sligo and Leitrim in 1990 approximately eight hotels were trading. In summer 2011 there were 15 hotels, increasing bed numbers by more than 500 rooms. It is prudent for those two counties to ask what more they can offer visitors and potentially to the people of the region.
Recently, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, visited my constituency. I compliment him on his enthusiasm and energy. On that occasion he spent the day in the constituency visiting many of the projects I will highlight today and many others as well. I wish to put on record his efforts.
Funding has been improved by Fáilte Ireland and INTERREG for a variety of projects. They will add greatly to our tourism potential. I refer to Glencar Waterfall and amenity, a new proposed interpretative centre at Drumshanbo Acres amenity, the approval of new walking routes in and around Sliabh an larann coupled with a number of other proposals such as the unique proposal to develop the “Ballroom of Romance” in Glenfarne, County Leitrim. The intention is to showcase through an interpretative centre the old style ballrooms best illustrated in Pat O’Connor’s film of the same name. The success of the Arigna mining experience best demonstrates this concept with visitor numbers reaching 30,000 last year. Other similar tourism infrastructural projects previously mentioned by me will ensure that we in the regions attract numbers for the bed nights we have available.
It is most unfortunate that Lissadell House in County Sligo did not open its doors to visitors this year. As I understand, that has had an adverse effect on tourism numbers for Sligo which is disappointing, but it does emphasise clearly that to maintain and grow our tourism numbers and to fill hotel beds we must continue to invest financially in hard tourism infrastructure.
The development of walking and cycle routes will target a growing market. In counties Leitrim and Sligo the tourism market has great potential to grow. Cycling and walking specifically suits more rural areas where the potential for tourism business is difficult.
With the proximity of the north-west counties to the Border region it is essential that Fáilte Ireland targets its spend in co-operation with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board which I hope will continue to grow its tourism infrastructure in tandem with us on this side of the Border. In conclusion I wish to emphasise that targeted financial investment in key areas will pay dividends and that is why that this Bill is to be welcomed.
Deputy Brendan Griffin: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill which, although technical in nature, has an important purpose. It gives us a chance to discuss the overall state of the tourism industry in addition to considering the many ideas and suggestions that have arisen in the course of this debate. Deputies have clear ideas on how the country’s tourism product can be enhanced by various initiatives in their own constituencies. Hopefully, the Minister will take on board the suggestions that are being made on both sides of the House.
I acknowledge the Minister’s contribution to the industry since taking office. This was seen clearly last week when the Central Statistics Office published figures showing that overseas trips to Ireland increased by 9.4% in May, June and July compared to the corresponding period last year. It is a great reflection on the steps taken by the Government, including the jobs initiative, reducing VAT and making the tourism industry leaner and more competitive. Hopefully, those figures will continue to grow and consequently employment will continue to rise in the tourism sector. It is no coincidence that those figures rose after the introduction of the jobs initiative.
For quite some time, I have been pushing for the development of winter tourism. I feel we can make great progress in that regard. From May to October, Ireland has a fantastic tourist industry but once 1 October arrives it is almost as if a tap has been turned off and the overseas visitor figures drop. There is no reason for that to happen, however. My vision is that Ireland can have a 12-month tourism industry which would sustain thousands of extra jobs annually. We have everything we need to attract visitors here for fantastic holidays. They will then tell others about their experiences, thus bringing even more tourists the following year.
In recent years, the Scottish tourism authority has made efforts to bring people there during the so-called off-season. We should not have an off-season here because, while it may sound aspirational, we could have a peak season all year round. We should be optimistic and aim for that target. Scotland focuses on the romanticism of its lakes, Edinburgh and twilight evenings with log fires in pubs and hotels. In addition, they are focused towards the couples market.
Ireland needs to place more emphasis on that internationally. We have the products but we need to sell them more. Killarney’s Lough Leane, in my own constituency, is just as beautiful in February as it is in July. The wild Atlantic crashing onto Inch strand is just as beautiful in November as in May. Likewise, Kylemore Abbey in Connemara is just as lovely in March as when I visited it in August. These are the things we need to push. Instead of Irish people going to the Continent for Christmas markets, they should avail of the fantastic shopping facilities in many villages, towns and cities throughout Ireland in the run up to the festive season. Dublin and Killarney have made massive efforts in that regard, as have small towns and villages elsewhere. Caherciveen in my constituency, for example, has made a major effort this year to prepare for the Christmas shopping period. There is no reason people should not stay at home to avail of such facilities, and visitors may even come from abroad for the experience.
