Seanad Éireann - Volume 194 - 25 March, 2009
Tourism Industry: Statements.
Senator John Ellis Senator John Ellis
Senator John Ellis: I move: “That the Minister be allowed to reply to the debate at 4.50 p.m.”
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Senator Paul Coghlan Senator Paul Coghlan
Senator Paul Coghlan: Sorry——
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: We have agreed to give the Minister ten minutes to reply at the end.
Senator Paul Coghlan Senator Paul Coghlan
Senator Paul Coghlan: Of course. I have been having hearing problems today.
Deputy Martin Cullen Deputy Martin Cullen
Deputy Martin Cullen: I commend my colleagues in the Seanad for tabling this important motion. I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the subject of Irish tourism. I recall the interesting debate we had on this subject last November. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members and promise to consider carefully any suggestions that are made.
The national and international economic landscape has changed dramatically in the past year. I am acutely conscious of the concerns and anxieties of people working in the tourism and hospitality sector. There is no doubt the industry is facing serious challenges, particularly in the short term. This country is now fighting for its economic future. Unless we can commit ourselves to restoring stability to the public finances, there will be no economic recovery. The world is looking on and we need to persuade the international markets that we are capable of and willing to take the tough decisions required. The strong message I want to get across is that the Government is operating within a clear framework for dealing with the current crisis and stabilising the public finances. As well as the measures that will be taken in the upcoming budget, this involves stabilising the financial and banking sector, a firm commitment to achieving the necessary savings in public expenditure, measures to secure in the short term the stabilisation of the economy and to maximise economic activity and employment through major capital projects and helping those who lose their jobs. We intend to work together to implement a reform agenda, including building Ireland’s smart economy, upskilling those in the labour market, delivering public service reform and finalising a comprehensive framework for future pensions policy.
As Senators are aware, we are experiencing the impact of an international recession of unsurpassed severity. All major economies, including our key source tourism markets, are suffering or will suffer this year. The Government recognises the future prosperity of the country will be determined by the actions we take now. We know that much painful readjustment remains to be done but we are committed to taking the tough decisions necessary.
It is important to appreciate, as I know Senators do, the progress we have made in the tourism industry over recent years. Irish tourism, operating within the framework of the New Horizons tourism strategy, has performed exceptionally well since 2001. After the successive shocks of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, SARS and war in the Middle East, Ireland was one of the first countries in western Europe to return to growth in 2003. Even in the very challenging environment that pertained last year, our foreign revenue earnings from tourism are expected to have been reduced by no more than 3% to 4%, still amounting to around €4.7 billion. Overseas visitor numbers declined by just over 2% in 2008. The domestic market also held up well in terms of revenue and numbers. These declines must be seen in the light of progress made over the previous two decades. We must bear in mind that in 1990, overseas visitors numbered just over 3 million, compared to 8 million in 2007. In 1990 domestic tourism generated €500 million in earnings, compared to €1.7 billion in 2007.
I will now consider prospects for 2009 and beyond. Based on the impact of changes in the world economy on tourism and travel, both globally and in the island of Ireland, Tourism Ireland has developed a range of scenarios for likely performance in 2009. The factors considered include the likely economic state of key source markets as well as elements such as air access capacity, consumer travel behaviour and consumer confidence. The target for 2009 is to sustain visitor numbers and revenues at no less than their 2005 and 2006 levels and to consolidate our position during the year with a view to an eventual return to growth. This is against a backdrop in which the World Travel and Tourism Council is projecting a contraction of 3.6% in the tourism industry worldwide in 2009. Tourism Ireland will be reviewing prospects on an ongoing basis as the year unfolds and will revise its forecasts on a quarterly basis, given the rapid pace of change in the external environment.
I remain optimistic about our future prospects. With the right public policy framework, a strong partnership with the industry and active and responsive tourism agencies, we have every reason to be confident in our capacity to manage our way through these exceptional times and return to sustainable growth in the medium term. There is a large market out there to be captured. Tourism revenue across the world is valued at €462 billion annually, or just over €1.25 billion a day. The industry represents over a third of the world’s exports of services and, even allowing for a decline in 2009, more than 9% of world gross domestic product. Most importantly, the industry is expected to maintain its growth trend in the medium term. The Irish tourism industry is resilient and is well placed to capture its fair share of this market.
At a time of unprecedented economic challenge, tourism and hospitality remains a resilient, labour-intensive industry providing work opportunities throughout the country. While the sector is by no means protected from the current downturn, there are still an estimated 280,000 jobs in the tourism and hospitality industry. As I said earlier, the sector contributed an estimated €4.7 billion in foreign revenue earnings last year, with an estimated Exchequer tax return of more than €2 billion. The medium-term prospects for international tourism remain positive and there is no reason why Ireland cannot continue to gain market share if we get our competitiveness right and sustain our investment in marketing, product development and training.
Tourism Ireland is a North-South body, responsible for marketing the island of Ireland overseas as a holiday destination. The objectives of Tourism Ireland’s marketing strategy are to convince overseas consumers that now is the best time ever to visit, to show them the tremendous value available from industry partners and to demonstrate how easy it is to get here by air and sea. We must position Ireland to take advantage of opportunities that will arise as the global economy stabilises. Tourism Ireland’s commitment is to market through the challenges, work closely with industry partners and fight for every bit of business that is there to be won.
Tourism Ireland has reviewed all its marketing programmes and will keep them under the microscope to ensure they maintain the maximum flexibility and responsiveness necessary in this difficult trading environment. The new and refreshed global advertising campaign, “Go Where Ireland Takes You”, has been rolled out to help position the destination and keep it front of mind with consumers.
Most importantly, Tourism Ireland is engaged in a huge tactical marketing programme right now across all major markets, communicating strong reasons to visit together with clear, price-led messages. It is working with the industry to bring the best available offers to the attention of consumers overseas and to make it easier for them to book. It is also investing in co-operative and partner-led marketing and has front-loaded spend to prioritise bookings for the peak holiday period. The aim is to mount an integrated and concerted marketing effort, with tactical co-operation with industry partners the cornerstone of the approach.
A major part of Fáilte Ireland’s focus in 2009 will be on expanding the home market with a specific marketing campaign to persuade more Irish people to take a break at home this year. Fáilte Ireland’s consumer research indicates that there is further potential in the short break market, with fewer Irish people considering a short break abroad in 2009 and more considering short breaks in Ireland instead.
The home market represents up to two thirds of hotel bednights. An intensive marketing programme incorporating television, radio, press and outdoor channels will put out key messages, such as the convenience and increasing value of holidaying at home. Let us not forget that more than €6 billion was spent abroad by Irish residents in 2007 and even a small proportion of this would make a major difference to Irish tourism if it were spent at home in 2009.
Fáilte Ireland’s recent research confirms that the main issues of concern for hotels and other tourism enterprises are the economic recession, weakened consumer demand, energy and labour costs and local authority charges. The industry is also concerned about access to credit, the regulatory framework and labour regulation through the JLC process. How can the Government help to deal with these issues? One way is to ensure our programmes and supports are refocused to meet business priorities.
During 2008 Fáilte Ireland worked directly with in excess of 2,000 tourism businesses. In 2009 it will be investing extensively in providing direct supports and advice for tourism enterprises. The key elements of the support package in 2009 will include a new mentoring support service providing one-to-one advice, a new “Biz-Check” service designed to provide operators with on-site business diagnosis and solutions support, further expansion of initiatives to improve on-line marketing and business skills generally within the industry and a significant investment in on-site training of industry employees in customer care and food preparation. Fáilte Ireland will also continue to roll out its executive management programme and the Optimus programme to help enterprises to achieve excellence in every aspect of their business by providing a practical approach to improving business and customer service.
Fáilte Ireland, through its business tourism forum, is placing increasing emphasis on attracting conventions, meetings and other business groups to Ireland. It has been gearing its resources to provide support and leadership to the business tourism sector. A priority has been the creation of a working partnership with the professionals in the industry, drawing on their experience and on their needs to deliver high quality products and marketing strategies. A new industry-centred conference alliance will provide greater support for Irish delegates who are prepared to lobby for association conference business. The national convention centre in Dublin is on target to open in September next year and has already secured a significant level of conference bookings to the value of €45 million.
Labour now represents a large proportion of costs to the industry and this cost impacts directly on international and domestic competitiveness. I have been in contact with the Tánaiste on the issue of wage costs and industrial relations structures, in particular the issue of double-time payments on Sunday. Some progress has been made in addressing the Sunday issue and I remain confident a solution can be found.
The Tánaiste has put in place a structured dialogue with the banks to ensure a greater level of transparency in the provision of credit facilities for business during the current difficult period. I will also be meeting the banks separately to raise the specific problems being encountered by the tourism industry which mainly revolve around the availability of working capital and the treatment of businesses that may be facing difficulty in respect of loan repayments.
