Thursday, 31 January 2013
The Gathering Ireland 2013: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to address the House today about The Gathering Ireland 2013 and outline progress on the initiative at the beginning of a very significant year for Irish tourism.
Tourism has always been an important driver of economic activity for Ireland. It is estimated that the tourism and hospitality industry employs approximately 185,000 people and every year generates in the region of ¤5.5 billion in revenue from home and abroad. It is an industry largely populated by smaller enterprises and is deeply rooted in the fabric of economic life, urban and rural.
In terms of overseas visits, we were fortunate to enjoy a number of years of successive growth until 2007 when the number of overseas visits reached more than 8 million. However, with the general global economic downturn, we endured a highly challenging period during which we experienced a reduction in overseas visits in each of the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 and numbers fell back to slightly more than 6 million visits. When the Government took office in 2011 it decided to place the tourism sector at the heart of its economic recovery programme. The jobs initiative introduced a lower VAT rate for key tourism services, lower PRSI rates, a visa waiver scheme and an air access strategy. We built on this initiative in the Government's Action Plan for Jobs, with continuing commitment to tourism services and investment. In addition, despite the challenging economic circumstances in which we found ourselves, we continued to provide significant resources for overseas tourism marketing activity.
These measures have worked. The number of overseas visits to Ireland increased in 2011 for the first time since 2007, reaching more than 6.5 million, an increase of 7% on 2010 levels. In addition, figures released earlier this week show this positive momentum has continued with a small increase again recorded in 2012 and all of our main markets performing very strongly and showing solid growth, with the exception of Great Britain.
While all of the Government measures I outlined were important, the time was right for an initiative of even greater significance, something that would create a new buzz and momentum for Irish tourism. Having met with the tourism agencies, I was persuaded that the idea of inviting the world to a year long celebration of everything that is best about Ireland could provide a real boost for the sector. It was in the context of the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2011 in Dublin Castle that I announced the concept of The Gathering Ireland 2013. The initiative was driven by two imperatives: first, the need to explore how the Irish at home and abroad and those with a strong interest in and affinity for Ireland could work together and contribute to our overall efforts at economic recovery; and, second, to examine ways in which Ireland and its global network could build on their existing relationship not only in economic terms, but also in terms of community and connection. The overall target of The Gathering Ireland was to attract at least 325,000 extra overseas visitors to Ireland in 2013. Assuming this target is achieved, and I am confident it will be, the initiative will generate an additional ¤170 million in revenue for the economy this year.
While the initial idea for The Gathering came from Fáilte Ireland, once the Government decided to fully commit to it I was clear that we did not want the initiative to be done by the Government as such. I wanted everyone across the country to have a part to play to help make it a successful, bottom-up initiative. Thankfully, the call to action was heeded and every county is playing its part.
In terms of how preparations for the event evolved from the initial launch, a tremendous amount of work was done throughout last year. Fáilte Ireland, the lead agency for the implementation of the initiative, put in place a project executive team to implement it and Mr. Jim Miley, the former chairman of Concern International, was appointed project director to drive the initiative forward. A project advisory group was also established with representatives from the private sector, academia, the tourism industry and the State agencies. Tourism Ireland has specific responsibility for promoting The Gathering in overseas markets and also provided staff for the project team.
The St. Patrick's Day festivities last March were used for the main overseas launch while key international tourism industry partners were invited to become part of The Gathering at Fáilte Ireland's Meitheal trade fair in April. A major domestic launch took place on Friday, 11 May 2012 in Dublin Castle at an event attended by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, and myself.
To garner support at local level, a series of The Gathering community meetings were held throughout Ireland, providing an opportunity for people to learn more about The Gathering and how they could be part of it. More than 7,000 people attended 60 community meetings throughout the country. A website was established with information on how people could become involved, including online support for potential organisers to submit queries and download promotional material. In addition, a dedicated social media channel was established to promote the event.
In terms of resources, I was pleased to provide a specific additional ¤5 million allocation to Fáilte Ireland last year and this was ring-fenced for preparations. This allocation was primarily used for establishing the support structure and for marketing the event. That is a brief overview of the foundations of The Gathering and I will now turn to how the finished product is looking and briefly summarise the plans for the remainder of the year.
