Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 January 2016

National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

3:25 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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The Government has always been very supportive of the tourism industry. When this Government came into office in 2011, the first budget introduced a one third reduction in VAT in the hospitality sector from 13.5% to 9%. That stimulated and incentivised, and was an enormous success in bringing about record levels of tourism this year. However, the hospitality sector has not reciprocated. It has once again become greedy. Hotel occupancy levels in this city are at an all-time high - Dublin has the highest bed occupancy of 50 cities looked at by PricewaterhouseCoopers last year. This year is projected to be the same.

I welcome the doubling of money from the State from €150 million to €300 million, which will allow us to engage in extra enterprises, projects and services related to the tourism industry.

I wish to point the Minister of State and Fáilte Ireland to what I regard as the greatest opportunity in Dublin at present. In recent decades there has been neglect of the tourism potential of the Dublin docklands. While regeneration has been going on for almost 30 years since the Urban Renewal Bill 1986 was introduced, nothing has been done about the potential of the docklands. There are docklands not just in Dublin but throughout the country that have enormous potential. However, Dublin is special. While the docklands have been the subject of regeneration for almost 30 years, this has only consisted of bricks and mortar - office blocks and housing. There is an enormously rich heritage on the docks, going back over hundreds of years, which has been totally neglected. At the junction of the River Liffey, the Royal Canal and the Irish Sea, we have Dublin Port. It has some incredible maritime, inland waterways and industrial history stretching back to the Vikings. This year we celebrate the centenary of the foundation of the State in 1916. The Lockout took place in 1913. Throughout that period normal docker activity took place there.

The Dublin Dockworkers Preservation Society is doing Trojan work to highlight the potential in that respect. At present Dublin City Council is carrying out a heritage audit of the docklands under the auspices of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, following my request. There is an enormous amount of paraphernalia and material associated with the docklands currently in the port and in other storage areas, with the Dublin Dockworkers Preservation Society, in folklore activities being done on an individual basis and otherwise, and we need to avail of that resource.

We need to establish a Dublin docklands heritage trail that would attract thousands of tourists and could rival - I am sure the Minister of State will be delighted to hear me say this - the Wild Atlantic Way that has been set up in recent years and is a wonderful asset that attracts tourists to an area they might otherwise not visit. It would also provide gainful and sustainable employment to the local docklands communities which, of course, have been ravaged over the years. The regeneration that has taken place has largely left them behind. With the extra funding being provided, this is something that Fáilte Ireland could seek to address. It could establish one of the finest tourist attractions anywhere in Ireland.

3:35 pm

Photo of Michael ConaghanMichael Conaghan (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I commend the Minister of State on his hard work in the Department. It is work that is being rewarded and noted across the country, particularly in the area of tourism where there has been a significant return to growth under his stewardship. This revival is positive. It is not confined to one place, one town, one city or one region, it is very diverse. That is one of the characteristics of the current revival. Every district is experiencing the return of tourists. My sister in Donegal, who is familiar with the remoter parts of the county, told me the other day that the tourists are back. This is welcome in our part of the country.

We need to evaluate and develop new tourism products at macro level. Historically, there has been an over-reliance on landscape and literature in the context of attracting tourists to Ireland. We must diversify in a radical way and develop new tourism products and projects. In that context, I suggest the development of industrial heritage tourism, an area which has been severely neglected to date. That fact was borne out for me dramatically when I recently visited the Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich, a suburb just outside Brisbane, Australia. There they have all the great engines and rail technology with men working in a real live workshop with a museum alongside it. We could not get in the first day we visited it because of the queues and had to go back the next morning. There one can see all the old decorative carriages used to transport kings and queens, along with the entire range of rail technology, tools, etc. There are men who have worked there for years, demonstrating how one can take lumps of stone and turn them into molten lava to shape materials in the making and restoration of rail engines. Children watch this wide-eyed with schools queueing up for these direct experiences of technology and manufacturing. There are also trips on the old trains. It was a very enjoyable experience and the type of tourism project we should be considering.