The tourism industry touches virtually every parish in Ireland. I am conscious of the important role it plays in bringing much needed employment to the regions and the positive role it plays in promoting balanced regional development. Exchequer investment has as one of its fundamental objectives the stimulation of regional development. This expenditure is supported by the establishment of five regional tourism development boards in the south east, the south west, the west, midlands-east and the north west. Dublin Tourism has also been reconstituted. Shannon Development created a separate regional board to reflect these structures and detailed development plans for each tourism region have been produced and published and are being implemented. These plans serve as an important framework and resource for the various spending agencies in optimising the tourism benefits of their investment thereby adding to the social and economic impact locally of such spending. Progress on the implementation of the plans is being reviewed by departmental officials in co-operation with the tourism agencies.
One of the strengths of Irish tourism has been the robust policy framework that has been developed for the sector. This includes clearly defined implementation arrangements through the State tourism agencies and a strong partnership approach with the industry. To ensure our medium-term strategic approach is still fit for purpose and takes into account the rapidly changing economic and social environment, I established a high level tourism renewal group before Christmas to examine current tourism policy and programme priorities. The group, which is chaired by Mr. Maurice Pratt, has been tasked by me to set out by mid-year the key actions to be taken to ensure tourism continues to be a major industry for Ireland and that the right strategies are in place to maintain the long-term sustainable growth of Irish tourism. The group has met formally on three occasions and has examined issues such as business tourism, cultural tourism, branding and international tourism policy trends. The group has also engaged in two full-day consultations in recent weeks, directly engaging with key players in the tourism industry and the access transport sector as well as key policy Departments and agencies.
I thank the House for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I am pleased that the House is taking an active interest in tourism, perhaps our longest standing, and arguably most important internationally traded service industry. We all recognise that these are extraordinarily challenging and difficult times for every economic sector and tourism is not immune. With a robust strategic and policy framework, however, strong partnership between the public and private sectors, effective State agencies, appropriate investment in marketing and product, and tourism enterprises which are now on a par with those anywhere in the world in terms of management capacity and quality, Ireland’s tourism industry will rise to this challenge and can position itself to come out of this downturn even stronger than before.
Senator Paul Coghlan Senator Paul Coghlan
Senator Paul Coghlan: I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his overview of the situation. I also wish Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland well with their plans.
I am delighted to see the Minister alive and well after his recent visit to the IHF where we both learned about the difficulties facing the sector, although we already knew about them. The Minister made an unexpected visit to a place I have an affinity with, the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club. He saw the three championship golf courses, the warmth of the welcome there and the great tourism product it offers. Fáilte Ireland is a 70% stakeholder in that fine facility and there is great co-operation between the club and Fáilte Ireland, something that will continue. I know the Minister will continue to nurture it and in that regard I wish him every success.
I was delighted to hear what he said about the convention meetings and other business groups that Fáilte Ireland’s business forum is encouraging to come to our shores. I am also delighted the Minister is going to meet the banks on the crucial question of the availability of working capital and the treatment of businesses in this sector. Many such businesses in the south west and elsewhere are hard pressed in these difficult times. To see us through this crisis it is important the banks are sympathetic and understanding. They should be prepared to defer interest payments where necessary as well as rolling over and reconstituting business loans and overdrafts.
The Minister has established a group under the chairmanship of Mr. Maurice Pratt and I wish it well. It is examining business and cultural tourism which form a key part of the way forward and are so important to the future of our economy.
One of the most patriotic things any citizen could do is to holiday at home this summer and encourage one’s relations and friends to do likewise. This would protect vital jobs in the tourism sector. The recent release of tourism figures highlighted the fact that 2009 will be a challenging time for our tourism industry, as the Minister has outlined. Visitors from Britain, our biggest market, accounted for most of the 8.4% drop in January 2009, continuing the downward trend of last year. Our tourism is a vital source of employment, accounting for more than 300,000 jobs throughout the country, and is especially important in the south west.
A number of tourism initiatives should be introduced to attract more visitors to Ireland, including a concerted marketing effort, particularly in the United States, specifically targeting the Irish diaspora. In addition, a new golfing tourism initiative could build on the successes of Padraig Harrington and Rory Mcllroy as ambassadors of Irish golf, with co-operation from golf clubs on more flexible pricing arrangements. In fairness, however, we now have competitive green fee rates. The Minister will have heard of the tremendous marketing efforts we are spearheading in Killarney under the guidance of our general manager, Mr. Maurice O’Meara. Other golf clubs are doing likewise and we encourage any of them who are not yet behind the effort to do so quickly.
Rigorous enforcement of quality standards for sewage treatment systems by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is required to avoid water contamination such as we had in Ennis and Galway. This resulted in much damage to the tourism industry during peak season in the recent past.
The tourism sector undoubtedly is suffering from poor decisions such as the introduction of the airport departure levy and the failure to tackle spiralling business costs. My party has proposed a number of initiatives aimed at revitalising the sector, including a dedicated ring-fenced marketing budget for Shannon Airport, commencement of the Adare and Castleisland bypasses, production of a targeted tourism plan by September, extension of the deadline for the mid-Shannon investment scheme, and a dedicated marketing initiative to capture the potential of the pre-clearance facility to be introduced in Shannon this summer.
Unemployment, as we know, has exploded and in the south west the live register shows an increase of 83% in my county of Kerry and 88% in Cork since February 2008. The number of overseas trips fell by 8.4% to 502,100 in January 2009 compared with 548,400 recorded in January 2008. There were 424,200 overseas trips to Ireland in January 2009, which was a drop of almost 3% from the same month in 2008. Visits by residents of Great Britain accounted for virtually all of this decrease, falling by almost 16,000 or 7% to 208,300. There is an urgent need therefore to target the UK, our nearest neighbour, more aggressively. Residents of other European countries and North America recorded slight increases to 149,500 and 45,200, respectively.
We obviously need to build on this and providing free travel for European senior citizens would be a useful initiative. It was recently suggested by the Irish Hotels Federation. The Minister must have heard that suggestion in Killarney, as I did. Senior citizens have more time to travel and are more inclined to do so. It would be hoped they also would have useful disposable income that we would be happy to receive. It would not cost very much for rail and bus providers to make that free travel facility available to European senior citizens.
The tourism sector is one of the country’s most important indigenous industries, worth an estimated €6 billion to the economy and employing in excess of 320,000 people. It is especially valuable in the south west with an estimated 4 million tourists spending €1.2 million in 2007. However, we are shooting ourselves in the foot with the departure levy, holiday home tax, the hike in VAT and a failure to tackle cost and competitiveness issues. In addition, when funding was available, there was a failure to prevent restrictions in transport services or to invest adequately in tourism attractions such as the Natural History Museum, the Abbey Theatre and the National Archives. Now, when the cultural tourism product is such a vital part of the industry’s future, funding is not available to maintain buildings or expand exhibition space. With regard to VAT, Senator Ellis could tell Members more about the need to become aligned with Northern Ireland’s rates, thus encouraging more visitors to come south.
Speaking of cultural tourism, it was a major disappointment that Killarney House was not included in the Fáilte Ireland list of national products being funded. This is a truly historic house in a magnificent setting. It practically overlooks the lakes, yet it is almost in the town centre within easy access by all visitors to this tourism capital of the south west. This was the home of the Earls of Kenmare, Lord Castlerosse and, more recently, the late John McShain, the man who built Washington. At the moment it is being allowed to deteriorate further and I am asking bluntly what we are going to do to stop this rot which is surely a national disgrace and a major blot on the home of Irish tourism.
I understood the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, was interested in this project being included. One presumes he still is. Despite an early hiccup, I believe his Department had not just vetted Killarney House but approved it for inclusion on that list of cultural tourism projects to be funded. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that point or let me know the position. Perhaps there is still hope for it. I sincerely hope there is.
A major concern of the tourism sector is the problem with the Office of Public Works with staffing levels and opening hours of visitor attractions. This has only recently been resolved locally because we all kicked up a fuss over the opening hours at Ross Castle in Killarney. They were restricted until there were strong objections and we all made suitable representations to the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh. I thank him for redressing the situation at Ross Castle.
One of the problems is the fragmentation of tourism. In Killarney, for instance, Ross Castle and Muckross Abbey come under the aegis of the OPW. Meanwhile, Killarney House and Muckross House come within the remit of the national parks and wildlife service. They should all be under the aegis of one body or Department. This fragmentation is not helping tourism. The restrictions on opening hours are akin to abandoning the plan to develop the National Museum at Collins Barracks. For years, the Government claimed it would develop the museum space as a new tourist attraction. Its recent confirmation that this is no longer the case came as a blow to the beleaguered sector and is a short-sighted cutback.
Reducing opening times at heritage sites is greatly hindering tourism and should also be reviewed urgently. How is tourism to flourish, or even recover from the collapse it is beginning to suffer, if some of our prime attractions are closed? I am pleased, however, the opening hours for Ross Castle were reinstated.
