Wednesday, 30 November 2011
National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the Minister of State. I have great hopes for, and confidence in, him in terms of the passion he shows in this portfolio. From monitoring his career so far, he strikes me as a man who does not operate within the box, but who is well capable of thinking outside it. That is what is needed in the Department to help it to reach its potential and tourism to play its part in the renewal of the economy. The set piece of a Minister being given a speech to read and being told that this is the policy will not work. I know the Minister of State is the kind of person who can operate outside that context.
We all support the Bill and the increased budget. It could be greater, as tourism could provide the most results and quickest wins. There are good initiatives and great people in Fáilte Ireland and in the other agencies, including a fellow county man, Mr. John Concannon, director of marketing at Fáilte Ireland, Mr. Paul Keely and so on. They are doing excellent work.
The Minister of State will not mind me mentioning that the concept of the gathering predates this Administration. The spoils it will produce will be of assistance. This morning, Senators and I attended a breakfast at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland where a group with which I am involved, Team Sligo, was tapping into Sligo's Dublin-based diaspora in a tourism context. The 90 people in the room represented 60 companies in Dublin, including some large international companies. If 20 of those companies had their annual conferences in Sligo next year, it would have an impact on tourism in the area, be it mid-week or weekend. Some of the people involved could be encouraged to return for a further weekend. This is just on the domestic tourism side.
I hope the commercial or tourism attachés throughout our embassies are also promoting the gathering concept, calling in members of the Irish diaspora on the corporate tourism side and suggesting that 20% of their companies bring one of their annual events to Ireland, be it to Galway, Sligo, Dublin or wherever. Under no circumstances should the National Convention Centre lose when one considers the kinds of events with which Irish people are involved internationally. Through the gathering concept, we could suggest that events be held in the centre. There are many opportunities on the corporate side. This will require thinking outside the box. Governments and politicians have hampered many civil servants with regard to connecting boxes within Departments. Remove the barriers, connect the boxes and get things moving.
We need to spend a great deal of money on educational tourism, which presents a significant opportunity. India and China have many millions of wealthy people who would like to travel but who do not know much about Ireland. We need to tell them and put on free flights for them. It might sound ridiculous in the extreme in a time of such austerity, but we should put aside a portion of our capital budget to pay for 50,000 seats from the Chinese and Indian markets. According to a briefing document on this debate, eight to 12 jobs are created by every few million euro of capital expenditure. For every €1 million spent by tourists, 13 jobs are created, but this fact has not been mentioned in today's debate.
India and China are developing markets. While they have vast populations and a high proportion of their citizenry is poor, a large number of their people compared with our population are wealthy and willing to travel. We need to make an effort in this regard. People could visit Ireland to learn English or for other reasons.
There will be 19 flights per week between Ireland and Abu Dhabi. What are we doing in this context? The Minister of State mentioned the visa waiver scheme, but it needs to be relaxed further so that we might encourage people to visit Ireland. There is a great deal of wealth in Abu Dhabi and its people have a natural affiliation with Ireland, as they view us as being pro-family. Arab nations are interested in families and in how Irish people go about their social and daily lives. We need to tap into their interest. This is not a niche that one will see in a tourism brochure or at a fair, but it is something that we must start doing.
In terms of sports tourism, I was involved in the concept of bringing the World Rally Championship to Ireland. I needed to jog alongside the then Minister, Mr. John O'Donoghue, to try to get his attention. The concept alone of Ireland bidding for the championship was laughable, much less winning it, much less again holding it in County Sligo. He would have hoovered it up for his constituency in County Kerry had he thought winning it was possible. It was the best championship in the world at the time. However, this was an issue for Fáilte Ireland and other bodies because rallying was not one of the chosen sports - the Volvo boat race, golf and so on - of the gin and tonic belts.
In these times of austerity when one has no money, the currency is people. Some 800 million people watched delayed coverage of the closing stages of the World Rally Championship at Mullaghmore in County Sligo. Instead of looking at Benbulben, those 800 million could have been looking at Slieve League or Croagh Patrick.