While I was there, one of the men working there asked me, because I come from Ireland, if I had heard of the Inchicore railway works. I said I had because I live only five minutes from them. He said the Inchicore railway works was the daddy of them all. It was one of the great engineering complexes on this island, founded in the middle of the 19th century. It has a great repository of skills and achievements, along with great output and feats of engineering and design. Trains and carriages have gone all over the world from those works.

When we are looking at new categories of tourism development, it would be appropriate that we might take a leaf out of the book of the Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich, Brisbane, and see how that could be replicated in Inchicore. The Inchicore railway works is on an 80 acre site with rows and rows of old buildings that are no longer used. The staff at the works are keen to see such a development because, on their own, they cannot conserve and care for old engines and carriages properly because there are not enough resources going into it. While railway museums are commonplace in the UK, we have neglected our industrial heritage. This shows disrespect and a disregard for the skills, work and output of ordinary people across hundreds of years. We are very good with our literature and our landscape but we must not forget the great output of ordinary people in manufacturing, probably best exemplified in places like the Inchicore railway works.

Will the Minister of State consider getting behind the Inchicore railway works, the local community and the local heritage groups who have been developing many projects in the area such as the Royal Hospital, the memorial park and other clusters of tourism attractions? Perhaps he might visit the railway works and see how a railway museum, which would be a fitting tribute to the achievements of that area, could be considered and developed over time. This is a project which would break new ground and diversify our cultural tourism products. We need to be innovative. We have developed and exploited the tourism potential of our landscape and literature but we must diversify into new tourism projects. The Minister of State has shown that he is not afraid to break new ground. I hope he will visit the railway works at Inchicore and break new ground in industrial heritage tourism by developing a railway museum at the site.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I call on Deputy Keating who is sharing time with Deputy McNamara.

Photo of Derek KeatingDerek Keating (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy McNamara for sharing time with me.

I welcome the National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2015, part of which gives additional funding to Fáilte Ireland and makes it more accountable to the Dáil. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, for taking part in this Second Stage debate. It is no surprise that tourism and sport are inextricably linked in a Department. When we fund one, it helps promote the other. For example, tourism would benefit if our application for the 2023 Rugby World Cup was successful. I know 27,000 Irish fans have already applied for tickets for the European football championship this year. One can see how tourism and sport are inextricably linked. One of the Government’s great successes has been in the whole area of tourism and sport. In our first budget, we turned everything on its head by reducing the VAT rate for tourism-related activities to 9% which has been very successful. From all quarters, we hear how our tourism prospects have been enhanced by that measure.

In sport, the Minister of State has opened up a variety of different grants, including sports capital grants. Recently, I had the opportunity of welcoming a Spanish family who were touring the country to my home community. They have been in touch with me regularly and told me the other day they brought their children swimming. Of course, they did not find a swimming pool in our local community but in Clondalkin. I happened to have opened that swimming pool as deputy mayor of South Dublin County Council in 2007. It is a wonderful facility which enhances the well-being not only of the local community but of visitors and tourists alike.

I noted the Minister of State recently provided an opportunity for expressions of interests for a new swimming pool programme. I have contacted my local authority to encourage it to meet the deadline. Will the Minister of State look on its application favourably?

4 o’clock

I acknowledge the wonderful work that has been done by the local volunteers in the Pool4Lucan campaign. As a councillor in 2006 and 2007, I held the plans for that pool in my hands. I hope it is nearing an advanced stage and that it will be become reality in the very near future, thanks to 20 years of campaigning on my part and that of many others. It will benefit the overall well-being of the community, visitors and tourists alike.

I accompanied the Minister of State on visits to many clubs. Many clubs in my constituency of Dublin Mid-West will benefit from sports capital grants that the Minister of State's Department announced in recent years. That will ensure that more local people, as well as tourists, will benefit from those quality facilities.

A great concern I have about our tourism sector, to which my colleagues, Deputies Costello and Buttimer, alluded, is the high price of hotel accommodation. I am a Dublin Deputy living in west Dublin, which is the gateway to tourism in the west. Occasionally, when there are late sittings or early morning sittings, I stay in town, like many of my rural colleagues who must stay in town when the Dáil is sitting. I have seen the incremental increase in the price of hotel rooms. I want to send out the strongest possible message about this and I ask the Minister of State to join me, in whatever appropriate way his office can, in appealing to the hotel industry to consider the damage that will be done to our tourism industry if those high prices are maintained. We must put a stop to that.