Other concerns of the sector include the introduction of the airport departure levy which has resulted in job losses and acted as a disincentive to tourists. It should be reviewed as the decline in business for regional airports is having a knock-on effect in regional areas, particularly in the south west with the difficulties facing Shannon Airport. Energy charges, local authority charges, VAT rates and taxi charges are adding to the cost of doing business for hotels and other tourism providers.
Inadequate transport links must be tackled. Fine Gael proposes a dedicated ring-fenced marketing budget for Shannon Airport which would benefit the south west. Transport routes must be enhanced with the production of a tourism plan by Shannon Development. The deadline for the mid-Shannon investment scheme must be extended. A dedicated marketing initiative must be launched to capture the potential of the customs pre-clearance facility to be introduced in Shannon this summer, the first of its kind in Europe. This will allow US visitors to clear customs at the airport and for it to grow routes to regional airports in the US. It should also stimulate spin-off tourism growth in the south west. Tourism employers should be exempted from paying PRSI on new staff to encourage recruitment, and cost issues must be tackled to ensure competitiveness is restored.
In the short time allocated for the debate, I have been only able to hint at the many and varied issues facing the tourism industry. I wish Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and the tourism renewal group under the chairmanship of Maurice Pratt well. So much of our tourism industry’s future depends on their efforts and I hope they will bear fruit.
Senator John Ellis Senator John Ellis
Senator John Ellis: I welcome the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, to the House for this renewed debate on the tourism industry.
Recently there has been criticism of the St. Patrick’s Day programmes of Ministers when they actually encourage people abroad to note that Ireland is open for business, be it for industry or tourism. It is also an opportunity for Ministers to meet first, second, third and fourth generation Irish people who wish to be associated with Ireland and encourage them to take their vacations, as the Yanks call them, here.
However, the media attacks Ministers left, right and centre for promoting Ireland. That is wrong. It is time the media realised we are all in these difficult economic times together. Any effort by a Minister to promote Ireland should be undertaken, irrespective of cost. The costs are not excessive when considered in the real world. Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland will send their executives and officers around the world to promote industry in Ireland. The Minister’s St. Patrick’s Day programmes are the same — the promotion of our tourism industry. It is imperative we are allowed to promote the sector freely and without hindrance from the media.
Most people around the world have access to the Internet. When Irish descendants abroad check the Irish newspapers on the Internet, they just see attacks on Ministers travelling abroad to promote the country and it being run down. The cutbacks in this year’s ministerial programmes were entirely wrong. The Taoiseach’s visit to the US President, Mr. Obama, along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, showed the American people the affinity between Ireland and America. It will have done much to promote tourism. It is wrong that Ministers should be criticised when they go abroad to promote this country.
Much progress has been made in the tourism sector over the past ten years. The number of quality hotel beds available compared with ten years ago is phenomenal. The hotel sector has become increasingly competitive with other countries. Hotel prices in Dublin city are 40% of what they were five years ago which encourages people to visit. The amount of weekend tourism to Ireland has increased phenomenally. High quality tourism facilities are being promoted at competitive prices. The recent drop in rates for the dollar and sterling have affected the tourism industry but it has made so much progress in becoming competitive. Many of the international hotel operators have become involved with Irish hotels in the past seven years. This is the type of progress that will lead to a sustainable tourism industry when the recession finishes.
The maximum amount of money possible should be allocated to marketing. It is welcome that Tourism Ireland markets on an all-Ireland basis. For too long there was a myth abroad that Ireland was not a safe destination. Fortunately, this has disappeared along with the famous line between North and South. Many visitors will visit Belfast and Dublin, and sometimes the south west.
The west and the north west, however, are still suffering from lack of promotion. Some of the best tourism facilities are provided in the region but access is still a problem. We must continue to invest in our airlines, regional airports and road infrastructure. A road journey from Sligo to Dublin in two and a half hours is a major improvement from five years ago when it could take from three and a half to four and a half hours. The improvements in the rail network are phenomenal. The Sligo line has an additional five services daily. The standard of the rolling stock provided by Iarnród Éireann encourages people to take intercity breaks and visit outside of Dublin. Many in the industry in the west have informed me that people will now travel from Dublin to the west for a mid-week break by train. The fastest growing market for out-of-season, mid-week breaks is among those who are retired. These individuals can use their bus or train passes and travel, free of charge, to their destinations. As a result, they make tremendous savings and are encouraged to take short breaks at various locations throughout the country.
The hotel industry has begun to meet the needs of the market and can provide accommodation and food at extremely competitive prices. Certain first-class hotels are offering mid-week breaks for two for as little as €150. Such breaks typically include two nights bed and breakfast and one evening meal, which is tremendous value. However, we are losing out in terms of our inability to sustain this type of trade and the employment to which it gives rise on a year-round basis. A difficulty existed for a number of years in that some individuals were of the view that too many eastern Europeans or other non-Irish nationals were involved in the tourism trade. However, the position is changing because many young Irish people see tourism as offering them a future, be it as bar staff or in other positions within the general hotel industry infrastructure.
Another important development in the tourism industry relates to air access. Aer Lingus, Ryanair, Aer Arann and others are providing competitive rates in respect of flights to some of our smaller regional airports in particular. This is a welcome development. These rates can only be provided on foot of the subsidies that are on offer from Europe. It is extremely important to ensure that these subsidies remain in place in the long term because without them, some of the regional airports and smaller airlines will not be able to survive.
Senator Coghlan referred to Killarney, and everything is local when it comes to politics.
Senator Paul Coghlan Senator Paul Coghlan
Senator Paul Coghlan: It is the capital of Irish tourism, and the Department’s headquarters and the Minister’s office are located there, which is something we welcome.
Senator John Ellis Senator John Ellis
Senator John Ellis: I will not dispute what is the capital of Irish tourism, where all the leprechauns reside or anything of that nature. Everybody accepts that Killarney, as a regional centre, has tremendous facilities. However, the facilities in other centres are equally good but these places are not as well marketed or do not receive the same exposure as Killarney. Some of the promoters and venue owners in Killarney do tremendous work in the context of attracting tourists to visit the town and attend various shows and gigs. This is what tourism is all about.
There were a number of excellent tourism attractions on offer in Dublin during the past three months. For example, the international matches involving the Irish rugby team provide the tourism and hospitality industries with tremendous opportunities. In addition, between 10% and 20% of those who attend high-profile concerts in Dublin come from outside the capital. People tend to forget that many of the venues in this country that were developed with the assistance of tax breaks etc. will make a far larger contribution in the long term than will other projects that are still in receipt of major grant aid. We pay for industrial jobs but we do not make a similar contribution when it comes to jobs in the hospitality sector.
There is a need to continue to pump money into the area of marketing. In the future, marketing will be more important than any other factor when it comes to the tourism industry. It all revolves around how one sells the package, regardless of whether one is offering a three, five or seven-day break. There is a need for co-ordination among hotels, guesthouse owners and others in the industry. The bed and breakfast sector met its demise because hotel beds have become so much cheaper than was the case 20 or 25 years ago as a result of the investment made in the hotel industry. It is sad that this has happened. People who use bed and breakfast establishments are usually keen to maintain their privacy and experience a little of Irish life. These individuals will continue to use such establishments.
Everyone is aware of the difficulties that arose on foot of the rates of pay that had to be applied in hotels, bars and restaurants on Sundays. This matter has been tackled by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, and the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy Kelleher. Rural establishments were placed at a serious disadvantage compared to their counterparts in Dublin, when they were obliged to offer staff the rates of pay to which I refer to their employees.
Golfing and spa resorts have become big business. I compliment those who included first-class golf courses as part of their hotel developments. Some of these courses are of the highest standard. While the weather in Ireland is not always ideal and has a particular bearing on golf and other outdoor activities, we must do whatever is necessary to provide all-weather facilities in hotels, be they spa facilities designed to keep wives happy or indoor sports facilities.
As the Minister stated, it is hoped that the national conference centre will be open in 2010. If it is marketed properly, this centre will make a massive contribution in the context of filling hotel beds in this city and in places situated within a 50-mile radius of it. As everyone knows, it is extremely tiring to be obliged to spend an hour travelling from one’s hotel to the venue at which the conference one is attending is being held. The new national conference centre will provide us with an advantage in this regard.
Certain parts of the tourism industry have been left behind. The coarse angling sector has been allowed to deteriorate. Questions must be answered in respect of how this sector has been promoted and with regard to how fish stocks in certain lakes and rivers have been protected.
We could discuss the challenges facing the tourism and hospitality sector at length. Another part of the industry that is beginning to expand is that which relates to green tourism. Eco-friendly tourism is a growth industry. A hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon in my constituency was recently presented with a European award in respect of the progress it has made in the area of energy saving. I never expected a hotel in a rural area to receive such an award and the establishment to which I refer is the first of its kind in the country to do so. The owners of the hotel decided to go the eco-friendly route in promoting their establishment and the facilities on offer there.