Once October comes we tend to see a major fall off in the number of visiting golfers yet we have a very large golf links industry. People might not be able to play two rounds of golf in the winter months, as they do in summertime, but we should be pushing our links courses internationally, as many of them remain open all year round. The success of Irish golfers abroad has made it easier for us to market Ireland as a golfing destination.
Having spoken to industry sources, however, it seems as if our Scottish neighbours are outdoing us in attracting North American golfing visitors. We should be promoting the fantastic courses we have scattered all over the country, which are all within close driving distance of each other. We should be pushing them on the international stage.
Unfortunately, Irish pubs are a dying breed but we have two choices in this respect. First, we can allow pubs to dwindle and die, thus having a cultural shift towards the purchase of alcohol in off-licences. Second, we could give pubs — particularly rural ones — a helping hand because they are part and parcel of the tourism product. They are what people come here to experience. Irish pubs are even more special in winter than in summer because they are one of the main attractions in the evenings when it is dark after 5 o’clock. We should support Irish pubs perhaps by giving tax breaks to rural publicans who sell beer on tap. When I asked the Minister for Finance if we could give publicans an incentive, for example by reducing VAT on sales in licensed premises, I discovered that unfortunately we cannot differentiate between those and off-licence sales. Kegs of beer can only be sold in pubs, however, so maybe we can give publicans an advantage by cutting VAT on beer sold from kegs. We should examine that because publicans need a break at the moment. We should also provide tax breaks to publicans who transport customers to and from pubs, including visitors who are staying locally.
I acknowledge the efforts to ensure that airlines can fly more people here, thus boosting our tourism industry. We should work hand in hand with the airlines because the nature of holiday-making has changed considerably in recent years. There is a growing trend of people logging on to see where they can get the cheapest flights, which dictates where they go on holiday as opposed to having any particular destination in mind. It is imperative that we co-operate with airlines where possible. I would like to see the €3 tax abolished, as would many tourism operators, so hopefully progress can be made in this regard.
I acknowledge the efforts that have been made to date to reinstate the public service obligation route from Kerry to Dublin, which is very important to the south west. It will be in operation from 2 November. I call on the Minister of State, along with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to visit County Kerry on one of those flights once the PSO is back up and running. They will be very welcome to the county, as they have been in the past. I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has visited Kerry twice as Minister of State, as has the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. They have delivered good news to the county, for example, the announcement of funding for the restoration of Killarney House. This is a very progressive decision and the people of Kerry are delighted that this outstanding building with a great history situated at the verge of the national park in the centre of Killarney town will be restored to its former glory with additional information centres, services and products available to visitors to Killarney. I applaud the vision of the Government in providing such funding. I also acknowledge and welcome the allocation of considerable funding for the downhill mountain bike trail in Glenflesk which is part of our growing outdoor activities industry.
We need to focus our efforts on attracting to Ireland key global sports events which have massive world-wide audiences. The Tour de France opening stage was held in Ireland in the mid-1990s and there is no reason we should not lobby for this to come again. I invite the Minister of State to discuss this option with his counterparts in France. My preference would be for the opening stage to begin in Killarney or in Dingle but anywhere in the country would be excellent. The Ryder Cup competition is another event we should aim to have return. These events attract huge audiences. We should also consider events such as the London Olympic Games in 2012. I welcome the changes being made to visa applications so that visitors to the UK will be able to come here also. Further down the line, the 2015 rugby world cup will be held in England and many thousands of people will visit England for the matches. It is hoped many of those will visit Ireland as a result of changes in the visa system.
The United Kingdom is making efforts to bring major sporting events to its shores and we should give every assistance. England had hoped to host the 2018 soccer world cup but the bid was not successful. In my view, the Irish Government needs to row in behind our neighbours across the water because we have benefits to gain from any opportunities availed of by them. It is to be hoped that the 2012 Olympic Games will have a positive impact on this country.
I acknowledge the efforts of the FAI for hosting the nations’ cup. Attendances may not have been as high as had been hoped but it could provide a basis for future involvement with perhaps the competition expanding to include five countries, including England, as this would give the tournament a significant boost. I ask the Minister of State to raise this option with the FAI.