We are investing a good deal in the tourism sector. Reference was made to the Wild Atlantic Way initiative, which is a wonderful one. Despite such investment, the high price of hotel rooms and, consequently, the high cost of visiting this country will be disincentive for many people to visit it. We need to marry our natural resources and our natural environment, which is such an attraction for so many people in the world, with the initiatives being rolled out and the facilities we have in place. We need to be very careful with respect to our hotel industry that we do not go the way we did a number of years ago and damage our prospects. I will conclude on that point as I want to allow time for Deputy McNamara to contribute. I thank him for sharing his time with me.

3:45 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Labour)
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I appreciate that, far from listening to Members speak about the delights of every constituency, the Minister of State wants to get back to County Mayo to see the delights of his own constituency and perhaps knock on some doors but whether that will be delightful will be up to him.

Most Members support this amending legislation, the work being in tourism and the Minister of State's work in that regard, as do I, and I commend him on it. I also commend the Government on the work it has done in the tourism sector. I do not always agree with the Government but tourism is one of the areas where it has got it right and I am very happy to support it. Deputy Keating mentioned the Wild Atlantic Way which is a route that goes through my constituency. I would like to see it tweaked in places and more of the estuary included in it but it has been an excellent initiative. I believe a civil servant in the Department came up with the idea and that it is a Civil Service rather than a political initiative. Regardless of where the idea came from - civil servants do not always get praised in the House as politicians have a tendency to praise themselves and their colleagues rather than the Civil Service - this is an excellent initiative and one that is bringing tourists to the country.

I also wish to discuss a lakelands initiative, which the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, when in the Minister of State's Department, advanced and I was very glad about that. I grew up in east Clare beside Lough Derg and large numbers of tourists came to see Lough Derg and cycle around it. There are much fewer tourists now than there was in the past, not only fewer in comparison to the number of tourists going to other areas but fewer in real terms. It is an area that needs to be marketed. There is a specific market for lakelands-based tourism, not only in Clare but across the country, including in Cavan, Galway and lakelands generally. The Masurian Lake District in Poland is an area that draws a considerable number of tourists.

A report that was published, which preceded this promotional drive, stated that Lough Derg lacked an iconic sight around which it could be marketed in the way that the Cliffs of Moher are pretty iconic to the Wild Atlantic Way. It would be churlish not to acknowledge the work of Clare County Council at the Cliffs of Moher. It recently bought Inis Cealtra or Holy Island, which is quite iconic when one is driving around Lough Derg. It is quite clear that it should be the site around which Lough Derg is marketed. Much more needs to be done in that respect.

Deputy Keating spoke about the link between tourism and sport and it is important that they are dealt with together. It is also important that we deal with tourism and culture together. I have been quite critical of the Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and its failure to advance UNESCO World Heritage status for many of the sites on the tentative list, which includes Holy Island or Inis Cealtra but it is much broader than that. I met the UNESCO personnel dealing with the Irish file off my own bat in Paris and they were surprised to meet somebody from Ireland. That is not good enough and it does not demonstrate a sufficiency of joined-up thinking between Departments.

Very few tourists come to Ireland for the sunshine; nobody comes here to get a sun tan. People are increasingly coming here for sport but many people come here for culture and we need to do much more to get our sites onto the UNESCO World Heritage list. Currently, it is left to the county councils and the problem is that there is a number of cluster sights. For example, with respect to the early monastic sites, I think Durrow, Clonmacnoise, Inis Cealtra, Kells and Monasterboice are the five and with respect to western stone forts, if I am not mistaken, they fall across counties Kerry, Clare and Galway. In the case of these early monastic sites, Offaly County Council is not that keen on idea of advancing Clonmacnoise and that is holding up all the others. We need to be imaginative about this and if one council does not want to go forward with this, the other councils should not be hindered. We need to drive this nationally because it is important not only for individual areas but it is hugely important to protect and promote Inis Cealtra, Clonmacnoise and Durrow. All of those bring a benefit beyond the region in which they are located because they bring tourists into the country. I would very much like to see this being driven.