The Minister of State should pursue the ten most televised events in the world. They are not the big ones or as large as one would believe. Some 800 million people watch motor sport worldwide. I am not particularly an aficionado of it, but I got involved and, as a result, we had successful events. Unfortunately, we lost the championship due to personality issues, but it can be won again. An annual Government investment of €2 million could bring a round of the world championship to Ireland. I want it for the north west, but let us consider the bigger picture. Some 800 million people watched the delayed coverage of the final, but 50 million watched it live. This was more people than watched the rugby world cup final. It puts matters into perspective.
I have confidence in the Minister of State. He will be told that the boxes cannot be connected, that something cannot be done and that the money is not there. For years, I watched him slaughter Fianna Fáil Ministers. Many times he was right to do so. He should do the same to those who tell him this cannot be done and join the boxes. Carpe diem. The Minister of State can make the difference.
I am grateful for the extra time and will be as brief as possible. I welcome the Minister of State and compliment him on the fine job he has been doing in representing Ireland. In particular, I am green with envy whenever I see him turning up at sporting events in various parts of the world. I am unsure as to whether he will attend Kiev for tomorrow's draw, but it is unlikely.
I hope it will be a good draw for Ireland and that we will go to Poland rather than Ukraine. I have nothing against Ukraine, but the past ten years have created a history and empathy between Ireland and Poland and we have similar culture and background.
Once per month, I broadcast a programme for RTE called "The Irish Abroad". While wearing my broadcaster's hat last week, I interviewed a lady from the Irish Cultural Foundation, which is based in Poznan in western Poland. She has also been a Tourism Ireland representative in recent years. She is Polish and neither she nor her husband has Irish connections, but they started this initiative approximately ten years ago. Her comments were interesting. The Minister of State might be interested from a west of Ireland perspective. Families' visits to and from Ireland are statistically difficult to quantify, as they stay with family and friends rather than in hotels or other establishments. According to the woman, though, the number of family visits is growing in two particular areas. First, the pilgrimage market to, for example, Knock via its airport is becoming increasingly significant among Poles. Second, the angling market is proving significant. The lady in question is at the heart of the tourism industry and is promoting Ireland. Perhaps the Minister of State might take this information on board and make further inquiries. Like me, he has an interest in increasing the numbers visiting the west and north west, particularly given the region's angling. Will he comment on the level of investment in that market? He mentioned that onshore and lakeside facilities would be improved.
Regarding the visa waiver programme, Senator MacSharry's comments on China were interesting. Last week, newspapers reported the head of Brown Thomas in Ireland as saying that an increasing amount of its business in the past two years was from Chinese visitors. Will the Minister of State comment in this regard? The visitors are buying high-end jewellery and high fashion. Therefore, the Senator was right about them being wealthy.
I understand that some 16 countries are involved in the visa waiver programme, which has been geared towards people who will attend the Olympics. The Minister of State might clarify whether his Department and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation are pursuing job creation initiatives that would encourage business people who would visit London regardless, to extend their visits to Ireland. Deputy Kelleher, the former Minister of State with responsibility for trade, fought valiantly but unsuccessfully with the last Administration - I will make no apology for saying this - for the visa waiver programme that the current Government has since introduced. He argued that a businessman visiting London with an interest in travelling to Ireland could not come to Dublin to investigate job opportunities or job creation initiatives.
A businessman coming to London with an interest in coming to Ireland could not come to Dublin to examine job opportunities or job creation initiatives. However, he could go to Newry, five or six miles from the Border, with no problem because his visa extended to the United Kingdom. I know this is outside the brief of the Minister of State but I wonder if there are initiatives to encourage business people to come in and to extend their stay in Ireland with the possibility of job creation.
In the context of the capital investment programme, I welcome the walking and cycling routes. As a former chairman of Fáilte Ireland North West, it came to my attention that there are some 15 million people in the UK alone who subscribe to being walkers. They wish to take part in walking holidays and they do so mainly in the Lake District. This is a potentially huge number of people, and from the north west to Kerry in the south west we have the topography and geography suitable for an increase in the number of walking trails. Perhaps the Minister of State can comment on that.