The white-tailed sea eagle has been introduced into County Kerry. Unfortunately, some have been poisoned but others are doing very well. Birdwatching tourism is worth millions of pounds to the local economy in the Mull area of Scotland. We should develop such a tourism sector in this country. County Kerry has developed the pursuits of angling and whale-watching and this sector could also be developed.
The Gaeltacht areas provide opportunities to learn and speak our native language and we should encourage people to consider these areas as a holiday destination in the Discover Ireland marketing programme. There is also an opportunity to develop the market by accommodating foreigners, particularly from North America, who wish to learn the Irish language. The study of the Irish language is an established source of domestic tourism.
We should not take our foot off the gas when it comes to providing basic facilities. More public toilets should be provided throughout the country and changing and showering facilities are required at beaches. We lag behind in the provision of such facilities even when it comes to parking facilities at beaches and other venues. Standards must be improved.
The film industry has been a successful sector in Ireland, and productions such as “Braveheart”, “Ryan’s Daughter”, “Far and Away”, “Saving Private Ryan” were filmed here over the years and in turn had a significant impact on tourism to the country. We need to avail of any opportunity that comes our way to showcase our country.
Deputy Griffin touched upon a number of aspects. He made the point of having a 12-month tourism cycle and I agree with him that this is crucial. There is no reason not to have tourists coming to Ireland in every month of the year and in large numbers. Attractions such as Christmas markets in small towns is one excellent suggestion.
I wish to speak about a particular aspect of tourism, activity-based or sports tourism, where people travel to take part in sporting events around the country, whether a marathon, a half marathon or a triathlon. Before I became involved so actively in politics, I used to participate regularly in such sporting events. I have been to Achill and Killarney and twice to Westport. I have also travelled to the UK and to France for events.
This sports market sector of tourism is very significant as competitors spend a lot of money. There is the money spent on travelling abroad to an event or travelling to a domestic event. The kit and the registration all costs money and accommodation costs must also be catered for. I will give an example of my own expenditure. Last year I participated in the Gael Force adventure triathlon in Killary Harbour. The entrance fee for the competition was €100; I spent €200 on accommodation for two nights and another €200 during the course of the weekend. This amounts to €500 spent in Westport and only because the race was being held there. I was accompanied by a number of friends and that resulted in €4,000 being spent in Westport. Three of my friends had travelled from the UK so this was new money into Ireland. The race attracted 3,000 competitors. If each competitor spent as much as I spent that weekend, this amounts to more than €1 million into the Westport economy in one weekend.
This is a very lucrative event for the area of Westport and the town is to be commended on branding itself as a destination for activity events. These events provide a new opening for tourism revenue. Money came into the town of Westport during the Gael Force festival and this came from first-time visitors and those from abroad and also repeat visitors. For instance, once I had visited the town I was prepared to return on further visits and a few months later I returned to compete in a 10 km adventure race called Turf Guy. I am hoping to compete again this year. This event will bring more money into Westport.
Competitors in these events are young with a high disposable income. They may not have mortgage costs or dependants and they can spend their money on sporting activities. Ireland should be marketed as a destination for more international sporting events and sports tourism as this could provide significant revenue from people with high disposable incomes who spend their money in a way that is good for them and good for the local economies. I know the Minister of State is aware of my views but anything he can do in this regard would be very welcome.
The Volvo Ocean Race will be held next year. I wish the Chinese-Irish team the best of luck. I wished them well as they sailed from the River Liffey. I applaud the initiative on the part of the tourist board and the race will be a great event for Ireland. This is the type of event we should encourage and use to our advantage. I attended a Diaspora Matters event a few nights ago which was to highlight our networks abroad, of which the Volvo Ocean Race is another example. There are so many Irish people and those with Irish links living all over the world and they are all willing to become involved in related events and activities, to play a part in the renewal of the country and to help attract people to the country. This Bill is an important measure and along with other initiatives from the Minister’s Department, it is very welcome.
Wearing my parochial hat, I look forward to Wicklow getting some funding in the months ahead. I know my good friend Deputy Ring will not fail to deliver and that he will wear his global rather than his local hat.