I wish the Minister well. He will have the full support of all Members with regard to the action he will be obliged to take to market this country as a tourism destination. As stated, the media has a duty to ensure that those promoting Ireland are not hindered and that aspersions are not cast upon their activities.
Senator Jerry Buttimer Senator Jerry Buttimer
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire. I wish well in their endeavours those involved in the campaign to make the Cliffs of Moher one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I hope they are successful because the Cliffs of Moher are a magnificent attraction on the west coast.
It is good that the Minister has remained in the House for the debate. Some of his colleagues tend to leave before debates of this nature have concluded. As he stated, tourism is important to every parish, village and townland in Ireland. Leadership is required in respect of the serious challenges we face. The tourism industry is one of the best vehicles at our disposal to promote Ireland as a place to visit, live, do business and relax and enjoy oneself. However, some of the activities that sullied the name of Ireland during the past week — I refer to the robust exchanges that took place in certain areas on St. Patrick’s Day — leave a lot to be desired. The Ireland of the céad míle fáilte must be reinvented and we must eliminate thugs and their activities from society. I am concerned that the St. Patrick’s Day festival is being adversely affected by alcohol-imbued, anti-social behaviour. The type of behaviour to which I refer spoils the great work being done by many people throughout the country as it attracts all the headlines.
The Minister referred to a framework for the future but I have yet to see that from Government. I hope we can take measures to ensure the stabilisation of the economy and, more importantly, to implement a reform agenda in the tourism sector. The implications for the tourism sector are significant. It is imperative for our future prosperity that we have a tourism industry that is buoyant, creating employment and attracting visitors. I hope that can be done.
I wish to emulate Senators Coghlan and Ellis and make a parochial reference to my city of Cork, which is the gateway to the south west.
Senator Paul Coghlan Senator Paul Coghlan
Senator Paul Coghlan: The southern capital.
Senator Jerry Buttimer Senator Jerry Buttimer
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Senator Coghlan can lay claim to Killarney being the tourism capital of Ireland but in order to get to Killarney one has to go through Cork. The city and county of Cork must be promoted through business and cultural tourism.
Cork Airport is fast becoming the gateway and entry point to the south west but it must be resourced, debt-free and autonomous. I compliment the staff and executives of Cork Airport who are doing a good job in promoting Cork. I am concerned that Cork Airport could become a white elephant because of the charges there and other off-site issues. It is important the Government addresses that issue.
In order to gain access to west Cork and parts of Kerry we need the Cork to Swansea ferry. I congratulate the various tourism and sectoral interests in west Cork who have been actively promoting the ferry. That link to the United Kingdom is absolutely necessary and it is imperative it is restored. The people of Cork, especially west Cork, require support for that. They have had many pledges of support from people and business. What is the Government’s position on the provision of monetary support through investments, for example, the buying of shares and the pledging of donations to get involved in the ferry and to get its money back? We have heard nothing substantive from the Government on the matter in terms of a cash investment in the ferry. I urge the Minister to respond to the matter in his reply.
Cork city is losing out because it does not have an active convention or conference centre. The Minister referred to Dublin. My base is Cork and I am concerned that we do not have a convention centre there. Killarney has an active convention centre in the INEC that brings in shows and various events that attract people to Kerry. Sadly, we do not have that in Cork. It is imperative that as part of its the renewal programme through an economic stimulus package the Government would assist Cork City Council in that regard.
I am pleased the Minister referred to the regions because they are important in the overall scheme of things. The Minister has seen Waterford Glass closing in his city with the loss, which I hope will be only temporary, of the visitor centre there, which was one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country. It would be a shame if that lay idle for much longer.
We must emphasise the issue of cost. Senators Ellis and Coghlan referred to Sunday pay. However, in my view the cost factor has not been tackled. I refer to the cost of getting access to this country, the departure tax, and the cost of accommodation, meals, wages and everything else. It is a major problem. I am sure that when the Minister speaks to visitors about coming to Ireland they talk about the value they get for their money. We can talk about the exchange rate and the sterling or dollar differential but compared to countries within the eurozone the cost here is significantly higher and that is costing us big-time. We need to introduce incentives in that regard.
Let us take the example of tourists coming to this country from England or Spain who are staying in a cottage and buying food and groceries. Let us consider what value they get for €100 or €200 in England or Spain compared to this country. It is absolutely daft and it is killing us from a tourism point of view. Last week our party leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, spoke about people staying in Ireland and in his opening remarks the Minister referred to taking X amount of money back from the billions that are spent abroad. However, one should look at the value people get when they go to Spain with a family of three or four children compared to this country.
Are we going to get real about the cost of tourism in this country? We have to entice people. We are all in favour of that. We have a tremendous product; a beautiful, rugged natural landscape. We have great attractions and we used to have a great welcoming population. People look at the cost of a room rather than the cost of a bed. It is important that we stop pricing ourselves out of the market. The Minister referred in his speech to Sunday rates of pay. That is one of the biggest impediments to people staying in business across the country. I sympathise with the people who are working in the industry who have to earn a wage but we must examine Sunday rates.
The banks, our infamous friends, are not helping the owners of bed and breakfast establishments, small hoteliers and restaurant owners. They must introduce liquidity to the market because it is depriving people of their livelihoods and killing off business, which we should not be doing.
I hope the Minister will have good news for the Cork to Swansea ferry this afternoon. It is important that we have an attractive market to sell in the United Kingdom with Cork and Kerry. Tourism is one of our biggest employers and we should not lose sight of that.
Senator Mark Daly Senator Mark Daly
Senator Mark Daly: I agree with Senator Buttimer. It is rare that I do, but I agree with him about the Cork to Swansea ferry. I will return to that point. I thank the Minister and the Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Mansergh, for their assistance to Kerry in opening Ross Castle last week four weeks earlier than all other OPW sites in the country. As the Acting Chairman, Senator Coghlan, is aware, that is in no small part due to the great work of the Killarney chamber of commerce and tourism.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: And your good self, Senator Daly.
Senator Mark Daly Senator Mark Daly
Senator Mark Daly: While we are in the mutual admiration society, I include your good self, Senator Coghlan. That work was done by proving that Killarney, which is the capital of tourism, as the Acting Chairman and the Minister are well aware, does not just have a six-month season, it has a year-round season. It would beggar belief to have spent such an inordinate amount of money on the restoration of Ross Castle, which is iconic in posters dating back more than 100 years, and then for it not to be open when people come to visit it and Muckross House during St. Patrick’s week. It would be a disgrace to find that its doors were closed even though we had spent millions trying to open them. That campaign carried out by the chamber of commerce, the hoteliers and the tourism industry shows, as will the other examples I will outline, how the private sector has to prove its case during the economic downturn. People must act, as they cannot expect the Government to provide everything. Showing how many days the castle was open last year and the footfall that went through it in the same period proved the case that an exception should be made of Ross Castle.
I have been part of some of the many delegations on the Cork to Swansea ferry to the Minister and the Minister for Transport to try to get Government funding. However, EU restrictions are such that were the Government to hand out large amounts of money to any company, that would bring down the wrath of the great Mr. Michael O’Leary. If the Swansea-Cork ferry was to get money from the Government, Michael O’Leary would probably want money also. EU regulations would not permit that. Therefore, we must find more imaginative ways to raise funds.
The Swansea-Cork ferry group, led by John Hosford and the captain and chairman of the Port of Cork, has come up with an innovative way of funding the project. Shareholders are being sought who will co-operate and pay €1,000 towards a part share or who will form a group and pay €10,000 for a share in order to buy a part in the new Swansea-Cork ferry, which as Deputy Buttimer said, is vital for the people of south Kerry and west Cork. It is estimated the ferry will bring €22 million annually into the Irish economy following the first option investment of €5 million. From the Government’s point of view, this would be money well spent, but the restrictions imposed by the European Union with regard to Government funding of private sector organisations and industry are such that we cannot develop the ferry service in the manner we might want.
The Swansea-Cork ferry project is an example of the private sector and individuals involved in the industry coming together and not relying on Government to provide leadership. In the current economic times it is important that the private sector and individuals provide leadership themselves and prove the case. There is a sustainable economic argument to be made for the Swansea-Cork ferry in terms of viability because we currently have transporters and lorries heading all the way to Rosslare in order to travel to England. There is also environmental damage in terms of CO 2 emissions as a result of the loss of the Swansea-Cork ferry over the past number of years.
I was talking to John Hosford before coming here today and he and I are hopeful the matter will be resolved in the near future. One of the upsides of the economic downturn is that ferries have become available. The group has identified one in Scandinavia that is suitable for use in Cork as it has a shallow hull and, hopefully, the receiver of the company there will conclude negotiations with the consortium that has come together to develop the Swansea-Cork ferry. It is foolhardy in the current economic times to rely on the Government alone to provide these vital links between Ireland and the United Kingdom or France. It is important people realise their futures are in their own hands. While the Government will give them whatever support it can, it is limited in what it can do because of the current financial situation and the rules imposed within the European Union.
