Wednesday, 31 May 2017
I welcome the opportunity to speak about tourism in Ireland. Working in the hospitality industry myself it is an area with which I am very familiar. I understand how Government and the industry can work hand in glove to deliver for what is a very important industry to this country. Tourism is one of Ireland's most important economic sectors, with total tourism revenue for the economy in 2015 of over €7 billion, while employment in tourism in Ireland is estimated at 203,000 jobs.
As the Minister knows all too well, Great Britain is Ireland's biggest source market for overseas tourists, representing 41.6% of all such visits and 26% of total tourism revenue. The end of the common travel area between the UK and Ireland would thus be very costly and disruptive to the tourism industry in Ireland. Moreover, the continued and expected long-term depreciation of sterling against the euro will have inevitable consequences for the number of visitors who come from Great Britain to Ireland. This is already having an effect and, according to some recently published figures, the number of British tourists was down by 10.7% over the course of the summer.
The Seanad Brexit committee heard that Tourism Ireland has cut its forecast for the coming year by 6% because of Brexit. In 2016, tourism in the North of Ireland increased by 26% and tourism in the Border counties increased by 14%. It is the second biggest industry on the island of Ireland. The Seanad committee learned that the problem coming down the road relates to who will fund Tourism Ireland in the future. There has been a reduction in the number of EU visitor numbers in the first three months of this year, which are down 5.5% on last year.
The tourism industry is vital to the country but we are in uncertain times with Brexit. I was very surprised to hear from Tourism Ireland at the Seanad committee that people want to know whether tourists will be safe if there is a Border in two years time, and that this question specifically came up in trade missions to Italy and Germany. It is vitally important that Tourism Ireland knows where it will get funding as it goes forward, and what level of funding it will get. Are the Twenty-six Counties to be marketed separately from the Six Counties? Will Tourism Ireland be selling an island that is partly in the EU and partly out of the EU? These are the questions which Tourism Ireland asked at the Seanad Brexit committee.
While many people may view the tourism industry as urban based, tourism is the second largest industry in rural Ireland. The smaller businesses, whose owners perhaps own farms but rent holiday homes, boats or bicycles to tourists, are suffering from the uncertainty that Brexit has brought. This uncertainty is affecting not only the industry but the funding of the very State agency that is responsible for bringing people to the island of Ireland.The Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union was told that Northern Ireland has received over £7 billion in EU funding through various programmes, including the Erasmus programme which gives students an opportunity to spend 29 days in various parts of Europe. Their accommodation, food and travel costs are paid for. Those who participate in the Erasmus programme become tourist ambassadors abroad. According to Tourism Ireland, this is the best and cheapest way of marketing Ireland as a tourism product. We need bold thinking of how to protect the tourism industry from the crosswinds of Brexit. At the peak of our economic crisis, the Government launched The Gathering to attract US tourism and it was a massive success. Since The Gathering, tourism from the US has increased by 15% year on year.
A Bill which I have put forward on lifting the ban on selling alcohol on Good Friday will shortly come before the Cabinet. I expect to receive the Minister of State's full support for the Bill. We should also consider having a gathering for Europe. There are many Irish emigrants living across Europe. This calls for a marketing tool similar to The Gathering.
The Minister knows the challenges we face but we must react now rather than in two years' time. I urge the Minister to be bold and to ensure that one of Ireland’s greatest export products, our country itself, can continue to thrive and generate the employment and income that this State so badly requires.