I welcome that there is a potential to increase the budget of Bord Fáilte but we need to have more debate on what Bord Fáilte does and on having more joined-up thinking. I appreciate the Minister of State wishes to get to Mayo and I will not delay him any further.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate and offered their views on the overall development of Irish tourism. I also welcome hearing Members' views on the industry, which is vitally important to the economy of every region of the country and is a valued source of employment for tens of thousands of people in Ireland.

I want to respond to a few of the queries raised by the Deputies. Deputy Dooley spoke about ensuring that we maintain value for money and, of course, we must do that. We have a favourable external factor at present but that might not always be there and we must ensure we are competitive, that our pricing structure is competitive and that we have a quality product which will attract tourists. I was delighted to hear his support for the Wild Atlantic Way and the signature projects. In regard to tourism policy, we are aware of the risks. A regional spread is very important. In terms of capital investment, we need to invest more in the towns and regions to give people an opportunity to have the product they need to bring tourists to the regions.

A theme common to all the contributions was the need to ensure we maintain value for money and the importance of competitiveness. Deputy Fitzmaurice spoke about retaining value for money. He also spoke about the River Shannon and the lakelands and the great potential they offer. We are aware of that great potential and a study is being carried out to examine how we can get the most out of it, such as the Blueway tourism initiative.

Currently, Fáilte Ireland is partnering with Waterways Ireland and local authorities to develop tourism along the Shannon waterway and associated wetlands, and work is under way to develop an experience brand, such as Ireland's Ancient East or the Wild Atlantic Way, centred on the unique aspects of life along the river. Fáilte Ireland is currently working with Waterways Ireland as the lead on the development of blueways. There has been a focus on greenways and the Wild Atlantic Way and the blueways will have something to do with water.

Deputies Jim Daly and Anthony Lawlor referred to the importance of communities and getting them involved in tourism. The Wild Atlantic Way would not have worked but for the fact that people and communities bought into it. If that does not happen on the east coast Ireland’s Ancient East will not develop. People cannot expect Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and the Government to do everything for them. Communities, businesses and those involved in tourism in the area must buy into the concept in the coming years. The Ancient Irish East has the same potential as the Wild Atlantic Way and I hope people buy into it.

We are up against very stiff competition internationally but the Wild Atlantic Way is competing with the best in the world. We are currently promoting Dublin and Ireland’s Ancient East and we are winning the battle. In the context of tourism, one can talk about jobs, the Government, communities and the favourable rate of the dollar versus the euro at the moment. However, we must thank the trade also. Sometimes people on all sides of the House forget what the trade itself does. I have been on trade missions with many businesses from this country. The tourism sector does two things. It works very hard and those involved put their hand in their pocket and accompany Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland to promote their products abroad. They take major risks. In recent years the tourism sector has gone through a very difficult time. People have had to work harder for less profit and some found themselves in major debt. People are working their way out of that. People put a lot of work into it and those involved are to be complimented on the great work they do. Sometimes we forget the major investment they make.

Deputy Buttimer spoke about Fáilte Ireland in the context of the Cork local authorities and how they are working closely to promote a new brand for Cork. I hope the local authorities, communities and everybody else will work together in that regard. Cork is in a unique position. Deputy Buttimer referred to people coming into the area from Cork Airport, which presents a great opportunity for the city and region. The tourism sector must work on the Wild Atlantic Way brand because that is in its interest. If tourists land in Cork Airport they can travel to west Cork, Clare, Galway, elsewhere in the west and they can also go to the city of Dublin. The area has an opportunity and I expect those involved in the tourism sector will make the most of it.