Another project deserving support is the Centre of Contemporary Irish Culture in Kenmare, something I am sure Senator Coghlan supports. Bord Fáilte has granted €6 million towards the building of this 20,000 sq. ft. exhibition centre with seven different galleries. This is an unusual undertaking that will cost €12.5 million. The Government will provide €6 million through Bord Fáilte and it is up to the town of Kenmare and its population of 1,700 to come up with the other €6 million. This is not an amount one could get from a church gate collection or a raffle. John Brennan, from the Park Hotel in Kenmare, organised a public meeting at which he presented the argument on the vital necessity of this centre in order to take advantage of the upswing. In the past eight weeks he and the people of Kenmare have raised over €1 million in pledges for the centre. I am aware they must collect a further €5 million, but at a time when people are strapped for cash, I must commend their vision in taking on the inordinate task of raising €6 million and on having got so far so quickly.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. As with most strategies currently, we must rely first on ourselves with regard to our tourism strategy. Where the Government can assist, it will, but people working in tourism in Kerry, Cork and all over the country have always relied first on themselves. They have proven to be world leaders as a result.
Senator Feargal Quinn Senator Feargal Quinn
 Senator Feargal Quinn: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am one of those people who grew up in the tourism business and welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue. I am not going to point out what the Government should do to solve the difficulties because the current difficulties will not be solved by the Government but by ourselves. I grew up in the tourism business and I advise anybody starting out, particularly young people starting in life, that if they get the chance to be born again they should do their best to be born into a family that runs a holiday camp. Living in a family that runs a holiday camp is a smashing way to grow up and a great business experience.
My father opened Red Island holiday camp in Skerries in 1947 when I was, obviously, only a baby. I grew up in a business that was totally different to the business I later became involved in, namely, the grocery business. The business my father built had 250 bedrooms, catered for 500 guests and provided hot and cold water and central heating. The guests arrived from England by boat and plane and were met by buses. They paid for their holiday — travel, accommodation, food and entertainment — on the day they arrived. The deal my father made with them was that they would not need to spend any more money because everything was included in the initial price. Imagine what it is like when one grows up in a business in which the objective of the business is not to sell one’s customer something extra, but to ensure the guests come to the owner at the end of the week and say they had a great holiday and will be back again the following year. I put that argument to the young people visiting the House today and to all people in business.
The objective of every business is to get the customer to return and that is in our hands each time we make a decision, particularly in the tourism business. That objective is the real objective of business, but it is where this country has tended to fall down. We have tended to believe that the way to get more business is by advertising and promotion. Those strategies are useful in getting people here for the first time, but the ideal way to get guests or tourists is through word of mouth. We need people who will say they were here, had a great time and will return this year. This does not just apply to Ireland as a whole, but to each county and town.
Some years ago when my family was still young we went to Glenbeigh on holiday. I remember hearing the parish priest there say at mass on Sunday that things were not good at the time, but the way to success for the parish was to make guests welcome. Later that night when we went looking for a babysitter, we got a local babysitter but were told when we wanted to pay that there was no cost because the parish priest had said the people were to make guests welcome. It was very interesting to see the effect of the priest’s words on the parishioners, that they should make guests welcome. This is something lacking in Ireland currently. We have fallen away from that attitude and there is a danger that we will point out instead what the Minister and Government should be doing up in Dublin. My concern is that this happens on a regular basis. It regularly happens that when a group of people in any part of the country join together to solve a problem, such as the closure of a factory, the first thing they do is send a delegation to the Department. That is not the way to succeed. We must individually recognise that if we are to solve the problems facing us, we must act individually as families, villages, towns, counties and regions. Last year, room occupancy in the country’s 920 hotels fell to 58%, the lowest rate since 1994. The biggest drop was in the number of bed nights sold to American tourists. This figure decreased by 23%, or almost one quarter, by comparison with the previous year. The number of beds sold to British tourists fell by 15% while the number of EU visitors dropped by 7%. Many other businesses throughout the country are losing business also.
There is a danger that we will say we can do nothing about this but that is not correct. I recognise from my business career that even in very tough times there are people who succeed, just as there are those who fail during very good times. It is within our remit as individuals and communities to address the problem. In these times, it is very easy to be pessimistic. Those with longer memories know that the tourism and hospitality sector, as with any other, operates in cycles. I remember Bloody Sunday and the burning of the British Embassy in 1972. There was a huge drop in the number of tourists and nobody came from Britain that year. That was such a long time ago but when we consider what has occurred more recently, we will note that the industry experienced a fall in the number of visitors in 2001 and 2002 following the events of 11 September 2001 and also as a consequence of the economic downturn in the wake of the dotcom disaster in the same period. However, the sector recovered and there was an increase in the number of foreign customers in each of the following five years. We can do something about the current trend but we must not lose confidence and must take action ourselves.
When I was in college in the 1950s, I was involved in the co-operative movement. An Comhar Taisteal was established in this era. It was the co-operative travel organisation based in Gardiner Street in Dublin. It made a deal with CIE and interested parties in west Cork whereby, for £2, CIE would take a family from Dublin to the nearest station in west Cork, where they would stay in a local farmhouse. The local farmer would meet the family at the station, usually with a horse and cart — there were not many cars around in the 1950s — and offer them a holiday in that part of the world. My role in the co-operative movement — I was a teenager at the time — was to present farmers with the opportunity of generating new income by having Dublin families holiday in Cork. This really was exciting. In those days, people did not go away on holidays, except to relatives. In this case, however, our customers, who were from Dublin and certainly did not have relatives in the country, went to west Cork. The greetings and the welcome were remarkable and the initiative was a great success. This is not the kind of tourism we think of today, which involves guesthouses, swanky hotels with big swimming pools and every other facility. It involved living the way of life the city dwellers did not otherwise have a chance to experience. We can do a considerable amount as individuals as well as doing so as communities. I would love to see us do more in this regard.
Let me refer to some other areas. We know the saying that talk is cheap but we need to return to basics and make it easy for people to book hotels and guesthouses. We need to give them what they desire. They need the packaged product to highlight what is on offer. We need to showcase ourselves in the best possible light and educate our customers, not only on what is on offer but on what is available free and of the best possible value.
I was contacted today by the Irish Travel Agents Association, which is urging the Minister to halve the cost of bonding for travel agents. Its letter states:
There will be no cost to the exchequer and no risk to consumers but a genuine prospect of jobs being saved in our industry. Every job saved is also a saving of €20,000 to the exchequer every year.
The association also states:
We believe 2,500 jobs are at risk. [In this regard it states] “we fear these are ‘invisible jobs’ because they are spread amongst small businesses nationwide not clustered in one town or city. The tragedy is that a simple, cost free, act of red tape reduction could do a lot to save these jobs at no cost to the exchequer.
The association refers to bonding for Irish travel agencies:
Quite apart from recessionary pressures, these jobs are at serious risk due to the fact the industry is regulated by outdated legislation introduced as far back as 1982 [I was not aware of this].
The legislation imposes a burden of regulation that is overseen by the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR) and bears little relationship to either the operation or the work practices of today’s industry. More importantly, the regulation fails to achieve its primary objective, the protection of the travelling public.
While there are many aspects of the regulation that are not working, the part that is causing most difficulty at industry level is the requirement for Travel Agents to provide financial security by way of a bond equal to 4% of annual turnover. While travel agents have no difficulty providing an appropriate level of financial security to protect our customers, the statistical evidence clearly shows that a maximum 2% of annual turnover is adequate rather than 4% insisted on by CAR. Given today’s financial environment, the requirement to provide twice as much bonding as required is driving companies out of business.
I am making the case for the travel agents without full knowledge of the point they are making.
We need to remind people, particularly the Irish, that one does not have to travel abroad to have a really good experience. Ireland has an abundance of attractions to offer. There are great sights to be seen, fabulous beaches, great national parks and golf courses, some of which were mentioned today, and great walking and cycling trails. There are great visitor attractions and cultural and heritage sites. Just last week, The Irish Times produced a lovely book on the walks one can do in various locations around Ireland. It was very interesting to see it.
We will struggle to attract the same number of foreign visitors we attracted in recent years and it is therefore vital that we focus on the domestic market and attract the Irish to holiday at home this coming year. It is not only important for tourism but vital to our economy. Hotels are playing and will play their part in providing some fantastic deals. All one must do is check the daily newspapers or the Internet to obtain evidence of the fantastic deals on offer.