I am pleased to say that the general response from the public and all tourism stakeholders has been overwhelmingly positive and has exceeded my expectations. The latest update shows that there are almost 2,800 gatherings of all shapes and sizes taking place throughout the country. The 2013 Estimates allocations to Fáilte Ireland include ¤7 million specifically for The Gathering. This is to be used exclusively to fund the promotion, development and legacy of The Gathering. In terms of online activity, The Gathering has had more than 750,000 visits to its website. It has more than 45,000 Facebook fans and more than 10,000 Twitter followers.
I would like to refer to the series of festivals and events which are, in many ways, the keystone to the potential success of The Gathering and which help drive and generate demand to visit Ireland. I am pleased that we have a fantastic line up confirmed for The Gathering. Details of all of the events are included on The Gathering website and I urge Senators to look at the site to see the variety and spread of events taking place over the next 11 months. Numbers-wise, as I already said, there are almost 2,800 individual events confirmed but this number continues to grow. Indeed, I am aware of a large number of gatherings which are not on the website. They include clan gatherings, festivals, special sporting events, music and concerts taking place throughout the country all year long. While many events will be well-established and internationally renowned, others will be new to the festivals scene and will offer a huge variety of contemporary cultural expression. There will be large scale national festivals and events but there will also be a myriad of local gatherings taking place.
We are also supporting a targeted set of special events for The Gathering, building on our existing strengths in terms of Ireland's image overseas. An example of this is the very successful new year's event which kicked off The Gathering in Dublin. These types of events will provide a platform for the best of Irish talent and show off our host cities, towns and villages at their best.
In terms of resources, a limited amount of funding has been allocated on a once-off basis for existing festivals and events to tailor their programme, or specific elements of their programme, around the themes of The Gathering 2013. Just over ¤4 million is being provided by Fáilte Ireland to support almost 200 national and regional festivals and events during 2013. Some ¤1 million of this is additional funding has been allocated on a once-off basis for major events to tailor their programme, or specific elements of their programme, around the themes of The Gathering. Three examples of major events which are being enhanced around The Gathering theme include: the Peoples Parade, which offered up to 8,000 visitors from around the world a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead and take part in the iconic national St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin in a very special celebration of The Gathering; a gathering of Roses, which will take place at the Rose of Tralee Festival in the summer in Tralee, with 5,000 members of the extended Rose family invited to Tralee, including former Roses, escorts and visitors to the festival; and other established cultural events which are offering enhanced programmes this year, including the Galway Arts Festival, the Wexford Opera Festival, which is having a conference on European opera, and Listowel Writers' Week.
Outside of the regular Fáilte Ireland festivals and events budget, an additional ¤2 million fund was overseen by the city and county councils to fund The Gathering events and activities. This scheme was administered by the councils based on agreed application criteria with a key factor being the capacity to attract overseas visitors. These gatherings, divided into key county flagship events and community gatherings, are funded through a ¤1 million philanthropic donation by IPB Insurance that was matched by the Government through Fáilte Ireland in response to the enormous interest expressed nationwide. I put on the record my appreciation to IPB Insurance for taking part in and contributing to The Gathering. Many of us who were members of local authorities will be familiar with what we used to call Irish Public Bodies Mutual Insurance. It is the same company and we are very grateful to it for that support. I hope to be able to work with it in other areas where my Department will interact with local government in the coming years. Through this programme, co-funded by IPB and Fáilte Ireland, 1,322 events are being supported and these include 82 county flagship events and 1,240 local community events. Again, details of these can be found on The Gathering website.
This is just a short overview of what is in store in terms of festivals and events and, obviously, time constraints will not allow me to deal with all of them. What I will say, however, is that we hear a lot about a desire on the part of tourists for authenticity, for genuine Irish experiences and for a connection with Irish people. I am delighted that the events and festivals developed for The Gathering by Irish towns, villages and communities, celebrate what they are proud of in their own locality. I have no doubt that they will provide that genuine local Irish experience and send overseas visitors back with many rich memories.