I am glad to have some minutes to speak on this straightforward Bill that increases the amount of funding for Fáilte Ireland. While tourism is one of the two great indigenous industries in this country — the other being agriculture — it has not been served well. We have deluded ourselves over time and our standards are not sufficiently high nor do we have an integrated tourist industry. One of the reasons for this is that those who shout loudest get action. Therefore, the funding that has been allocated across the country has not always been allocated in an integrated manner for the common good. I hope that under this new Government and under the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and Minister of State, Deputy Ring, a global approach will be taken on how funding is allocated. Notwithstanding that I will certainly shout for my corner, it is important that funding is allocated with a view to an integrated product rather than towards the sector that shouts loudest. If one looked at the allocation over the past ten or 15 years, much of it would not stand up in a value for money audit.
This island, on the edge of the Atlantic, should be the Bermuda or Hawaii of Europe. There are some 500 million people in Europe, most of whom have never seen the Atlantic. We have never targeted these to the extent we should, particularly central Europeans such as the Germans, Swiss and Austrians. Coming to the western bastion of Europe, the Atlantic, should be something to which every European should aspire. This should be their equivalent of a trip to the Niagara Falls for Americans or Canadians and we should look at how we pitch ourselves in this regard.
I would like to raise some bugbears with regard to tourism. These are issues that one would find have been raised in the record of the Dáil over the past ten and 20 years. Signage is the first of these. I was travelling to Galway recently and came to Tullamore, but could not find a sign for Galway there. There is a big roundabout route in Tullamore which stretches for miles around the town, but one does not know whether to go through Clara, go back to Kilbeggan or where to go. All that is needed is a simple sign indicating how to get to Galway. I know the country fairly well and have travelled that road many times, but what is it like for somebody who has never been in the country before when he or she gets to Tullamore from the south or the east? How can that person find the way back to the main road? It defies logic why the signs are not there. The same old bugbear also applies at Dublin Airport. When one leaves the airport what does one see but a sign for Westport? I know that all roads lead to Westport, but surely the main destinations should be signposted from the airport. It is very difficult when one leaves the airport to see where one should go or where one should get off the road.
The NRA has a policy, perhaps it comes under the regulation or schedule to the legislation, that only the end point can be advertised on signs. I do not think that even main hospitals can be signposted off motorways. If one drives up the new N9 from Waterford to Dublin, there is nothing to indicate that one can go across to the N11 through Wicklow. Many tourists come up from Waterford, drive up to the M50, head eastwards and then back down the N11 when they could have come off the N9 in an easterly direction earlier. I raised this issue with the NRA, Kildare County Council and Wicklow County Council until I had a pain in my face, but nothing happened. I will have one more bash at it and hopefully it will work out.
I do not know how many county tourism boards we have. I go for the policy one person for one job or one person for three jobs, but not two or ten organisations for one job, because nothing happens in that case. County tourism boards should be abolished across the country. We have one in Wicklow and it too should be abolished. Tourism should be co-ordinated by Fáilte Ireland or Tourism Ireland, whatever it is called now, and the local authority should have a link person to the organisation responsible. The greatest contribution local authorities can make to tourism is to keep their signage and towns clean. It does not take much money to keep a place clean, but it can only be done if our county managers and directors of services go out and visit the towns and tourist locations. There should be an onus on them to go around their county once a year to take a look at what needs to be done. Small changes can make such a difference. Some of our towns are fantastic and I congratulate Killarney and towns like Kilkenny, Westport and Aughrim on the wonderful job they have done. However, other towns, which will remain nameless and some of which are in my county, are a disgrace, particularly with recent dereliction. I noticed an innovative concept in Arklow where some of the derelict buildings have been painted with attractive advertising murals. This idea could be considered and seen as getting rid of graffiti in reverse.
When I was first elected in 1997 I brought out a document entitled WIN, Wicklow integrate now. This was a document on tourism which I sent to the then Minister with responsibility for tourism. My concept was to develop a one-day and two-day tour of Wicklow. However, nothing happened. I hope that under the new Government we will get some positive movement. Currently I am drawing up a document entitled 2020 vision for the greater Wicklow area. I have decided to take this on myself because I do not have confidence in an integrated approach from the authorities. What I am doing is sketching out the basic bones of a concept for the greater Wicklow area and I hope that by 2020 the majority of the projects identified can be completed. No matter what village one visits in Germany or the Cotswolds, there is some attraction in it. Each one has a rich and diverse history. However, when one visits most of the towns in this country, this is not available and one cannot access information. Often when one comes to a location, it is closed. Many Irish areas have a deep, lush local history that would be of interest to tourists. I have a draft project concept drawn up for Wicklow and intend to put it to the public for its views. Then I will draw up a proposal that I hope, with the help of the Minister of State, will be implemented over the next number of years.