Will any national lottery money be provided under the capital investment programme? I understand that the number of categories has been extended in recent months. I am putting this idea to the Minister of State out of the blue. Could any surplus in new categories be diverted to areas where there is a shortfall? Every Minister is trying to get as much out of the central Exchequer. The Slieve League proposal is wonderful and competes with the Cliffs of Moher. Anyone who has an opportunity to go to west Donegal should go there. Under the capital programme, the iconic attractions that are a priority for the north-west tourism region are Benbulben in Sligo and Glencar in Leitrim. I know that a significant amount of money has been given to Leitrim County Council under the watch of the Minister of State for the development of the Glencar waterfall, which is synonymous with Yeats. As chairman of Leitrim Tourism, I welcome these initiatives and want to let the Minister of State know that tourism is alive and well in Leitrim, as it is in other parts of the country.
I have made a note to personally congratulate the Minister of State because I knew he was under severe pressure from various other projects and from the Exchequer viewpoint. I pay a personal compliment to the Minister of State for visiting my home town, Drumshanbo, in the company of my colleague, Councillor Enda McGloin, and also for the provision of €268,000, which amounts to 80% of the cost of refurbishing and improving the swimming facilities, and providing more disabled access along with a range of refurbishment that will be central to enhancing the tourism product of Drumshanbo and mid-Leitrim.
In the context of this Bill, the cap of €150 million is a vote of confidence in the future of the tourism product in Ireland, notwithstanding the fact that some €44 million has been invested in tourism since 2004. The fact that this is being increased from €60 million to €150 million suggests a strong vote of confidence. I pay a warm and personal tribute to Mr. Niall Gibbons, the CEO of Tourism Ireland. I declare an interest in that I know him very well and, like the Minister of State, I worked with him through the years. I also pay tribute to the team of Tourism Ireland, which is charged with encouraging more visitors to Ireland. Tourism Ireland launched a new marketing initiative this week for 2012 and perhaps the Minister of State has a view on it. The marketing initiative will double the number of visitors from key markets in Ireland. I have complete confidence in the Minister of State and the continuing success he is bringing to his tourism brief.
It would be remiss of me if I did not pay one last compliment. Michael O'Leary has injected a great boost to the west with the announcement of four new routes out of Knock Airport. I wish Ryanair and Knock Airport the very best.
I compliment all the Senators for the excellent debate. I will make a commitment to return to the Seanad. Since I came to office, one of the best debates I have had was the debate on sport in the Seanad. What I really like is when people ask questions and when I can reply after two or three of them. I will not be able to answer all questions posed today but the heart of every Senator is in the right place, just like the Dáil. Tourism is so important to every corner of this country. It creates employment in corners of the country where there will not be multinationals or investment other than tourism.
If the scenery and beauty in this country could be bought and sold, it would not be in Ireland. It would be in China or America because they have the money. We must work on the basis that we have something we want to sell to the rest of the world in order to bring people into this country. Since I came into this job I have had the energy and will work with the agencies and my Department.
Senator Barrett is quite correct that we cannot do things as we did before. We must be more motivated. We do not have the funding we had for many years and we must make sure that the funding is targeted and spent in the right places. We must all work harder, work differently and work smarter.
We have four State agencies, Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, Dublin Tourism and Shannon Development. There are too many agencies, which everyone knows. We are now reviewing the matter to see how we can streamline some of these agencies. We must do that.
The Acting Chairman, Senator O'Sullivan, raised questions about access and marketing. I am glad to see that the public service obligation has been renewed for Kerry Airport. Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland are working to keep the Cork-Swansea ferry line open. The company is in difficulty and it is an important route of access into the country. We are working with the company to keep it alive.