Obviously, we can only achieve our ambitious targets for overseas visitor numbers if our main source tourism markets are aware of the initiative. For this reason, Tourism Ireland continues to develop a major consumer campaign to promote The Gathering to the people across the world who feel linked by family, friends or otherwise with Ireland. The agency's overseas activities are already showing dividends with 20 gatherings confirmed through the agency's overseas partners. Some examples include: SPAR bringing its international conference to Dublin and Killarney in May, which will involve 280 delegates from 36 countries spending six nights in Ireland; KPMG, the international financial services provider, is hosting its alumni dinner for 2013 in the Convention Centre Dublin with more than 1,000 visitors expected from overseas; and the International Pharmaceutical Federation annual congress will welcome 3,000 pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists from around the world to Dublin in August. Obviously, the immediate benefits to our economy of hosting these events is enormous. Equally important, however, is the opportunity to reap a legacy dividend in terms of future holiday plans of those who travel.
In terms of mainstream marketing activity, throughout 2013 Tourism Ireland will continue to undertake co-operative activity with the major airlines and ferry operators. In Britain, the advertisements to date have mainly featured the good value fares that are now on offer. Similar activity is under way with all of the airlines serving mainland Europe. In France, advertising campaigns in partnership with the ferry companies will run in March and April to promote car touring holidays to Ireland during the year of The Gathering. Of course, as Senators will know, last year was one of the strongest ever for visitors from the US to Ireland and we hope to grow this further in 2013 and make it a record year. A critical factor which will underpin this growth is the increase of more than 25% in the number of airline seats between Ireland and the US this summer. Co-operative marketing campaigns with all of these airlines will take place throughout the year.
Print and online advertising will also continue in all our major overseas tourism markets. In Britain alone, a series of national press advertorials reached 8.2 million in the national press in recent weeks. In the United States, a 30 second Gathering television advertisement will coincide with the broadcast of the third series of "Downton Abbey" reaching 500,000 households in the Chicago, New York and Boston areas every week. The Gathering is also being highlighted at major European trade and consumer fairs and Tourism Ireland is working in partnership with a number of online travel agents across Europe to promote the initiative. The St. Patrick's Day festivities and the programme of overseas ministerial events will again be used to publicise Ireland, with the greening of landmarks happening again throughout the world and in Dublin and in all our major towns and cities. Today, I wrote to all Ministers, county managers, city managers and the CEOs of State companies asking them to turn their landmark buildings green for the week of St. Patrick's Day. I hope they will answer that call.
These are just some examples of the overseas promotional activities that are in planning or under way but I think they show that every possible effort is being made to get the message out there that The Gathering is happening and that there has never been a better time to visit.
As I already said, there has been a fantastic response to The Gathering across the board, from local communities, voluntary bodies, public bodies, businesses and Government at national and local level. I am aware that the initiative has not been without criticism, with certain adverse comments about the event receiving widespread coverage which has, in many ways, helped to raise the profile of The Gathering. Everyone here would agree that tourism is a valuable service export. Encouraging those from overseas, whether Irish or not, to sample what we have to offer is not, in my opinion, a money-grabbing exercise, any more than exporting other goods and services. With the hotel and accommodation sector already generating additional employment since this Government came into office, with roughly 10,000 more people working in tourism, accommodation and hospitality than at the time of the general election, tourism can offer jobs to those who might otherwise face a choice between emigration and unemployment. I am certainly not ashamed of seeking to increase that employment still further by investing in The Gathering.
The New Year's Eve event in Dublin was fabulous and is something that will develop every year, getting bigger and better. Perhaps in ten years Dublin will rival Edinburgh and New York as a place to visit for New Year's Eve. I am really delighted to see many local festivals across the country that had fallen by the wayside being re-ignited. One such festival in my own constituency is the Strawberry Fair in the Strawberry Beds. Members may remember that the late Deputy Brian Lenihan used to live in the Strawberry Beds, between Lucan and Castleknock. I remember going to the Strawberry Fair as a young child but somehow it petered out over the years. As part of The Gathering, however, someone had the bright idea of starting the festival again, which will take place on 30 June this year. It is really nice to see some of those festivals around the country that died off being re-ignited. The Gathering, in many ways, has given people an excuse to do things that they had planned to do, whether that be a festival or a family reunion, but never got around to before.