The value of sterling is such that it is very attractive for shoppers to go to the North to shop. It is also making it very difficult for the British to come to Ireland because it has become a lot more expensive. We must really work harder. I am confident that Fáilte Ireland is doing its job of attracting people to the island of Ireland. The real task is to make their experience such that they will come back again. We are helped a great deal by what the Minister and Fáilte Ireland can do but, if we are to succeed, we must realise the matter is in our own hands. If this is the case, we just have to believe in ourselves.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire Stáit. Tá an-áthas orm go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ag tarlú, cé go raibh sé againn go rialta go dtí seo. Tá athrú ag teacht ar stádas na turasóireachta an t-am ar fad. Maidir leis sin, tá sé tábhachtach go mbeadh seans againn — ag brath ar an taithí atá againn — ár dtuairimí a nochtadh chuile lá agus chuile seachtain. I am delighted we are having this debate again. We have had it on several occasions. Very often on the Order of Business tourism is mentioned. This is as it should be because it is almost a moveable feast. The tourism environment is changing and business is becoming more competitive. People, perhaps because of economic pressures, have decided we should achieve value for money. All these issues arise and for this reason it is important to have a continuing debate on and assessment of what is happening on the ground.
Kerry people are particularly good at promoting their own county. This was evident today but it is evident generally. Deputy Jimmy Deenihan has done me the honour of asking me to officially open his conference on cultural tourism tomorrow night. It will be held in Listowel. The reason I mention this is that Listowel is an example of how tourism should be promoted. The people there live their culture and cultural tourism. Perhaps this is the point made by Senator Feargal Quinn with regard to people power when dealing with visitors. We should not always be checking the till to see how much money we are getting. The money will come.
It is absolutely vital that our reputation for friendship is cultivated and that we are particularly careful to be attentive to the needs of visitors. Often that is not very tangible. One must listen and see precisely what they want. Visitors may want to trace their ancestors and, for example, if their name is “Clifford”, one may be able to tell them that a family of that name lived down the road two generations ago and that if they visit the local cemetery they might see the grave space or the remnants of the homestead.
I saw a case where a family came back from the United States to a particular part of County Clare. They wanted to see where was the homestead but all that was left was a heap of stones where the grass was growing. They photographed the particular site. They picked up little stones and put them into their pockets to bring them back to the United States. To the cynic, this might seem like an unusual exercise, but to the visitor it is part of their spiritual inheritance. This is more powerful than all the advertisements on television or in the newspapers. It has an emotive and emotional context of which we must be conscious.
I will mention Cashel later and I will not miss the opportunity to do so, but with regard to Listowel, there are more writers per square foot. in Listowel than in any part of the world. One could name ten significant writers from there. One must ask oneself why is this the case. One reason relates to something Bryan MacMahon stated on a television programme and mentioned in one of his books. The local library service asked him whether a branch could be established in his school and he told them not to do so but to establish it in the building across the road. When he was asked why, he explained that if the library was established in the school it would be associated with the school but if it was established in another building it would be associated with the community. The context of community for tourism is absolutely vital.
I examined the statistics for January and these are encouraging when one considers the numbers. I went to get my hair done a short time ago and the barber mentioned that places were busy and that there were many visitors around. To hear this from people shows that the resilience of our tourism industry will stand us in good stead. I can remember going to the United States at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles and meeting people there who knew nothing about it except the headlines in the newspapers or what they saw on television and, generally, these were of a tragic nature. All these people felt that Ireland was engulfed in war at that time. For Bord Fáilte, as it was then, to try to offset this negative image of Ireland was virtually impossible, yet it succeeded in doing so.
Now, we have a two-pronged approach. I was speaking with a DUP representative during a debate on what cultural tourism meant. I made the point that we are particularly lucky to have a single body to promote the entire island of Ireland, namely, Tourism Ireland. It is doing a great job and we do not have a negative image going out. We must also remember that previously, publicity campaigns were threatened and undermined by a new tragedy. The global economic downturn is no more daunting than the challenges we faced in the past.
I agree that we must focus on ourselves rather than on what Governments should be doing. The infrastructure is there and it has been supported. No matter where one goes, we have good roads for people to travel. However, we still have things which are exclusive to ourselves. We still have national monuments, a great literary tradition, great Irish music, great sports and a great image worldwide. We never colonised any other country in the world and the friendship of the Irish is well known. However, it is up to the community and the individual to promote the country and we should start talking tourism up rather than down.
In recent months, several bodies have come before the Oireachtas committee which deals with tourism. These include Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and tour operators. All these groups have been positive. The next step is to get this positive attitude across within communities. On every occasion, I state that it is absolutely vital that we maintain and sustain the bed and breakfast network. It might seem to be irrelevant because there are so many hotels which provide good rates at present. However, the personal experience in a bed and breakfast stays with the visitor for a long time. There are possibilities in this sector. If we could tweak the law a little and allow bed and breakfast establishments to have alcoholic beverages available for customers, it could make all the difference to this sector of the industry.
Let us try to get organised at community level. Tourism boards at county level have disappeared statutorily. To some extent, the regional tourist boards have been marginalised. Apart from Dublin Tourism and Shannon Development, to a large degree the others do not have a structure. Even on a non-statutory basis let us try to have a forum within each community to sell itself. I like the little anecdote Senator Feargal Quinn told about a parish priest in Kerry stating that the way one keeps one’s visitors is to look after their needs. Communities need a forum to highlight these matters and find ways and means of developing them.
I paid tribute to Kerry and the manner in which the people there are able to promote it.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: It is always a good thing to do.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: One of the finest monuments in Europe is the Rock of Cashel which 300,000 people visit every year. However, the hotel infrastructure in the region does not have the best history. Perhaps when an opportunity arises, we can do something to endeavour to keep the coach loads that come to the Rock of Cashel within the functional area.
Senator Paudie Coffey Senator Paudie Coffey
Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the Minister back to the House to hear this debate. I listened closely to the contributions of the Minister and Senators. I agree with most speakers that tourism is one area that has huge potential, even in the difficult economic climate. Tourism is one area that can be recession-proof if, as previous speakers stated, people contribute in a positive way. However, they will need the assistance of the Government and I am interested to hear the comments of the Minister on the strategies the Government might have to grow tourism in the country.
One of the main areas where the Government can assist the regions is the facilitation of infrastructure to assist and promote tourism in areas such as access to the regions. We have regional airports. Rail links and even bus corridors are very important as they give tourists the opportunity not only to visit Dublin and the Pale but to get out to the regions where they will see the real Ireland and the attractions.
One area with huge potential, which has been mentioned by other speakers, is families holidaying at home. The tourism industry is targeting and promoting family short breaks. Will the Minister discuss with Fáilte Ireland promoting in the United Kingdom these short breaks here? Cities such as Manchester and Birmingham have huge populations and there is direct access through Waterford regional airport to Waterford and the south-east region. There should be marketing campaigns in these cities to offer short breaks that are good value for money and promote the tourism product in this country. Ireland needs to go back to playing to its strengths. Traditional bed and breakfasts and country farmhouses have lost ground in the last few years to the bland hotels that have been sprouting up around the place. I had the pleasure of visiting a country farmhouse in Sliabh gCua, Touraneena in County Waterford. It is an award winning farmhouse, and the people running it provide a simple product. They introduced people from Europe, Canada and the US and such people are coming back. The simple tourism product is the real Ireland of the welcomes. They get good, clean accommodation and good directions to places to visit in the area. Although the people running the farmhouse have advertised on the Internet, it is the experience they offer people that brings such people back. We need to go back to those old characteristics and tourism will benefit from that.
While the economy was strong over the last few years, there was much focus on spas and golf clubs, which are important products. However, we need to strengthen tourism by assisting communities. Senators have already spoken about how people can contribute to tourism. Communities themselves offer a great product, and I have been involved in a project on the links between Waterford and Newfoundland in Canada. Over 100,000 Canadian visitors came to Ireland last year. The Canadian economy is still doing quite well, and those tourists are still likely to travel. However, only 40% of those tourists visited the south-east region, and only 9% spent a night in the region. This is the case, in spite of huge cultural links between Waterford, the south-east region in general and Newfoundland in Canada. Simple work can be done to attract more Canadian visitors to our region.
It would be remiss of me to contribute to this debate without mentioning Waterford Crystal. The Minister has this in his heart and has done much work in the background to retain the visitor product at Waterford Crystal. This facility attracts over 310,000 visitors per annum to Waterford and the south-east region. It contributes millions to the Exchequer, and the spin off business from the visitor attraction at Waterford Crystal for hotels, guesthouses, pubs, restaurants, and even the liner business into the Waterford Estuary, could be lost unless we address this issue urgently. I call on the Government to come with a strategy to fill the vacuum that has been created by the loss of Waterford Crystal to Waterford city. Some local business people are doing their utmost to come up with an alternative facility so that crystal can be manufactured in Waterford and an attraction provided, but this is a world recognised brand and we cannot afford to lose such an attraction in the south east. The Government should treat this issue with the urgency it deserves, because it is essential that this visitor attraction remains in Waterford.