Several speakers referred to the committee I chair and from which Mr. Pat Hickey has resigned. I do not want to get into it and I will not make a big statement today. I am only in the job eight months and since I came into office, we have had two meetings. We held nine meetings in total and have one fixed for next month, although not because of the incident. I thought we were all putting on the green jersey. This is not a time to be bickering about whether we put money into hospitality in Britain. Many Senators have been in the Irish Embassy, which is a hospitality house because we do not have the resources and the money. If I had €300,000 and if the Minister for Finance had it he would be looking at special needs and hospitals. We have the Irish Embassy and a good ambassador in London and Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland will work together to be our hospitality house. I wish Mr. Pat Hickey well and I thank him for his contribution.
The previous Government set up a committee and we have done well out of it. Irish business people who went to Britain for the Olympic Games have agreed projects worth €500 million. Regarding the tourism aspect, we have some funding established and we are looking for the private sector to help us to get further funding. When the Olympic Games are under way, we will try to have a cultural event in this country for people who would normally go to London because London will be crowded and hotels will be very expensive. We have what they are looking for and we will target that market. We will have many festivals in Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway and we will entice people to come to the country. That committee is working very hard and there has been serious economic benefit to the country.
Senator Terry Brennan mentioned the cost of holidays, food and the cost of coming into the country. That was the perception. We must ensure our cost base is good and that our food and hotels are reasonably priced. Recent French publications have stated that Irish food is of a very good quality and that the price structure has reduced. That the French are publicising those issues in their books and magazines is good for Ireland.
There is no doubt that Ireland provides good value in hotels. That is good for the product, the market and the country. However, there is a problem in regard to special events. I have called in the Irish Hotels Federation in that regard. Again we have to put on the green jersey. I am not saying the hotels cannot increase their prices for special events. They can, but those prices must be reasonable. It is not good for the perception of the industry or the hotels that prices are increased for special events.. We had the same problem during the Europa Cup and during major events in the country in the past year. To be fair to the hotels, many are under extreme pressure and are working within very tight margins. That some are competing with NAMA hotels is causing a serious problem. The family-run hotels work hard and their cost base is at a very low level. They work hard at getting people into the country.
Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned the strategic plan. I am pleased to inform him that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, is today launching with Tourism Ireland a new marketing plan with new ways of doing business. I will come back to the House for a debate on tourism. In regard to the new way of doing business-----
Yes, e-commerce. The Government is committed to e-commerce. We have to do it that way. Fáilte Ireland has a marvellous database for the entire world. Since becoming Minister of State a number of people have approached me and people are thinking outside the box. The problem is that it takes money to run some of the projects and we do not have that money. Film crews want to make films on festivals and cultural events but the best we can offer them is whatever Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland have in respect of scenery and beauty. Whatever is available on their own files is made available to them. We have a database showing that we have assisted companies, hotel operators and the industry itself. We will have to do that better and smarter. We have to do some things the old way but we also have to do things in new ways. The old ways cannot be forgotten. What Senator Tom Sheahan said was correct that we cannot go to the market.
Senator Paschal Mooney mentioned the problem of attending events. As soon as one attends an event there is a freedom of information request. That is the major problem and we must be careful.
I even got a freedom of information request from a person in my constituency to find out where I had travelled. I will make it clear on local and national radio and in this House today. We decided when we assumed office, because of the economic situation, to target the four main areas that are good for Irish tourism: Britain, France, Germany and America. The Minister decided to take responsibility for two countries while I would take responsibility for the other two. We have done that. I was in America and France while the Minister was in Britain twice and he was also in Germany. We got results. We targeted the tour operators and took some of them to Ireland, around the west coast, the east coast and so on to show them our product. There is no better approach than going to the market, that is, the tour operators, those who will be selling the product abroad. As I said in France, it is in its interest and it is in the Irish Government's interest. It is in our interest to ensure the French see our product and can sell it to their people and that they know what they are selling.
I will conclude. I will come back again. I thank Senators for their kind comments. Tourism is important to the country. The Government is committed to tourism. Every time 35,000 tourists come to Ireland, a job is created. The more people we can encourage to visit Ireland the more revenue will be generated. We have the product, the people and the culture. With all working together we can get back on the right road again and we must give people value for money.