The Gathering will also be important in terms of re-establishing connections, particularly among the second-generation diaspora. I have organised my family gathering and descendents of my great great grandfather, Tom Howell, a shoemaker from Kilbrien in County Waterford, are coming to our family gathering in Dungarvan in May. We have people coming from America, all over Ireland and the UK. It is an opportunity for a lot of us to get to know one another in a way we did not in the past, to reunite families and enable people to get to know the next generation that is coming along. Often, when emigration happens, people keep in touch for a generation or two but that link is lost after a third or fourth generation. This is an opportunity to introduce people to different generations and to remake those family connections which are very important.
I should also state that I firmly believe that anybody coming to Ireland this year, be it specifically for The Gathering or otherwise, will not be disappointed. If there is any doubt, early results from the latest visitor attitude survey commissioned by Fáilte Ireland makes for very encouraging reading. In 2012, 65% of those surveyed said they would highly recommend Ireland to their friends to visit and a further 32% would recommend Ireland. Furthermore, 61% plan to return in the next few years and a massive 97% would like to return again in the future. This shows that we already have a very stable tourism product that people enjoy and one that can deliver a vibrant sustainable tourism industry in the future.
It is also widely accepted that value for money has improved in Ireland. Prices here have fallen, in general, over the last couple of years while they have risen across most of the rest of western Europe. Restaurants, hotels and attractions are offering much better packages to holidaymakers than they did in the past and all of that augurs very well for the future of Irish tourism.
As I am in the Seanad, I wish to make special mention of Senator Eamonn Coghlan, my party and constituency colleague, who is organising the Senator's Cup event, which is a golfing tournament, only open to people from overseas, who will come to play golf in the Luttrellstown Castle Golf Club and the Royal Dublin Golf Club. That promises to be a great event and it is good to see somebody really taking an interest in The Gathering. Another event, about which I have spoken to the Ceann Comhairle and on which some moves are afoot, is a parliamentary or Oireachtas gathering, which may happen next autumn. That would be a gathering of parliamentarians of Irish heritage, many of whom we would have met on visits abroad. We probably said to ourselves we should meet again but never did. This would be an opportunity to invite parliamentarians from overseas who have Irish heritage to these Houses. The Ceann Comhairle will chair a committee which will make that a reality and the Whips have been asked to submit two names to be part of the working group, preferably one Deputy and one Senator because it is very important to have this House involved.
I hope I have given the House an overview of The Gathering Ireland 2013. While we have very much targeted this year, I have no doubt that the pay-off for participation will have long-term positive consequences. The many events which are offering unique and engaging experiences to visitors, may develop into annual traditions or create ongoing connections with other parts of the world. More important, the connections we strengthen and build, at home and abroad, will be the most important legacy of The Gathering Ireland 2013. I look forward to the contributions from Senators on this issue.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá céad míle fáilte roimh an Aire agus táim cinnte go mbeidh céad míle fáilte roimh na míle Gael a bheidh ag filleadh ar an dtír seo don ocáid speisialta seo. Níl amhras faoi ná go bhfuil na Gaeil thar a bheith go maith ag ceiliúradh agus táim cinnte go mbeidh an scéal amhlaidh arís. Molaim an obair atá idir láimhe ag an Aire.
I welcome the Minister to the House and compliment him on the implementation of his portfolio. He comes across to me as a no-nonsense, straight talking Minister who avoids acrimonious debates. I have noticed that on television and in other fora and believe it is particularly important at a time when there is a lot of negativity abroad. I compliment the Minister on that. I have also discovered that important people are descended from shoemakers. For instance, President Obama's ancestor was also a shoemaker in Moneygall. The Minister and the President have a lot in common.
