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 Munster for her support for the Bill. There is no actual allocation of money in the Bill. It sets out a parameter and ceiling that will allow Fáilte Ireland to draw down funding from the Exchequer over a period of two, three, four or five years. The legislation will have to be amended in future. To a degree, this is a good thing but it is also onerous. Not all State agencies must operate under this process, which makes matters quite difficult for Fáilte Ireland. However, as ceilings are approached and reached, the legislation must be amended again. The process must go from here to Report Stage and back to the Seanad. There is a bit of time involved.
Fáilte Ireland is in the process of rolling out its large capital allocations. Its smaller capital allocations will be rolled out over a period. It does this on an ongoing basis at arm's length from the Department. While Fáilte Ireland is statutory agency, it is independent of the Government and operates on that basis. Obviously, it follows the policy of the Department on the initiatives we want to pursue, such as Ireland's Ancient East, the midlands, the Wild Atlantic Way and Dublin: A Breath of Fresh Air. Its role also extends to being the promotional authority in Great Britain, by virtue of the fact that Tourism Ireland is not a capital agency. Its remit was established, as a North-South body, under the Good Friday Agreement. Its role is to promote the island of Ireland. In recent months, I have been hugely impressed with the programme of work done by Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland in response to a number of threats that exist, which Deputy Troy mentioned. As recently as this week, representatives of Tourism Ireland are in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East - they will also go to the Far East - to promote the island of Ireland, North and South.
There are problems looming. It is great that there are problems because the fact that they exist and that there are capacity issues shows there is growth in the industry.
It also makes my job easier in attracting Department of Public Expenditure and Reform money into the industry.
Deputies Munster and Troy alluded to the difficulty with languages. Forty thousand people from China visited the island of Ireland last year. We have a major problem with attracting Chinese guides, namely, people with fluency in Chinese, or with doing even as basic a thing as providing Chinese interpretative boards or audio sets in some of our larger visitor attractions. Fáilte Ireland's large and small capital grant allocations will allow visitor attractions to do that. Approximately 200 of the guides operating in Ireland are predominantly based in the UK. Fáilte Ireland is considering bringing them together so as to ensure that they are up to speed with Chinese when giving out information. It is important that we get the right message out. We do not want a message that is simply taken from Wikipedia, a travel guide or so on. This is a challenge for us as a small country.
Brexit presents other challenges, for example, with the visa entry scheme. The Department of Justice and Equality, which is the responsible Government agency, is working on this issue. Brexit is a major issue, as is the value of sterling. If people from abroad who are considering holidaying in Ireland are curious visitors, the types who are interested in heritage, the arts, walking, trails and so on, will they instead consider Scotland? A large proportion of visitors to the island of Ireland are from Great Britain and the value of sterling is something that they will have to take into consideration, no more than any of the rest of us would do as regards the currency in our own pockets were we going on holiday. In this context, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland have submitted a strong request, one that I support, as part of the Estimates process to the effect that our overseas marketing budgets be increased because now is not the time to regress. Rather, it is the time to drive our marketing on.
There is also a call to the commercial sector. On Monday night, I launched a drive by the Dublin tourism interest groups, which comprise Fáilte Ireland, the four local authorities that have invested in it and the commercial sector. The commercial sector is a significant beneficiary of the upturn in the tourism industry, particularly in Dublin. Regarding what is happening in Dublin, I am on record as saying that I have major concerns about capacity in the first instance, but also competitiveness. What happens in Dublin has a trickle-down effect in Deputy Munster's constituency of Louth, Mitchelstown in Deputy O'Keeffe's constituency and Mullingar in Deputy Troy's constituency. Undoubtedly, there are problems. There is capacity, but one cannot magic up hotel rooms. They will not just fall off the back of a ship down at the docks. Planning, financing and construction take time. Many will remember how, not that long ago in 2011 when I first came to the Dáil, tumbleweeds were blowing through hotels in this city. Nothing was happening here. All of a sudden five years later, hotels are full.
While that is great, we must ensure that the temptation to take the road of using the last 10% or 20% of rooms to drive up prices and take the customer for a ride is avoided. If it is not, then there will be reputational damage and we will be back to where we were in 2004 to 2006 when we were anti-competitive. I will make a point to the committee, and I am sure that all of the members will agree - the industry has a responsibility here, as does the Government and the Oireachtas. We all must play our roles. The proof of the pudding is that the Government has put its cards on the table in four successive years in terms of the VAT rate, the capital investment that we have allowed for Fáilte Ireland and the allocations that we have made to Tourism Ireland on a North-South basis, as Deputy Munster mentioned. In response, we expect people to act responsibly, including by maintaining a competitive advantage and not giving in to the temptation to drive up prices through comparisons with large cities like Madrid and Barcelona. Dublin is not Madrid or Barcelona. That message must be clear. It is a significant player in the European tourism market and is competitive currently, so we must not lose that competitiveness. Along with issue of Brexit, which Deputy Troy mentioned, this is a singular threat.
Deputy Munster discussed oversight. There is oversight of Fáilte Ireland. I will engage with this committee on a regular basis and Fáilte Ireland will also appear before it. Its annual accounts and reports are subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General. While this legislation makes it difficult for Fáilte Ireland to work, it adds to the level of accountability and oversight applied to that body. Fáilte Ireland will also announce an agreed capital plan on an annual basis. Importantly, it is held to account by me and the Department in the first instance but also by the Oireachtas. As the committee sets out in its work, it would also be important for members to meet Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland regularly and hold them to account for the initiatives and projects to which they have committed. In the same way, I hope that my engagement with the committee, albeit on narrow legislation today, would be extended.