It is all well and good for people to be able to see the beautiful scenery in an area, but they also want to be able to do something. They want to have coffee, read a bit of local history, fish and cycle. The advent of cycle paths is welcome, but it is terrible when after five or six miles cyclists must get a bus or train and head off somewhere else to cycle. This portrays the lack of integration. We should have started with cycle paths in one location and worked out in a web process. We should not just have isolated paths in Wicklow, Mayo and Donegal. They should be interconnected in a web fashion. They could follow our river banks, our disused railways and canal walks.
Every town should have an information board. We often meet tourists in towns, whether Irish or non-nationals, who can find no information on where to go or what to do. It does not take much effort to provide a tourist information board. I must compliment the western seaboard which has perhaps had a hungrier approach to tourism than the eastern seaboard or the midlands. Most places in the west have an information board. Another hobbyhorse of mine is the rip-off. I went to the football all-Ireland a couple of weeks ago and went into a premises where there was a very warm welcome and great approach and service. However, once we paid over our money it was like being put down a laundry chute. It was bang, press the button, out. Our ejection was so abrupt that the few people I was with said they would never go back to that location.
They praised the experience as they went through it but the way the button was pressed reminded me of the advertisement in which the lads from Longford are beamed up for a McDonalds burger. That is what happened, except in this case one was beamed out of the premises. It did a disservice to the industry and to the innate and warm hospitality of the people.
Deputy Griffin alluded to alcohol and the tradition of the Irish pub. I stopped off in Durty Nelly’s a few weeks ago and I noticed the Minister of State’s constituency colleague, the Taoiseach, had visited during August because there was a picture of him up on the wall. I would like to see the Minister of State’s picture up in a few locations around the country. However, there is a downside to the change in drinking habits. In Temple Bar and every small town and village in the country, young people are stoned out of their minds late at night every weekend having consumed naggins of vodka on a river bank before heading to the local disco and so on. This is an epidemic and the older generation is not aware of the extent of the difficulties. Young people visit their local supermarket or off-licence to purchase 70 cl bottles of vodka using fake identification or they ask their friends who are of legal drinking age to buy for them. They then drink neat vodka or mix it in such a way that they drink half a bottle each before falling around the place out of their minds later in the evening. I do not know how that problem can be tackled but, from the point of view of tourism, it is not an attractive experience for foreigners who visit the country to see young people falling around stoned out of their brain.
When people go on holidays, they normally like to engage in an activity. I was approached by a group of historians who are American Civil War fanatics. The civil war trail industry in the US is worth approximately $2 billion a year. This year is the 150th anniversary of the war and this group is teaming up with Fáilte Ireland to develop the concept of an American Civil War trail in Ireland because 11 or 12 generals who fought on both sides were Irish while 160,000 other Irish people participated in it, which is more than in the First or Second World Wars. If that concept is developed, perhaps in conjunction with an American presidents trail through Wexford, Moneygall, Ballyporeen and a few locations in Ulster with connections to past presidents, it will attract tourists to the country.
Reference was made to the diaspora, an issue I have raised over a long number of years. There are many millions of people of Irish descent in North and South America. Following the economic forum in Farmleigh House in 2009, it was agreed that a certificate of Irish heritage should be introduced and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade handed over the first one to the mother of a deceased fireman in New York recently. I support the principle but I caution that it is important that the research carried out into the connections people say they have with the country stand up to scrutiny. A Kerry firm is responsible for the production of the certificates but it must be ensured the background of those who apply for them is well proofed to ensure they have a definite Irish connection. We do not want the certificates to become souvenirs like pieces of the rock of Cashel. They will only have a value if the qualification is thoroughly checked and authenticated.