The Irish people, as we know, have travelled for centuries throughout the world and those of us who have been fortunate to meet them on different occasions in different parts of the world realise the love that they still have for their homeland. Every opportunity they get, they want to help Ireland. We should not spend too much time with any of the negative comments that were made about The Gathering. They were really very peripheral and were not very serious. Unfortunately, however, these things gather legs and they end up in the international media. The Irish were misrepresented in those negative comments. The suggestion that we only go to the diaspora on St. Patrick's Day or that we only come with a begging bowl is absolute nonsense. The network that has been established between Ireland - including official agencies, voluntary bodies, community organisations and so forth - and the Irish diaspora is very strong and visionary. There is no doubt that there is a huge foundation of co-operation in existence. The comments were a misrepresentation of the situation as it stands.
The Gathering has an echo in An Tóstal and those of us of a certain age can remember back to that series of festivals. I think I was about 13 or 14 at the time that we had a huge event in the town of Cashel. I can remember the huge cultural parade and I had the role of an acolyte in it. I recall it being on newsreel in the cinema, as happened at that particular time. The cinema in Cashel was packed on the occasion and I went up to see myself. I think I saw myself for a half a second but nevertheless, it was my hour of glory. The positivity which came out of An Tóstal at that time was unique. I am sure that when Senator Paschal Mooney arrives to speak he will refer to the fact that An Tóstal still continues in one town, Drumshambo in County Leitrim, to this very day. I always regretted that it did not continue and that is why I know The Gathering is going to succeed. I do not have any doubt about that.
It will succeed because the Irish are good at a number of things, including presenting a party, which is what The Gathering will be. It provides an opportunity for people, not only in the large populated cities and towns but in the villages and townlands, to come out and nail their colours to the mast and show themselves as they are, namely, communities wishing to welcome back the broader family of Ireland. When one considers that there are 70,000 people of Irish extraction throughout the world, this is unique. That is, however, only a small part of the story. The influence and impact of the Irish diaspora in their adopted countries is also unique.
When the organisation with which I am connected, Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann, received an application five or six years from Moscow regarding the formation of a branch in Russia and we inquired who were the Irish people involved we learned those involved were Russian and not Irish people. The secretary of that branch is Yuri, an Irish speaking Russian. Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann has branches in 15 countries on four continents. During the past three months two new branches were opened in Argentina and Chile and another was opened in Bogota, Colombia, with a second to follow. We must have something very special that appeals to other nationalities that they want to embrace it, participate in it and celebrate it. I do not know how one puts a price on an asset of that type, which is not commercial but has economic consequences.
I have previously heard sections of the media comment badly on representatives of the Irish Government going abroad for St. Patrick's Day. Sadly, not only were the representatives of Government pilloried, so too were our people abroad who wanted to indicate with pride the connection they had with our country. Three years ago, I had the pleasure of being the guest of honour at the parade in St. Louis, although not on behalf of Government. Prior to that parade 12,000 people, wearing green jerseys, came together for a sponsored race. Some 300,000 people turned up at that parade. The sight of Irish people showing off their Irishness was unique. There must be an end to people saying Irish Government representatives should not be going abroad because of the expense involved and more focus on the amount of money that is generated through their appearance on television and in the newspapers, which is all good publicity. The Gathering, through the bringing together of cultural, industrial and community Ireland, will also be good publicity. We have a unique story to tell and a unique product to market.
The Gathering is off to a good start. I wish those involved well. I have no doubt that it will leave behind a legacy of positivity and ideas with which we can work into the future. We must take this opportunity to work together for the common cause. I hope, however, that this does not stop at the Border. For the first time in 60 years Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will be held across the Border. It will be attended by 300,000 people and will generate ¤40 million. That it is being held on the other side of the Border must be of interest to Tourism Ireland, which markets all of Ireland. I salute Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland who have done an outstanding job against all the odds down through the years. This is the time for Ireland to shine. Let The Gathering be the unifying element we needed in this time of recession.