I will turn to the funding that is available to local authorities. I was a councillor between 2003 and 2011. Since that time, many of the responsibilities that local authorities had have been taken away from them. These include third level grants, water and the centralisation of certain housing functions, for example, the housing assistance payment, HAP. Local authorities now have an opportunity. Some have been to the fore in this regard. Recently, I met the Cork county manager. His plan for Cork County Council is superb. There will be no additional staffing. Instead, existing staff will be upskilled and allowed to drive forward. Consider what Waterford City and County Council is doing with greenways or what Deputy Troy's local authority in Westmeath is doing with Belvedere House and Gardens. The Chairman's local authority is working on greenways in north and south Kerry. As to my own area, Limerick City and County Council has a tourism officer for the first time. The officer is an existing staff member whom the council, after the person changed positions, has taken the opportunity to upskill.
Every county has a Leader partnership or local development company. Those groups have a role to play as well. My county has established an ad hoctourism development committee, for want of a better word, comprising the local development companies Ballyhoura Development and West Limerick Resources, Limerick City and County Council and the Shannon Group. There is no reason for every other local authority in the country not to do likewise. I expect councils to do this. If there are blockages in State agencies, be it Fáilte Ireland or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, councils will have the opportunity through Oireachtas Members and local authority members to meet me and discuss their plans for their respective areas, as I am only too delighted to meet local authority members to discuss those. If there are blockages, I would like to hear about them.
I will not say that city and county managers might be able to do this. Instead, they should be doing it. Every city and county manager should have a member of senior staff who is taking responsibility for this issue because it forms part of the country's economic development. Tourism is no longer something that is restricted to the Chairman's constituency where one can take a jaunting car around the lakes of Killarney in a bánín jumper. That day is gone. Tourism now is a real industry in every part of the country for real people who have real jobs with real mortgages and who rear real children. It is no longer acceptable that local authorities might not play their part. I have asked my departmental officials to conduct an audit of local authorities to determine how they stand on this matter. Authorities are required to do this under the Local Government Act and the Action Plan for Jobs.
There is no funding issue. Unlike when I was a member of a local authority and for the first time, local authorities now have access to their own funding. They have discretion that they never had previously. If they believe that it is in their interests to drive their local economies, they will rise to the challenge. If they do not, then it is for councillors to hold them to account.
I would say the same of tourism offices. Every town has a local authority office. There is no need for us to build more. Instead, we should find out where there are empty spaces, be those in Dublin, Ballinasloe or wherever.
Those local authority buildings must be used for purposes other than just the traditional local authority services. Tourism is now a traditional local authority service and must be viewed as that. Local authorities must open themselves up to that and some, in fairness, are doing an excellent job.
Deputy O'Keeffe asked if this is an aspiration or a reality. That we are here amending the legislation so soon after the last time demonstrates this is more than an aspiration. I have no doubt the legislation will have to be amended again in the short term. It will depend on how much the economy expands and the more money Fáilte Ireland and I can get, the more we will be able to spend on places like Doneraile Court, which I visited recently. It is a fabulous addition to the Deputy's constituency that is funded by Fáilte Ireland and Ballyhoura. It is a great asset for east Cork. There are similar projects on Spike Island and in Youghal.
The Deputy mentioned the local pub and he has a willing ally here anyway. I am not in any way ashamed that my brother and family members are publicans. I see that a very important part of the licensed trade is the development of the tourism industry. In fairness to the trade, it has been blamed for many of the social ills in the country and wrongly so in many cases. Most publicans are very responsible and have much to offer. The largest visitor attraction in this city is the Guinness Storehouse, which proves there is a strong attachment between the food and beverage industry and the tourism product. We do not need to apologise for that. Most publicans are responsible and have a role to play in the tourism industry. I was in Dunmore East in Waterford last week and I had a fabulous day there. The finest bowl of chowder I got was in a pub in Dunmore East. Such facilities offer a very important part of a package, and without them, we could not deliver the package. The Deputy is correct that the attractiveness would not be there either.
Deputy Troy mentioned the institutes of technology and skill sets. As I indicated a while ago, SOLAS is charged with making sure those skills exist and the tourism action group has identified chefs as an issue in the first instance, although there are also issues with front of house and waiting staff in restaurants. We want to ensure people in the first instance have an opportunity through the tourism industry to get a good job, build a career, upskill and have the opportunity to have a mortgage and rear a family in the local community. It is an indigenous industry like agriculture.
I am not in favour of the establishment of another agency or anything like that but Fáilte Ireland, SOLAS and my Department can work together with the industry to see where there are shortages. The relationship with the institutes of technology and education and training boards is critical. There is already a precedent in the facility for Limerick and Clare, which is providing the next generation of staff for hotels in Limerick, Clare, north Tipperary, Offaly and elsewhere in three-star, four-star and five-star accommodation, as well as restaurants. This Bill is part of a suite of measures taken to shore up the industry, including the measures relating to the travel tax, the VAT rate, the separation of Shannon Airport and the development of brands. These were done when tourism was on its knees but it is now flying. Nevertheless, we must spread the benefits across the country.
I will speak about risks. My county is affected by the lack of a brand down the middle of the country and there is a danger from "overbranding". Just as there cannot be an accident and emergency department at every crossroads, one cannot have a brand at every crossroads. We must be very careful. Australia is many times the size of Ireland and has one brand in the Great Ocean Road. We must not dilute the value of the brands that we have. Nevertheless, the corridor from the Finn Valley in Donegal to the outskirts of Cork City, Coachford and Blarney is an area that concerns me and the Department. That is why the city and county managers have been asked to formulate a strategy with the local development companies in the first instance. Fáilte Ireland is looking at a brand. It will be very difficult to keep all the balls in the air while ensuring every townland in the country is included in a brand. We do not wish to overbrand because the message will get lost, which would be worse than having no brand.