Thursday, 15 February 2007
John O'Donoghue (Minister, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Kerry South, Fianna Fail)
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 13 and 20 together.
The CSO has not yet produced last December's tourism figures, but all of the indications are that 2006 was a landmark year for tourism. We expect to have received a total of 7.4 million visitors in 2006, an increase of close to 10% on 2005. Figures from the CSO for the first nine months of the year show an increase of 11% in foreign revenue earnings. In respect of mainland Europe, the 11-month figures show numbers are up by almost 19% on the corresponding period in 2005.
Part of this impressive performance has been due to an increased number of visitors from central and eastern Europe and there is no doubt this region will be an increasingly important tourism market for Ireland. However, the bulk of our growth from mainland Europe in 2006 still came from our traditional markets.
Outside of mainland Europe, all of our major tourism markets have shown healthy increases in the first 11 months of 2006, with visitors from Great Britain up by 6.2%, visitors from north America up by 10.5% and visitors from other long-haul routes up by 7.8%.
Looking ahead to 2007, a growth target of 5.6% in overseas visitor numbers has been set. This represents a higher rate of growth than that predicted for international tourism this year. The target is particularly ambitious when viewed against the background of changing consumer preferences, tougher international competition and pressures on Ireland's relative competitive positioning. In particular, the continuation of the later booking pattern, changing consumer demands and the increased demand for authentic holiday experiences will pose challenges for the industry here.
This year, I was pleased to again secure record levels of Exchequer investment for tourism services, a total of €154 million. This will enable both Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland to implement a comprehensive set of programmes to help ensure targets are met. In particular, the increased marketing fund of €45 million, an increase of 12.5% on last year's provision, will enable both agencies to significantly step up their marketing activities.
The indicators for 2007 are positive but it would be a mistake to be complacent. If we have learned anything from the past five years, it is to expect the unexpected. We do not know what we could face in terms of international developments and the Irish tourism industry and tourism agencies have weathered many storms over the past five years. We have learned to be flexible, to adapt and to take nothing for granted in the process.
It is a tough world in the international tourism marketplace and nowadays we have to run pretty hard just to stand still. In that context, it is gratifying we are doing so well. Our marketing investment has certainly been paying off but Tourism Ireland is indicating that we cannot live by marketing alone. Put simply, the product experience must deliver on the promise.
Competitiveness is still an issue and will continue to be, as it will for most high-cost destinations. The higher the cost of the product, the more emphasis we must place on quality and value for money. Visitors should be satisfied they are getting value for their money. Research shows that, in general, it is the basic cost-of-living items that impact most on visitors' awareness in terms of value for money, and not the basic tourism and travel components, such as the cost of transport and accommodation.
The friendliness of the Irish people and the welcome for the visitor is legendary and has been a pillar of Irish tourism for a long time. However, the pace of life and composition of our workforce is changing. Visitors to many of our hotels and restaurants, especially in the cities, meet fewer Irish staff. If visitors look forward to meeting Irish people and they do not have that experience, they may feel somewhat disappointed.
Our immigrant workforce in the hospitality industry provides a great level of service and has injected a new cosmopolitan dynamic into Irish tourism but there is that intangible Irish "thing" — wit, craic or the potential to be surprised by humorous insights or exchanges — that legend almost demands be part of the Irish experience and which is hard to manufacture. We are currently in a transition period and we have to manage that. Nevertheless it is important to point out that our traditional tourism pillars of people and place are still holding up as major sources of satisfaction in our visitor surveys.
Given the challenges, it is all the more important that we focus strongly on improving the quality of our service and product, as well as other issues that impact on the tourism experience. My Department and the tourism industry will continue to focus on implementation of the New Horizons tourism strategy and its associated action plan to ensure the current good level of progress is maintained.