Reference was made to using sport to attract tourists. The hoped for success of the Irish rugby team in the weeks ahead will project an attractive image of the country and that is why it is important that people who represent the country, be it behind a bar in Kiltimagh, on the playing fields of New Zealand or in the swimming pools of Atlanta, are proud of who they are and project a good image. Gaelic games are unique sports. Soccer and rugby can be watched anywhere and while it is fantastic when Irish teams do well, we should be conscious of the uniqueness of our national games. The GAA will have to step up to deal with violence in Gaelic football games on and off the pitch because modern society will not accept it. The association could find itself in the same position as the Catholic Church and its officials could leave it too late before they realise they have a problem. They will come under increasing threat from other sports such as rugby if they do not organise their games in a proper manner and send a message that there is no place for violence within these games. There is nothing better than bringing a tourist to a hurling or football match but if it is peppered with violence or abuse from the line and so on, the GAA will run into difficulty. Some people advocate that this is a unique part of the games but that is unacceptable in modern society.
I wish the Minister of State well in his job. I look forward to him visiting Wicklow to consider the Vision 2020 concept and we do not expect everything to be done overnight. His heart lies in Mayo but he has travelled around since he took up office and he has been approachable at all times. Hopefully, that will remain the case.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Michael Ring): Deputy Timmins cannot complain about the recent funding from the Department because his constituency did not do too badly. I disagree with him that those who shout the loudest get the most. I believe that those who are prepared to put their hands in their pockets to provide matching funding do not do badly. I come from a community and tourism region where people are prepared to put their hands into their pockets to come up with matching funding and to work with Fáilte Ireland. The biggest factor is they work as a community on one product. If a conference takes place in my home town and one hotel provides the facilities, the other hoteliers will support it because if the main hotel is full, their hotels might attract the overflow and, therefore, they work together as a community.
I agree with the Deputy regarding signage. My Department has provided funding to local authorities but we still have not got this right. We will have to sit down with the National Roads Authority, NRA, and the local authorities. The Deputy is correct that the provision of even more signage, as has happened in some counties, has resulted in visitors being unable to identify where they are going because there is too much signage and we do not want that. A common-sense approach must be adopted by the NRA, the local authorities and so on to make sure that when tourists arrive in the country, they know where they are going. It is one of the complaints I get regularly. Over the past number of weeks, I have had three or four complaints and people are saying, particularly in the Gaeltacht areas, that they cannot read the signs and we must examine this to see if we can put up bilingual signs. It is not right that people cannot find where they are going. I have written to the Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs to see if there is any way forward to deal with that.
Many Members referred to the issue of value for money. In 2010 a visitors attitude survey was carried out. Prior to that 21% of respondents had said they were dissatisfied with prices but I am glad that has reduced to 13% in last year’s survey. I hope the recent cuts in VAT and PRSI will ensure a decrease in dissatisfaction among people about prices. This year many people involved in tourism provided value for money. I compliment the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation on encouraging their members to reduce VAT. In 99.9% of cases, they did and they gave good value for money. I hope we will see a further decrease and that in the next attitude survey, people will say they are getting value for money.
Deputy Spring spoke about the regions and working with the airports and the ferry companies. We tried to deal with the airlines. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, worked and talked on that but we did not get agreement on it but regarding the money collected from the travel tax, I compliment the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, on allowing us to invest that money in tourism products. I am glad to say we are working with the airlines and the ferry companies and are asking them to submit plans to us. We have told them we will support them if they put up matching funding. We are promoting the regions, supporting the cities and trying to attract people into our country. That fund is available and I compliment both Ministers on allowing us to spend that money in that way.
Deputy McNamara from Clare spoke about Fáilte Ireland and the Shannon Development proposal. A total of €4 million from Fáilte Ireland was put into St. John’s Castle in Limerick. All projects are open and all counties can make an application to Fáilte Ireland. It will assess their applications and if it believes the product is worth supporting, funding will be made available to them. People are treated fairly but the big problem over the years has been the matching funding. That is a problem in other areas also but it is something we must deal with.
I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate today and last week and for their kind comments. As I stated earlier in the summer, everything is not perfect in tourism but Deputy Timmins should know that we have a very good product. We have a great country, great food and great entertainment but our best asset, which they do not have in the rest of the world, is our people. They can talk and entertain and will welcome visitors to this country, and I am delighted that since 2008 there has been an increase in the number of visitors here.
