Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus tá súil agam go mbeidh diospóireacht úsáideach againn. I have heard the Minister of State speak many times. We do not live far from each other and we have encountered one another at several functions to promote tourism. He is doing a very good job and I compliment him on his performance yesterday in Achill in the Acting Leader's county. I hope we will see him performing as well in Ballybunion and other places in the near future.
I will be positive in this debate because tourism is a positive story. It is important that we try to sing from the same hymn sheet. While some cracks and flaws are starting to appear here and there, I am pleased to note that the Minister of State is well aware of them. While I was unable to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport this morning, I followed proceedings closely on the monitor and listened to the Minister of State's comments to my fellow committee members. He is clearly aware of what may lie around the corner.
The Minister of State provided a series of figures outlining the good news in tourism. While I do not propose to repeat them, the 13% increase in visitor numbers in 2015 was a magnificent achievement. Many other countries that may have as much to offer as Ireland would be very proud of such growth. The negative side, to which the Minister of State alluded, is the 11% decline in visitor numbers from the United Kingdom recorded in the short period between February and April of this year. This downturn contrasts with the substantial increase of approximately 25% in visitors from North America. However, the good news underlines how worrying the bad trend in UK visitor numbers is.The indications from people in the industry are pretty clear that there is already a softening in UK bookings for the rest of this year. I come from a county that is heavily dependent on tourism and the anecdotal evidence, as well as the little signs one picks up on the ground, are bad. When swallows gather in the fall of the year, one knows that winter is coming. Little things are happening, and other little things are not happening, which indicate that we may have serious problems with UK visitor numbers this year. We will have to be alert and the people for whom tourism is a livelihood are making plans. They know how to adapt and, with the Minister's support and the full backing of the Department, we can forestall the worst scenarios.
I accept that the Minister is working with the tourism leadership group and I understand he will have a further meeting with them before long. Can he outline who is in the group and what does he think of the way they work? Is there any room for improvement? I presume the Minister agrees that the three priorities for the Government must be to preserve the common travel area, to avoid a hard Border and to maintain an open aviation regime, the last of which will always be important for us as an island nation. The devaluation of sterling is an imponderable and who knows what will be the result of the UK election? All of a sudden, it seems to be quite interesting but it could have a further depressing outcome for us. The more sterling drops, the more expensive it will be for somebody to spend sterling over here.
I spent a few days touring the east midlands of England, around Nottingham and Lincoln, and I encountered many people. I was surprised at how many were totally opposed to Brexit, although obviously they had not been in the majority. I was also surprised by how many loved Ireland and loved coming to Ireland, although they probably will not do so this year for financial reasons. We therefore have to look at alternatives and at diversification, something I raised at our last debate at which the Minister was present. I know the Department is working very hard on diversification and there is a huge world out there. In particular, there is a huge eastern market. While our share of it is small at the moment, it is growing and people who come from as far away as China stay a lot longer, spend a lot more and tend to travel around the country, rather than just pick one spot such as Dublin, Galway or Killarney. We need to do more work on the niche markets and one for which we can do even more is the market for the elderly, the people who are in their golden years. Ireland is an ideal place for them because everything is relatively safe, although no place is safe from global terrorism at the moment. There is more potential to attract these people than we are exploiting at present. Speciality holidays and activity holidays are hugely important but we must not forget the golden pound.
The Minister referred to local authorities and I commend the local authorities around the country on taking a hands-on approach to promoting and developing tourism in their respective counties. We were recently at the launch of the Kerry effort some months ago. Doing this is not a huge financial burden for councils and small moneys can go a long way in good communities. I am very proud to be from Listowel and tonight is one of the biggest nights of our year, being the opening night of writers week. It is not a huge enterprise with a huge budget although we enjoy certain levels of support from the Arts Council and private sponsorship, but the amount of money it will generate in the restaurants, bars and shops over the next few days will be phenomenal.
I am conscious of the issue of regionalisation as, I am sure, is the Minister. I will not bore people with statistics but approximately 40% of all our visitors will perch in Dublin for some part of their stay. We in the south west are next at approximately 18% and the west gets 13% but the poor north west gets 5% or 6%. I do not understand this disparity because there is no more beautiful countryside in the world than Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo.
We have spoken of the price of hotels in Dublin and I did a little survey this week. I challenge anyone to find a hotel within a half mile from Leinster House where a room costs less than €200. It is absolute madness and I am grateful that Airbnb is coming up. I propose that the Minister work with Airbnb to develop it. It has got some bad press but it is the only thing that is keeping visitors in Dublin at the moment.