Wednesday, 16 December 2015
Topical Issue Debate
I am very supportive of the Wild Atlantic Way concept, which is a wonderful idea. I have often spoken about the advantages Ireland has as the western frontier of Europe. I do not know if Fáilte Ireland stole my idea or if great minds think alike, but I am glad it is in operation. I am also glad it used my initiative of the road less travelled, based on a small booklet I brought out years ago. It is a very good concept. When, therefore, I heard the announcement of the Ireland's Ancient East project I was very happy because I regarded it as a counterbalance project for the east of Ireland. It was well timed politically and I felt there would be something behind it. However, I have deep reservations based on what happened with a previous Fáilte Ireland initiative about driving routes between Kildare and Wicklow, and based on the absence of any real plan for the proposal.
I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ring. I am glad to see him here and he has done an excellent job. He is a very creative and positive individual. I am willing to concede everything in his prepared speech. I do not doubt the increased tourism figures, notwithstanding many external factors, such as exchange rates and Ireland's success in golf, etc. I commend Fáilte Ireland and the Minister of State. I know the Minister of State is a pragmatic man and he will deal with issues as they appear before him. I want to deal with the issue of the Ireland's Ancient East.
I have reservations because when there is something for everybody in the audience I get a little worried. When the project was launched a number of counties complained that they were not included. However, based on the details of the latest funding I see that Monaghan and Louth, which thought they had been excluded, are actually included. It does not seem to be driven by any concept or great plan. It is driven by allocating money to whoever puts in a project thereby taking pressure away from a political perception that only the west is getting funding for the Wild Atlantic Way and the rest of the country is being forgotten. The west has many good attractions and good luck to it. However, many tourists come to the east and that they are attracted to the concept of the Wild Atlantic Way. We need something in the east to counterbalance that. We can agree on that.
However, I am not sure as to what is being proposed here. One of the earlier press releases referred to ancient Ireland, early Christian Ireland, medieval Ireland and Anglo Ireland. A hodgepodge of locations was included to cover every geographical area that could be covered, without any thread running through it. I represent Wicklow and east Carlow. From the north west of Wicklow down to Borris in Carlow we have some of the most outstanding Neolithic tombs and hill forts on the planet. However, I do not believe there was any reference to it initially. I have raised it a few times and there now has been some reference to it. This region has historic centres, including the Brusselstown ring and the dolmen at Haroldstown. That is what Ireland's Ancient East should be about.
I would like to see a plan for how we will market it and deal with it when the tourists arrive at the airport. We have seen a programme with regard to the signage on the M50. In Wicklow we have the monastic village of Glendalough but when one listens to the radio on a busy bank holiday Sunday one will hear the Garda issuing a warning to stay away from Glendalough owing to the dangers of too much traffic. There is one road in to the amenity. There are too many organisations involved, as with the Shannon, with everyone and no one responsible.
I would like to see a trust established in Glendalough. More important than the local politics, I would like to see a plan for the concept of what Ireland's Ancient East is about. I do not have confidence in that regard. I am not sure what is on the table in the first instance, indeed I do not think there is anything. I would like to hear the Minister of State elaborate on that. He might share his thoughts with me. I am willing to concede all the statistical information he will throw at me to project the very positive work he is doing. I acknowledge all that.
I am delighted to hear what Deputy Timmins and Deputy Deenihan said. We have a lot of people claiming the Wild Atlantic Way but I wish to put on record that this Government put in the funding and instructed our agency, Fáilte Ireland, to make sure that happened. I have led the campaign myself. I am delighted that I am in that region.
When the Wild Atlantic Way was announced a lot of people said it would not work, that it was another idea nobody would do anything about. I went to public meetings where people said it would not work and that it would not deliver anything to the west. The Wild Atlantic Way has been the greatest initiative that has ever happened to the west. It starts in west Cork, goes into Clare, Galway, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo. It has gone into areas where tourists had not gone for many years. People have discovered areas they never knew anything about.
The one bit of advice I will give to Deputy Timmins and the tourism sector in his area is that if people want to support Ireland’s Ancient East they must buy into it. If they do not sell it and the people in the tourism sector do not sell it, it will not work. They must get involved.
I will turn to the scripted reply now but I wished to give Deputy Timmins my response first. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue with me. Tourism has been a priority for this Government from the outset. We have long recognised the contribution of overseas tourism to the Irish economy. That is why we continue to invest in tourism marketing and in supporting our tourism businesses to enhance their competitiveness. Our policies on air travel tax and VAT have helped to improve the value on offer for our visitors.
I welcome the opportunity to advise the House with regard to the new tourism experience brand, Ireland's Ancient East, which is being developed by Fáilte Ireland and which will capitalise on the wealth of history and culture that abounds in the east and south of Ireland. It is a series of attractive clusters of places to visit, linking some of our most iconic sites like Newgrange and the Boyne Valley in the north east, through the midlands, along Kilkenny's Medieval Mile to Waterford's Viking Quarter and Cork's many cultural gems. For visitors, it is a journey through 5,000 years of history in 500 miles. Its development is part of a larger strategic approach in which our tourism offering is tailored to appeal to consumer segments that research has indicated are most likely to select Ireland as a visitor destination. Ireland's Ancient East will appeal in particular to the culturally curious audience in overseas markets. These are independent, active sightseers, who are typically looking to visit new places and expand their experience by exploring landscapes, history and culture.