The Gathering Ireland 2013 is the biggest tourism event ever to be held in Ireland. Businesses, clubs, organisations and people across the country will get involved in The Gathering and will contribute to its success. There will be many special events to highlight what is great about individual communities and what they, in terms of heritage and culture, have to offer the discerning visitor. We have it all. While the sun does not often shine here the discerning visitor comes here for what we have to offer, the cead míle fáilte.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, on this initiative, which I believe will result in a major increase in visitors to all parts of Ireland this year. It promises to be the biggest tourism initiative ever staged in Ireland. The response to date from people at home and abroad has been fantastic. These responses range from family gatherings to school and college reunions, and even a gathering of twins. Like the Minister I, too, congratulate Senator Eamonn Coghlan on his initiative, through which he is encouraging participation from broad in a golf tournament at two of the most magnificent golf courses in this country, to which I understand there has been a great response. I have invited Seandoirí ona Stáit Aontaithe to come and participate in it.
Local The Gathering organisations, comprising sporting bodies, cultural and musical organisations, local authorities and local development companies, are being set up in every county. The Gathering will showcase Ireland at its best. Senator Ó Murchú mentioned An Tóstal which takes place in Drumshanbo and commenced in 1952, which, if the Minister does not mind my saying, was before he was born. Senator Ó Murchú admitted to his age at the time that initiative was introduced. I was half his age at that time.
The aspirations of An Tóstal in 1952 were the same as those of The Gathering, namely, local communities throughout the country promoting their towns and villages. It was followed by the National Tidy Towns Competition. When my home town sought to put itself on the tourism map of Ireland, it did so by getting involved in the National Tidy Towns Competition. Almost 20 years later, through local people, businesses, school children and the local authority working together, it won the competition.
I guarantee the Minister that the 850 communities in the towns and villages throughout the country that are actively promoting their uniqueness, be it their locations by rivers or seas or their status as heritage or medieval towns, will help to ensure that The Gathering will be a success. I acknowledge the voluntary organisations that work throughout the year. The competition is a continuation of what began in 1953 with An Tóstal - Ireland at Home, a pageant encouraging people to return home. I congratulate Drumshanbo. I believed my colleague from that town would be present.
I will be parochial. If the Minister has not already done so, I ask him to visit this country's tourism capital, mo bhaile féin of Carlingford. An áit is deise sa tír.
I will be parochial for a moment or two.
Leprechauns, legends and samba will lead my county's flagship The Gathering projects. The overall total of 39 funded events in Louth comprises three flagship events and 36 local community events. The three flagship events that have received funding are the Drogheda samba festival, the Louth Land of Legends nautical event and the national leprechaun hunt in my home town.
Yes. The Department was not canvassed for its support, but it recognises the event.
I will conclude by congratulating the Minister. I have already congratulated my colleague. Having been involved in the Tidy Towns competition for 40 years, I assure the Minister that all of the communities involved will have their towns and villages looking well for the many discerning visitors who will come to Ireland this year.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am interested in The Gathering. Like Senator Ó Murchú, I have a keen interest in issues of family history and ancestry. I am connected with many organisations around the world. I spent my summer holidays in Wisconsin tracing three generations of women who went to a small town there. Interestingly, Vice President Joe Biden also had ancestors who were shoemakers. His left within weeks of President Obama's. They have a shared story within their ancestries.
The Gathering is generating a great deal of discussion and is positive towards people's ideas. There is a feeling of hope and personal involvement. As the Minister stressed, each of us must take the initiative within our communities. When I first heard about The Gathering, I wondered whether it was a case of smoke and mirrors. I do not care if it is as long as it works, brings people to Ireland and gets us all involved. The magic of the initiative is that it will be up to us. The Minister outlined the initiative's momentum. Having listened to each of my colleagues, I do not doubt that we will share the ideas and concepts that we are seeking to promote.
The Minister stressed the importance of The Gathering not being done by the Government and the need for everyone to be involved. It is about the use and credibility of the brand. I received an invitation recently and although I will not give the details, this is an issue about the use of the State's branding by a commercial company that is not based in Ireland and is in the business of making profit. Perhaps the Minister can allay my concerns about who can use the brand and how. I welcome all of the initiatives, but they should not be organised by such companies. This is not what The Gathering is about. Instead, The Gathering is about challenging each of us. I have challenged myself with learning my ancestry networks. I have connected with those to try to encourage events.
