Thursday, 16 February 2012
Tourism Ireland is responsible for the overseas promotion of Ireland as a tourist destination. Decisions on participation in individual commercial events and other day-to-day decisions are operational matters for the agency itself and the Minister has no role, function or responsibility in them. As the matter raised is entirely a matter for Tourism Ireland, I have referred the Deputy's questions to the agency for direct reply. If he has not received a response from them in ten working days, he should inform my private office.
It is my view that a Minister should not have a role in such day-to-day decisions. Such decisions are best made by the staff on the ground with the relevant expertise within the body itself, having regard to the overall priorities set out in Tourism Ireland's business plan.
The Minister and his Government has made a lot of the importance of tourism in the economic recovery. The jobs initiative last year identified the tourism sector as being of key importance and, as such, the Minister would be well aware of the raid on private pension funds to the tune of €470 million to support that initiative.
The Government has spent a lot of time spinning the line that it is rebuilding Ireland's reputation abroad when it was not damaged in the first place. There was, however, an opportunity to take some practical steps, such as having stands at tourism conferences. It was unusual, therefore, that there was no Tourism Ireland stand at the Belgian holiday fare, which is one of the biggest each year and which promotes about 7,000 holiday destinations. More than 100,000 people attended the exhibition and it can reach in excess of 1 million holiday makers. I do not want to criticise the people who work for Tourism Ireland, because they do an excellent job, but they must focus on the right priorities and the Minister bears some responsibility in this regard, particularly when he has highlighted tourism.
As part of the jobs initiative and the raid on the private pension funds to the tune of €470 million, a number of subheads were identified for where that money would be spent, both on PRSI and VAT, and it was mentioned that we would get rid of the travel tax, which was to bring in substantial funds. Why has that additional funding from the pension funds not been spent on the lifting of the travel tax to support the Minister's initiatives that he has identified as being key to economic recovery?
Funding from the travel tax was used in the latter half of the year. While it was intended that the travel tax would be abolished, it was not possible to come to an adequate agreement with the airlines, so some of that money was reinvested in a winter tourism promotion scheme and an access promotion in conjunction with airlines. In total, €9 million in money from the travel tax and from industry was invested in tourism promotion in the winter of last year for that reason. The Deputy should know that the country's reputation was badly damaged. One of the things that the hard work, both of the Government and our people, has achieved in the last year is to rebuild our reputation internationally. Those of us who travel abroad to represent the country understand and appreciate the extent to which Ireland's reputation has improved in the past year. One can see that in everything people say to us, as well as the fact that bond yields are falling and confidence in the country is recovering. When we are abroad we always have to remind people that Irish citizens have suffered a lot of pain in order to help restore that reputation. Therefore we will continue to need more solidarity from our European partners.
As regards the stand in particular, Tourism Ireland is represented at all big tourism fairs in Birmingham, London, Berlin, Frankfurt and other locations attended by myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. It is not my role to tell Tourism Ireland which stands it should have or where they should be located. On this occasion, Tourism Ireland decided not to have a stand at that particular show.
It seems to me the only reason they would not have been there was that they did not have adequate funds. While the Minister has identified an area where he has spent money from the travel tax, what did he do with the additional revenues raised by the raid on the pension fund, which he targeted for use in the absence of the travel tax? He had an additional €30 million last year, while this year it was going to be €90 million, and €105 million next year. There is a chart which identifies the breakdown of the usage of the €470 million taken from private pension funds. Some of it went to support the Minister's PRSI initiative, while some of it supported VAT reduction. Part of it was earmarked to support the loss of revenue to the State as a result of the abolition of the air travel tax, which never happened. Therefore the Minister has additional money; it may not have been provided to him but it was set aside. Perhaps it has been put into the general Exchequer returns and hidden in that black hole. However, I would like to identify whether it is there for the Minister. If so, he could get his hands on it and we would not be in a situation where Ireland was not represented at such an important event in Brussels.
That question is probably more relevant to the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform than to me. The vast majority of the cost of the jobs initiative was the VAT reduction, which has been very successful, and the reduction in employers' PRSI for those on modest incomes. In the forthcoming revised Estimates volume, there is provision for an increase in funding for Fáilte Ireland to prepare for the gathering this year. There is some additional money there. When it comes to the travel tax, the door is still open to discussions. We do not necessarily have to settle for 5 million additional passengers for no airport charges at all. If a realistic offer is put on the table from the airlines to increase capacity in return for abolishing the travel tax, and nothing else, that offer is still there. That was reiterated by the Minister for Finance during his Budget Statement.