In terms of the overseas marketing of Ireland's Ancient East, this is the operational responsibility of Tourism Ireland. In recent months, Tourism Ireland, working in close collaboration with Fáilte Ireland, has been developing marketing material on Ireland's Ancient East for its 2016 overseas marketing campaigns and for the lreland.comsuite of websites for international markets. Ireland's Ancient East launches have already taken place overseas, including at Tourism Ireland events in the United States, France, Italy and at the World Travel Market in London. Tourism Ireland will highlight Ireland's Ancient East experience in key markets through publicity, media and trade visits, social media, digital marketing activity and briefings for the travel trade.
Earlier this week, the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and I were delighted to announce further funding of €1 million to Ireland's Ancient East, which will ensure that we maintain the momentum of this initiative and build on the impressive tourism assets we have in the east and south of the country. As this project evolves and grows, I am confident that it will be a perfect complement to the Wild Atlantic Way in the west and that it will generate significant additional visitors, revenue and tourism jobs in the east.
I did not raise the issue because Wicklow is not included in this round of funding. I am pleased to see the Blackstairs project in Carlow got funding. That is fantastic. County Carlow is beautiful. It is unheralded and unknown by many as a tourism destination but it is very attractive, for example, the Barrow Valley in the St. Mullins area.
The statement on tourism issued by the Ministers in recent days outlined that the next round of funding in Ireland’s Ancient East project would go to the roll-out of signage. I heard that before in the context of the driving routes which gives me cause for concern. In my county there is signage for the Excalibur Way and the Michael Collins Way. There is signage everywhere but it leads nowhere.
I am concerned that we do not have a concept of Ireland’s Ancient East. The Minister of State indicated that it is important that the stakeholders buy into the project. I agree. However, one cannot buy a pig in a poke. I work with excellent staff and since I came into the Chamber I got a copy of a local free newspaper, the Wicklow Voice, for tomorrow, 17 December. It has not even been published yet. In it the chairman of Wicklow Tourism, Mr. Noel Keyes, states he has attended numerous meetings on the initiative and he is unclear what Fáilte Ireland is doing and what the initiative is about. He has a vested interest in trying to get the project going. A group under his chairmanship has led several local projects and it is putting in a great effort on a very limited budget in order to try to buy into every project. I have much affection for the west and I also have a lot of affection for Cork, a nice and fine county. I noticed three locations in Cork had received funding earlier in the week. The Minister of State will never convince me that we will see a Cork man wearing a Leinster jersey. I would not say anyone from Cork would claim to be from the east. Let us stop trying to encompass everybody. There should be projects for every area but if we want to make Ireland’s Ancient East concept work let us concentrate on that and not just have a pot of funding that goes to everybody from Monaghan to where the Wild Atlantic Way stops in Kinsale.
I again thank Deputy Timmins for raising this issue. He mentioned signage and the variety of projects that exist. The one thing that is needed is signage. Surveys show that when people come to this country they want to see a new product and new things happening. Ireland’s Ancient East initiative will work but it will take time to develop it. It was the same with the Wild Atlantic Way; people felt initially that it would not work but now everybody is buying into it and they see the benefits.
Deputy Timmins inquired about overseas marketing. This year we invested an extra €1 million in order to attract people to Ireland’s Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way and to try to get them into the regions. We work with the airports and the ferry companies to try to encourage people to come to this country and to go to rural Ireland. That is the whole point; to try to get them to see what we have.
Last year more than €35 million was spent by the Government on the promotion of this country abroad. Another €1 million was spent in regional and co-operative marketing and that was matched by funding from some local authorities to support the initiatives and to try to get people to come to this country. They also worked with the airlines. The travel tax has been a benefit. The Government reduced the travel tax from 3% to zero and the VAT rate was reduced from 13.5% to 9%.
Deputy Timmins adverted to the situation and it is important to spell it out. We are a small country and this year we had approximately 7.5 million visitors, a 13% increase, for the first ten months of this year. We hope we can reach 8 million. The plan for the next couple of years is to increase the number to 10 million. The 7.5 million visitors have generated revenue of €3.75 billion into the country and we want to increase that to €5 billion. A total of 205,000 are employed in tourism and we want to increase the number to 250,000 by 2010. Jobs can be created in the area but we must attract people into the country. I urge all the tourism bodies in Ireland’s Ancient East to buy into the initiative, sell it and work with it. To be fair to the Government and Fáilte Ireland, we allocated the funding last week and it has spread into the region in order to get the facilities in place so that people will visit and will stay longer. They are a different segment of the market. The Wild Atlantic Way is one proposition. Ireland’s Ancient East is another proposition and Dublin is another market.
We are trying to bring people to every corner of the country and we have had great success. I compliment Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and everybody involved in the trade, in particular the trade itself. Sometimes we forget that many people make major investments in tourism with their own money and take major risks. They should be rewarded, helped and supported because they create badly wanted jobs. Because they are Irish jobs created by Irish people sometimes we do not have the same respect as if they were multinational companies.