Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Select Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2015.
I thank Deputy Troy for signalling his support for the Bill. As I said on the opening Stages of the Bill, it is fairly straightforward. It allows Fáilte Ireland to expand its capital allocation, that is, the amount of money that it will be able to spend. We are at a stage now that even on the current trajectory, Fáilte Ireland will reach its capital ceiling very soon under the current legislation, so there is a sense of urgency about the development of the brand.
Regarding the last two points Deputy Troy raised, the Lakelands brand and the deficit of skills for the hospitality industry, on Monday I chaired a meeting of the tourism action group within the Department at which these two issues were raised. The group is representative of the stakeholders involved in tourism: hotels, tour operators, the Department, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland. Work on the Lakelands initiative is under way by Fáilte Ireland and the chief executive is due to report to the Department on the progress that has been made. As soon as I have that report I will share it with Deputy Troy. This is a commitment in the programme for Government of which I am very conscious, not only Lakelands, but also that whole corridor in the country from Cavan, Monghan and east Donegal right down to the outskirts of Cork city that falls between two stools, my own county included.
There was bewilderment in some quarters about the inclusion of some parts of the country in Ireland's Ancient East and the exclusion of others. However, it should be considered based on the mapping that Fáilte Ireland has developed, the series of routes and corridors that can be followed and the network of monuments and settlements, particularly as one goes further west. Even in my county, part of south Limerick is in Ireland's Ancient East purely because some of the most important Iron Age settlements in the country are in east Limerick, not out of any wish to have this county or that county included. A series of parameters was followed which set out where the early settlements of the Irish were once they started moving up from Wexford and Waterford, into the midlands and out to the west. However, Deputy Troy is right that there is a commitment in the programme for Government in this regard. We are working on it, and as soon as I get the update on it, I will provide it to him.
The reality is that our brands have proven to be hugely successful. There was some concern at the outset about whether these would work. However, having holidayed this year at home both on the Wild Atlantic Way and in Ireland's Ancient East and having talked to people in the industry, in hotels and restaurants and so on, they will say that there is a marked difference, particularly in the north west, in Donegal, where I was for a good chunk of the summer. They will say that people from Limerick, Kerry and Waterford and so on are now travelling up along the north west who would never have done do before. Similarly, while Ireland's Ancient East is probably at a much younger stage in its development, it is a different product and is being marketed and staged by Fáilte Ireland as a different product so that the two do not compete with each other but that, with the Dublin brand, A Breath of Fresh Air, they complement each other. Deputy Troy is right in that regard.
I have a big concern about the middle of the country. However, to be honest - I know we are drifting, Chairman, and I thank you for your indulgence - local authorities have a huge role in this. I have spoken in response to questions in the Dáil as well about this element of capital grant allocations. It is within the remit of local authorities, if they want to get specific projects done, to apply for the large capital allocations, the grants system disclosed recently. Local authorities have it within their ambit to apply for that. To give the committee a case in point in my area, between Limerick and Clare, the Shannon Estuary is not included in the Wild Atlantic Way. However, the Limerick City and County Manager, with his Clare colleague, is considering the development of a route specifically for the Shannon Estuary that will not be branded the Wild Atlantic Way but will for all intents and purposes attract people off it. Local authorities therefore have a big role in this as well. Under the new Local Government Act, it is not that they can or that they might look at tourism as an economic driver; the Act says very clearly they must look at it. The regional action plans for jobs state the same thing. The City and County Managers Association sits on that tourism action group as well, and I have been very clear with the city and county managers that there are targets in the regional action plans for jobs and the tourism strategy in terms of people, place and policy that they have to get to, for example, even as basic an issue as making sure that local authorities have it within their grasp to have a tourism development officer.
I have answered questions in the Dáil about tourism offices. There are local area offices in Westmeath County Council, Longford County Council and every small- and medium-sized town in the country. Now that the Local Government Act has been amended and local authorities have a tourism role, there is nothing to prevent local authorities taking on the role of providing information in their areas from a tourism point of view. They are now empowered under the legislation to do so, therefore, it is not all about Fáilte Ireland.
I agree that there is a gap in the market, and that gap has been driven by the fact that the other two areas have been so successful. That is the stimulus for me as the Minister with responsibility for tourism, to go to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and to say that the targets that we have for capital funding are ambitious and we want to drive them forward. That is why the cumulative amount of the capital investment plan is €5.6 million for Fáilte Ireland for 2016-21 and €125 million for the Tourism Development Project by 2022. The targets originally set out in 2003 and amended in 2011 have already been reached, so while we are here to amend legislation to allow the ceiling to be increased so that Fáilte Ireland can deliver the work that they need to deliver, we should not restrain ourselves or be less ambitious. Deputy Troy is right that between 2012 and now, Fáilte Ireland has taken a fair whacking. However, by the same token it has delivered some huge projects in that time. I would see this legislation as empowering Fáilte Ireland to tell the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that over the last number of years, in the worst possible days of the economy, it still delivered some key pieces of critical capital infrastructure. The legislation is now amended. We have capital allowances. However, I would not say to Fáilte Ireland that it must be restricted within five years to do meet its target. If it reaches its target within two and a half or three years, I - and whoever my successor is - would be delighted to see Fáilte Ireland coming back again and to amend the legislation again.
Regarding culinary skills, again, this came up at the tourism leadership group on Monday. A piece of work specifically regarding chefs has already been carried out because the Restaurants Association of Ireland, the Irish Hotels Federation and the people who are involved in it will all say there is a shortage of chefs and that is a big problem. However, there is a model that is working and, again, local authorities have a big role to play in this if they want to, as well as through the education and training boards. As a case in point, in my area, in Limerick, the Limerick and Clare education and training board has taken it upon itself to look at the skills shortages in the regional action plan for jobs between the hotels and restaurants industry and is prepared to fill them. I agree with the Deputy in this regard. We do not need to go back down the road of establishing another agency to look at this. I think Solas, through the national apprenticeship programme, which is working with Fáilte Ireland to make sure that such a skill set is met, is the right agency to do this.
In each of the regions where the regional action plan for jobs has been identified, there is a requirement to identify the skills shortages. Culinary skills is a very clear one, and Fáilte Ireland, with the Department and the groups that are involved in the tourism action group, is in the process of finishing that work with Solas. I imagine that we will see progress there but, again, there is a model there which works. Education and training boards at a local level can do this. We have several colleges of catering and hotel management across the country as well that have excellent students. However, I agree that now that the industry is beginning to expand at an astronomical rate - it really is, here in Dublin particularly - we need good people and we need to be able to provide opportunities for our own people here at home to take up the jobs that are being created. I will provide the Deputy with a full update on the two issues that he raised from the tourism action group and to Deputies O'Keeffe and Munster and the Chairman.