This debate has been very welcome. Tourism can survive this recession. We concentrated in the past on promoting spas and golf clubs, but we need to go back to assisting communities. Local authorities have a role to play, and Waterford County Council is involved in a progressive tourism product, that is, the Waterford food fair. The Minister opened the fair last year and I attended it. It attracts people from Ireland, the UK and from Europe. It goes back to what is good and different about Ireland. We are selling our food, an indigenous product, and we are promoting tourism around that, and hotels, guesthouses and restaurants will benefit. The food fair was a local initiative that was assisted by the local authority and by Government agencies, but we need more of this and we need to market it more often. That is the way we can grow tourism in this country.
Senator Donie Cassidy Senator Donie Cassidy
Senator Donie Cassidy: I welcome the Minister and wish him well in his portfolio. He has a serious challenge ahead, because marketing Ireland is a big task. Ireland is the good food nation, it is the Ireland of the welcomes and it is a great ambassador for its music over the years. It is a remarkable country for its sportspersons, and we saw great achievements last Saturday.
I knew our Minister when he was a Minister of State. I saw him come in here on the evening of a budget that had just been read in the other House for the first time, yet he took questions from all the eminent Senators. At that stage, I said that Deputy Martin Cullen was certainly going to make his mark in the Government. I wish him well in his portfolio. It is an extremely important portfolio because it is responsible for a huge amount of employment in the services sector.
I want to talk about three areas of tourism, namely, wages, local authority costs and energy costs. Energy costs have completely gone out of hand. Prices charged for gas and electricity are unsustainable. Any industry that provides substantial employment — guesthouses, hotels and so on employ 30, 40, 50 and up to 200 people in some cases — should obtain a specific rate from the Government, after which no more can be charged per unit of electricity or gas. There are 800,000 people working in the small and medium sized sector in Ireland. These people work in the local family run businesses and they have been around for 25 to 30 years. They are not fly-by-night businesses. They are the backbone from which the country will come out of the recession. We can be assured that the people running those businesses are making no money today. They are surviving and hoping that in a couple of years they will be able to keep the loyal, dedicated people who helped them build up their business over the years and who are rearing their families all over Ireland.
These are the people and the businesses the Government should be looking after. However, the ESB raised prices by 17.5% in August, while Bord Gáis raised prices by 20% in September. The companies made a big deal about reducing prices by 10% next month for domestic users, but what about the people who are creating employment? What about people who are supplying the wages? The Government has a duty in this budget to look after those who are providing employment, because if there are no golden geese, there are no golden eggs. It is as simple as that. It is not acceptable that the price of gas and electricity has increased by 40% in two years. If we look at the prices across the Border, we must lead by example.
The Taoiseach knows the value of a job to us in the midlands. We look forward to having him for the longest time, because he is an exceptional Taoiseach. We all saw only too well on our television screens on St. Patrick’s Day the wonderful welcome the man from Offaly received in the US from the new President, with his connections in Moneygall. There are nations in the world that would give their right hand for the welcome and the amount of time that our Taoiseach was given in Washington. Our Cathaoirleach, Senator Moylan, the man from Banagher, accompanied the Taoiseach and showed the strength of the Offaly connection on St. Patrick’s Day. The people of Ireland are looking to Brian Cowen and Martin Cullen, the Minister in charge, to deal seriously with energy costs for tourism business.
Experienced officials from the Department are sitting here listening to my contribution, so they should be made aware that the Irish hotel sector has its back to the wall. The people involved are keeping it going because most of us are born to tradition. We are keeping it going because we hope that something will happen that will give us a break.
The second major challenge is to deal with the sewerage charges and water charges levied by local authorities. Not alone are they charging us for water that comes in, but they are now going to charge us for the water that goes out. If there were a commitment to keep people in jobs, and there is, and we are all in it together on both sides of the House, let us give priority to those who are providing employment. When the economy recovers and the opportunities for further employment present, these very employers, that is, the small and medium sized family businesses, will take on staff and train them under FÁS schemes, given the proper incentives. There is no point in starting FÁS schemes in areas without knowing where the jobs are going to be in one, two or three years. However, if incentives could be given to the hotel, guest house and tourism sectors to enable them to train the chefs, waitresses and receptionists of tomorrow, they would gladly hire such people and train them now. If the incentives exist the people are there to respond. They responded when the tourism business was in its infancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ireland, the good food nation, has come a long way. We hosted the Ryder Cup. An Bord Bia was responsible for a wonderful marketing campaign promoting Ireland as the good food nation. There are marvellous chefs and tremendous cooks here. There is wonderful food, but the problem is the high cost of wages. Who can pay €20 per hour? The Acting Chairman comes from a place to which I go on holiday every year. There is not a year when I do not visit the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: The Senator is most welcome.
Senator Donie Cassidy Senator Donie Cassidy
Senator Donie Cassidy: I congratulate the Acting Chairman on his appointment as president of the wonderful golf club in Killarney, which is a great honour for him and his family.
Who can pay €20 per hour? One can visit France, Portugal or Spain where there is guaranteed sunshine. All we have in Ireland is the céad míle fáilte, the welcomes, the beautiful scenery, the countryside and the good food and accommodation. There should be a suspension of whatever agreements are in place.
Last Sunday three weeks, I arrived in Dublin Airport. I tried to get lunch in six hotels nearby the airport, but not one of them was serving lunch on a Sunday and I could not believe it. In the end I asked a person in a hotel in Liffey Valley, who recommended that I go to the Deadman’s Inn, a pub, because there is a lovely lunch there. It was beautiful and fabulous, because there is a different wages regime. Why is the hotelier being penalised? Why are the people willing to work, to avail of work and have their employment next door to where they live penalised? Some common sense should prevail in respect of this penalty, because everything is in place. Restaurants are in place for six days of the week and cannot open on Sunday because of wage costs. It is impossible to break even. These are some of the points I wished to make. I sincerely hope something can be done with energy costs, because they are a real penalty and many people are hurting very badly because of them. They will influence whether some establishments will remain open for November, December, January and February this coming Winter and Spring.
Senator Paddy Burke Senator Paddy Burke
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the opportunity to comment on tourism, a very important topic. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and I compliment him on the job he is doing as Minister with responsibility for tourism. There is great scope for promoting Ireland and for increasing tourism. However, we are falling down in many areas. Many new initiatives could be put forward. I question some aspects of the work of Fáilte Ireland. Some areas which could be promoted are not being promoted. The tourism authority has fallen down in respect of aspects that it has promoted heavily in the past but has abandoned in recent years.
Let us consider golf. Fáilte Ireland was heavily involved in promoting golf. Then we hosted the Ryder Cup. I am sorry we are not hosting the Ryder Cup this year, rather than the year it came, because that year Ireland was very expensive and the country robbed people who came here. I was very disappointed in many cases with the service provided by the country to people who visited to attend the competition.
When it was over, Fáilte Ireland forgot about golf to a large degree. Following this, Pádraig Harrington came into his own as a world class player and Fáilte Ireland no longer sponsored him. Perhaps it could not afford to continue sponsoring him. I listened to the BBC after he won the last British Open competition and the people who organised the British Open stated that Pádraig Harrington was the greatest ambassador ever in the history of the British Open golf championship. As a country we abandoned him. Perhaps we could not afford him, but it should be that we could not afford to be without him.
I heard from a person at home that Pádraig Harrington visited Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin to meet a young lad who was picked on the Connaught golfing team. He spent time with the lad and brought to him the flag from the 18th green at which he won his last major championship in the USA. He returned again and gave the lad his sponsorship cap.  These are things that Pádraig Harrington has done, but our tourist board abandoned him at a time when we should really have dug in. There are lessons to be learned. We should have continued to promote golf. We should have approached golf clubs and hotels and told them to cut their hotel rates and green fees. Instead they went wild and now we do not seem to have tourists in that department.
There is not enough done in respect of promoting fishing, especially deep sea fishing. Very little is being done in this area and there is a great opportunity there.
My colleague, Senator Coffey, commented on our national games, both hurling and Gaelic football, and the GAA. Is there any reason why Fáilte Ireland could not buy thousands of tickets for games such as the Leinster final? Such games could be promoted in England, Europe and America. We have Croke Park which is one of the greatest stadiums in the world at present, but for the Leinster final it will probably only be half full. Why can Fáilte Ireland not work out a package with the GAA for match tickets, hotels and flights and promote it in England, Europe and the USA for such events as the Leinster final and all Ireland semi-finals, during which the stadium may not be full? Many people in this country go to cup and soccer matches in England. Some go to the USA for basketball matches. Some go to bull fighting in Spain. Why can we not do something similar?
Earlier, Senator Ellis commented on Ministers leaving the country for St. Patrick’s Day. I have no difficulty with any aspect of that. Any politician who leaves the country for St. Patrick’s Day does his utmost to promote the country and area whether he is a councillor, Deputy, Senator or Minister.
Deputy Martin Cullen Deputy Martin Cullen
Deputy Martin Cullen: Hear, hear.