People will be critical of Ministers or Governments but the stimulus budget sent out the right message. I was in America and in France. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was in Germany. We were in Britain. We are working very hard to try to promote the country and we do not have to be told every morning, at dinner time, at 6 p.m. and at 9 p.m. that we have a problem in the country. We all know we have a serious economic problem but there are many positive things happening in the country and in tourism and we need to get across the message that we are open for business, that we are a good country, that we have a good product and we want people to come to our country. I love this country and I love to see people coming here. I like to see people getting value for money and getting a welcome, and I like to thank people for coming to the country.
I take this opportunity to state on the floor of the House that when I was appointed a Minister of State I asked people to consider holidaying at home this year. The Irish people responded and I thank them most sincerely. In April, I asked people if they were going away for two weeks to consider holidaying at home for a week or if they go away for weekends to consider staying in Ireland for a particular weekend or if they were taking a week’s holidays that they might take two or three days in Ireland and then go abroad. The Irish people responded. They stayed at home this year. The one thing we could not guarantee them was the weather. Those who live here like to see some sunshine, as we had today and yesterday. It is a pity the summer is coming so late but that should not stop people enjoying it. The weather is good. If they still want to take holidays somewhere in the country, there is great value available. We have great commodities and people who will provide them with cheap beds for the night and good meals at good value.
I compliment the people who put their hands into their pockets. I refer to the small business people with family run hotels, restaurants and other businesses. The backbone of our society now is the small businesses, and I want to compliment them. In difficult times they are brave enough to work hard. They are trying to employ people and pay their taxes. They are also trying to make sure that we get out of the economic mess we are in, and tourism is one of the ways we can do that.
Over 180,000 people are employed in tourism here. The industry brings in approximately €5 billion a year. It is a great industry and one in which I believe we can do more. I will be putting pressure on Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland to make sure they promote the country and work with the industry. There is great good will towards Ireland in America and in France. Deputy Timmins should know the French people love the west of Ireland and he should not be jealous if they do not want to go to Wicklow. They love coming to the west of Ireland, and they do not come for the weather. They are happy to visit and see what is there. The Americans are the same.
I met a man in a lift when I was on holiday in Killarney with whom I sympathised about the weather. He said he did not come to this country for the weather. He said when he left Kansas it was 120°. He said he loved the weather in Ireland and he loved coming to Ireland. We are always thinking about the weather. We have a good country, good people and a good product. I say to Members, and to the media, that we need to sell a bit of positivity because everything is not negative.
This is a technical Bill and if any Member wants to put down amendments on Committee Stage we will examine them but its purpose is simple. We are increasing the funding to Fáilte Ireland from €65 million to €150 million but that is not a guarantee that it will have the money. It will depend on budgetary constraints but it is important because in the coming years we would have gone over the limit set in legislation by this House. It is important that we are ready for the future because I see a bright future for tourism here and for those in the tourism industry.
In a recession people start to think outside the box, and they are doing that now. I recently attended a food fair in Westport. People are producing. The other day I opened a beehive business which will provide honey. That is what we did not do for the past ten years. We thought we did not need all of that. We thought the tiger would never die but the tiger has died and we have to examine other ways to make a living. We have to ensure this country survives, and people are talking about that. They are working together as communities and seeing what they can do for themselves, their area, their community and the country. That is important.
I thank everybody for their positivity in regard to tourism. As I said, everything is not perfect but we have a good product. We are under pressure from competition in other countries but we have to sell our product. We have a good product and good people and I have no doubt that in the coming years more people will come to this country. The American market is looking good for this year. It is up 17% and is looking even better for next year.
We have to start thinking outside the box and working together but the State cannot do everything for every area. Individual counties must lead. They must get the support from the State and the State should respond. If there are people in Wicklow with ideas on projects and some money to put forward, Fáilte Ireland representatives should sit down with them and help them in any way possible.
Regarding tourism, I am glad the local authorities are putting people in charge of tourism because they now realise it is very important. Every corner of the country has something to offer. There is something in every county in every corner of this country. If there is one job, it takes two to beat it and I have no doubt that people will start thinking outside the box and that tourism will be the way forward and will help us get out of the economic mess we are in. I thank the Members who were positive and who came up with very good suggestions.
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