Regardless of whoever is here after the election perhaps Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland could come to the Oireachtas on a Wednesday to explain what it is doing. I brought Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland to public meetings around the country. People do not realise what the tourism bodies are doing. The Bill before the House relates to Fáilte Ireland, which deals with the domestic market while Tourism Ireland deals with the international market. We have small teams that work very hard. Sometimes we forget that. In recent years, tourism, like every other sector had to fight for funding. That is difficult when one is competing with areas such as health and education. Perhaps tourism funding was cut more than should have been the case. The reduction in the VAT rate was the one great thing that happened.

The common denominator in contributions from Members in today’s debate was hotel prices around the country but in particular in Dublin. I wish to set down a marker today to the hotel industry. The VAT rate was reduced from 13.5% to 9% but that will not be the case indefinitely if hotels continue to increase prices and disrupt the market in any way. Tourism is a national product that spans the west, the cities and the entire country working together. We do not want any sector damaging the tourism trade. I warn hotels about prices because there has been much talk about the price of hotels in Dublin. We went through a difficult time four or five years ago and we are now recovering. Every single year since we came into Government there has been an increase in hotel prices. I wish to put that on the record.

People can talk about favourable factors such as the strength of the dollar versus the euro but last year, 8.2 million people came into this country. It was not only the best year in the past five years or the best year since the recession, it was the best year ever for tourism in this country and that created almost €3.5 billion for the State. In recent years the tourism industry has proven itself. More than 205,000 people are employed in the sector and we hope to increase that to 250,000. Between now and 2025 we hope to increase tourism numbers to 10 million per annum. We must work together and help and support one another. The Government must play its part, as must Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland, and the industry itself. We must never go back again to the bad old days in terms of the prices that were charged in this country.

When I took over this job my first task was to deal with The Gathering. The Taoiseach asked me to go all over Britain and to America and to try to get people to visit this country. The common denominator in every part of Britain was the price structure in this country. When people came for The Gathering they got value for money and they were not ripped off. They enjoyed their visit and when they went back home they acted as our ambassadors. They told people there was value to be got in Ireland. We must make sure the value is maintained.

Deputy Costello referred to the proposal for the Dublin docklands area. He is correct that it is a very good proposal. A number of walks are already organised in Dublin and we can examine other options. The more we have the better. Deputy Conaghan mentioned industrial tourism. That is something we must examine. We must examine any product that we have. People want to see something that is different. They do not come here to sleep but to see the countryside and to see what we have to offer. When they see we have many products the hope is that they will come back again. Both of the ideas the Deputies mentioned are good ones. Walks, greenways and the industrial heritage are all part of the tourism product.

That is what today’s Bill is about. Fáilte Ireland can currently spend up to a limit of €150 million but when the Bill is passed the limit will increase to €300 million. At the moment if the Government wants to give Fáilte Ireland €160 million it cannot spend it because of the clear limit specified in the legislation of €150 million. I hope in the coming years Fáilte Ireland will get money from the Government to enhance the tourism product. We need to spread the product all around the country and to look at different ideas and new thinking because one cannot allow the product to become stale. One must freshen it up constantly and come up with new product ideas. Deputy Keating also correctly referred to hotel pricing. I have sent out a warning that the VAT rate is not set in stone forever. We will monitor the situation on a regular basis.

I thank all Members for their contributions. I also thank my officials for the work they put into the Bill. Tourism is going very well at the moment but we must be very careful, keep our eye on the ball and make sure we do not price ourselves out of the market. We have gone through a difficult time but we are in now recovery and we must build on that. Tourism jobs can be provided in every corner of the country, in particular places that will not attract multinational companies. The one thing about tourism is that one can have an unusual project that will attract people. More than 100 people are now employed on the greenway in Mayo. It has given a boost to the towns of Newport, Mulranny and Achill. When we started the greenway project people said it would not work. People also said the Wild Atlantic Way would not work. They said it was another gimmick by the Government and Fáilte Ireland. The Wild Atlantic Way will be seen as one of the greatest initiatives taken in this country. It is only developing now and in the coming years more people will learn about it.

Ireland’s Ancient East is a new product. It is one we are working on. Dublin has its own unique selling point. We are putting funding and a strategy in place because we must look ahead to a time when things will not be going as well. We must compete with other cities around the world and we are doing that.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.