Senator Paddy Burke Senator Paddy Burke
Senator Paddy Burke: Such people leave no stone unturned when they are away to promote their area, county, province or country. I have no problem with that aspect of it. I am aware Senator Doherty wishes to speak and that the Minister must reply.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: There is a slight difficulty with that, because according to the Order of Business the Minister will respond at 4.50 p.m. However, I call Senator Doherty, who has a few minutes to speak.
Senator Pearse Doherty Senator Pearse Doherty
Senator Pearse Doherty: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Burke as am a roinnt liom. Tá a fhios againn gur ceist thábhachtach í an turasóireacht sa tír seo agus go bhfuil laghdú ar an méid turasóirí atá ag teacht isteach ó thar lear. Given the economic circumstances, it is important to maximise tourism spend and the tourism sector’s potential. Many Senators have ideas and suggestions on how to achieve this difficult objective. I concur with some of the sentiments expressed by Senator Quinn to the effect that this objective will be primarily achieved by people on the ground developing innovative strategies, delivering on ideas and securing additional value from the natural beauty and assets of their local areas. However, I also subscribe to the view that support must be provided at national level. Responsibility for much of the work required in this area falls outside the Minister’s portfolio.
I produced a report for the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs entitled Awakening the West: Overcoming Social and Economic Inequality, a large part of which addressed the issue of tourism. The north-west region has experienced a 30% decline in overseas visitors since 1999. In 2006, counties Clare, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal generated only 9% of overall revenue in tourism. Counties Leitrim and Roscommon generated only 0.3% and 0.6%, respectively, whereas County Galway contributed 9.3% of the overall figure.
Given that the problem in rural areas is one of access, we must examine ways to support access to the regions. The Government decision to freeze national roads projects is unwelcome as it will not benefit the tourism sector. Let us put ourselves in the shoes of an American tourist flying into Dublin Airport. If he wishes to visit County Donegal, he will not have access to a rail service and if he wishes to visit the west of the county, he will not even have access to a public bus service. Tourists wishing to visit my county must rent a car and many of them are reluctant to do so. For this reason, it is vital that we have a joined up approach to road, rail and bus infrastructure.
Information and communications technology is another key issue. Irish Rural Link, in a presentation to a joint committee today, provided a case example of a tourism product project which was severely hampered owing to the absence of broadband in the area in question. As a result, bookings could not be taken over the Internet for up to nine weeks. Difficulties of this nature create additional problems for the tourism sector.
I welcome the support provided for regional and local airports, particularly the Government’s decision to exempt smaller regional airports from the air passenger tax, which will be of benefit to the regions in question. The Government must, however, focus more strongly on cultural and Gaeltacht tourism. Of the approximately 6.4 million overseas tourists who visited Ireland in 2006, more than 2 million cited cultural and heritage reasons for their visit. We must support the cultural and heritage tourism sector, on which we have failed to capitalise in recent years.
I appreciate the Acting Chairman’s indulgence in allowing me time to contribute to the debate and I will conclude shortly. I come from the Gaeltacht. Most of the people who make return visits to the Gaeltacht first visited the area to attend Irish language schools. In addition, most parents of students who travel to the Gaeltacht this summer to learn the national language will spend a night in the Gaeltacht while visiting their sons or daughters. The Department should, through the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, have access to all relevant information on this group. As such, it should target families who will visit Gaeltacht areas for a day by putting together packages with a view to extend such one-day visits to two or three days. It should, for example, highlight the assets of the areas in question with a view to maximising this form of tourism.
I could say much more on the tourism sector, which will be crucially important to national recovery. Tourism accounts for 3.9% of GNP and makes an even larger contribution to the economy of the west than to that of the east. That is the reason I focused on the west, a region in which much work needs to be done. While those involved in many tourism projects are doing their best, I adhere to the philosophy that if one builds, people will come. When one travels abroad one sees tourism resorts which have been created for the tourism market. We must consider taking a similar approach here, while avoiding the establishment in west Donegal or elsewhere of resorts such as those in Ibiza. We must use all the resources at our disposal to build on the tourism product.
Deputy Martin Cullen Deputy Martin Cullen
Deputy Martin Cullen: I thank Senators for their thoughtful contributions to this debate. There is no doubt that since my previous visit to the House last November, Senators have remained abreast of developments in the tourism sector. They will not have been surprised by the issues I highlighted earlier in the context of the economic challenges we face. These challenges are global and impact on our core markets in the United States and the United Kingdom.
It is interesting that figures for January show increases in visitors from mainland Europe and North America of 1.3% and 2.3%, respectively. I hope this somewhat surprising trend will be sustained throughout the year. The overall position is that 424,000 people visited Ireland in January, a decline of 2.9% on the previous year. Clearly, the various markets have been impacted in different ways. The other interesting figure from the most recent data is that the number of Irish people taking breaks abroad fell by 8.4% in January. This may be indicative of a new trend among Irish people to take weekend breaks at home. Perhaps many more people will also take their summer holidays at home this year. I sincerely hope that will be the case.
I pay tribute to the robustness of the tourism sector, which is our largest industry. Senator Cassidy and others noted that 320,000 people are employed in the general hospitality area, which contributes more than €6 billion in foreign earnings to the economy each year and generates returns of between €2 billion and €3 billion to the Exchequer. It is also a unique industry in that it drills down into the smallest villages and areas in the country and delivers substantial benefits to areas with no other sustainable businesses.
Recent dramatic improvements in the quality of the stock in the hotel sector have been encouraging. Senators referred to the cost of hotel accommodation. Clearly, economic circumstances have had an impact on the sector. It is interesting to note that the cost of hotel rooms in Dublin has declined by approximately 20%, with the cost of rooms in the rest of the country down by 17%. While one can view this development in two ways, it indicates that competitiveness is returning to the system. This will make Dublin a much more attractive capital city as it competes with other European capital cities for tourists.
In general, given the good quality of the hotel product here, recent cost trends improve the tourism product. As Senators noted, this will be beneficial during the remainder of the year. This is one of the messages the major tourism organisations, particularly Tourism Ireland, which represents the entire island, are trying to get across. The readjustment in tourism marketing campaigns is also working. Tourism is a tough market but the various organisations in the sector are working together with private tourism interests to bring a sharp focus in our main markets on delivering significant numbers of tourists who will spend money.
Senator Coghlan raised the issue of Killarney House. Fáilte Ireland, the national parks and wildlife service and the Office of Public Works are considering Killarney House as a priority for investment under Fáilte Ireland’s tourism capital investment programme. Discussions are ongoing with all three organisations on the scope and costs of the works required. The current position is that consultants have been appointed to prepare a scheme for the renewal of the gardens and these preparations should be completed shortly. A building conditions survey has also been commissioned on the house to precisely specify the extent of remedial work required. Following this a design scheme will be prepared for the restoration of the House to service a probable visitor centre for the national park. Thereafter, cost estimates will be prepared. Work is under way on this matter.
Senator Paul Coghlan Senator Paul Coghlan
Senator Paul Coghlan: I am delighted to hear that.
Deputy Martin Cullen Deputy Martin Cullen
Deputy Martin Cullen: That can lead to a positive outcome.
I want to mention another issue before I conclude. I have been trying to lay serious emphasis on cultural tourism and the bringing together of all the cultural bodies. Approximately 3 million people visited our cultural tourism institutions in 2008. That is a significant figure which demonstrates clearly that all of our small and major museums, art galleries and music festivals have a major impact. Culture is one of this country’s easiest “sells”. It is the automatic touchstone people have to Ireland’s tradition. Our music, art, drama and actors are being feted throughout the world. They have been hugely successful in all fields of their activities. That is a more coherent emphasis that I want to promote in terms of a cultural tourism package.
Other speakers referred to the work of Good Food Ireland which, incidentally, has done incredible work with the Volvo Ocean Race. I understand its representatives have located in all of the stops and have had huge success promoting Irish food. The investment by Fáilte Ireland in that particular project has gained much added value in terms of what we can achieve.
In case Senator Coffey thinks I would not refer to it, I wish to say that Waterford Crystal is a significant issue to Ireland and as other Senators have said, it is one of the key brands identified with this country. I send out the message that I remain available, as does the Tánaiste, to talk to KPS Capital. We are anxious to meet with its representatives to determine how we can now work with them for an investment in some smaller scale manufacturing of a high end quality that would enhance a very good international quality tourist trail and invest in a tourism facility as well, not alone to sustain what already exists but, as others have said, with a view to turning it into an iconic visitor centre which would easily double the numbers and, in time, go beyond the 1 million figure. That work must be done but we are waiting to meet with KPS Capital representatives to see where they stand on their future prospects for investment in Waterford Crystal and are willing to support that in any way we can.
I thank the Senators for putting down the motion. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to come to the House to listen to the debate and I look forward to future debates with the Senators.
Seanad Éireann 194 Tourism Industry: Statements.