I am also the chair of Early Childhood Ireland, which wondered what part it could play in The Gathering, if any. I am delighted that the Minister will help us to launch our invitations. We are organising a global gathering on early childhood in October. We plan to have 600 plus participants, the majority of whom will come from Ireland, in a four-day event at the Aviva Stadium to discuss early childhood. We expect significant attendance levels from the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, but we are sending the invitations worldwide. Our idea is generating considerable interest and we are attracting significant speakers on the issue of early childhood. Ireland is an interesting place because we are changing and developing our policies on early childhood. This is just another type of initiative that each of us can consider in determining where our responsibility lies and how we can make The Gathering work.
I am behind The Gathering full square and I will help in any way to make it work. It is in everyone's interests. As with Senator Ó Murchú's mention of previous events, we can look back on The Gathering and be proud. We must regain our momentum for this and successive years.
I welcome the Minister. I also welcome this opportunity to discuss a positive, spirit-lifting initiative that we can all support. It does not matter whether we are shoemakers or interested in our ancestries. Unfortunately, I cannot raise a story about shoes to match the others.
The beauty of The Gathering is that it will be built as we go and as people discover new interests and where they can play to their strengths. For example, Senator van Turnhout referred to inviting people from around the world who are interested in early learning. She might not have thought of doing so had The Gathering not been started. The Gathering is a large umbrella under which any number of interesting and peculiar initiatives might be held during the year.
I will pay tribute to the Minister for printing his speech on this paper. It may not be known that people who suffer from dyslexia are recommended to read from paper that is not white. This is the first time that I have seen any Department offer a speech that is not on white paper. Perhaps we might all take a leaf out of the Minister's book and ask for this paper to be used in future.
I will also pay tribute to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. I might say that, being from Sligo, which has just won the bid on the 2014 fleadh. I am most grateful to Senator Ó Murchú and his colleagues. In my correspondence to the ardcomhairle, I referred to how the organisation protected the fleadh and kept it afloat even when doing so was difficult. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann always understood that it was precious. It has the authentic feel to which the Minister referred. When people want to enjoy their experience in Ireland, they feel like they have dirtied their hands - in the broadest sense of that phrase - with the fleadh, in that they have connected with real people. The fleadh is a fine example of how to do that. I pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Ó Murchú, with whom I do not always agree on political points. His many years of dedication and commitment to the work of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann are seen on large occasions.
It is seen certainly where I live in the enormous enthusiasm of young people have for playing and enjoying music in their own homes. I attended an event over Christmas where people were playing music in their own home for pleasure, they were aged from 12 to 25 and were having a good time playing traditional music. That is what the Senator has worked to achieve and he has achieved it and is continuing to do so. It is good to hear that the Russians and the Argentinians do not want to miss out on it.
I would like to refer to my great uncle Thomas Cooper, to whom I have referred previously in the House. He was the man who made the first film in Ireland, "The Dawn". He was less known in other parts of the country, apart from in Killarney where he was known by the people. I am sorry to advise Senator Brennan that Killarney would claim to be main place of tourism in Ireland but I am sure Carlingford is probably a very close second.
It is ahead of it. It will allow the Senator that for the moment. My great uncle Tom Cooper took the idea underpinning The Gathering to heart many moons ago. He published his own brochures, took the ferry to England, travelled all around northern England and handed them out. That was in the days when there was no e-mail and very little technology. He organised for a bus to collect tourists from the boat in Dublin, drive them to Kerry where they were looked after in his hotel for two weeks and for the bus to bring them back to Dublin. He understood very early on the concept of The Gathering and that it was up to individuals to publish brochures, take the ferry to England and gather in the tourists. Fortunately, we can do it on a grander scale now. It is probably something we all have in our genes; we know about the need to bring people here.
When I first heard about The Gathering and read about the various festivals I thought it was a competition for rather peculiar names for events such as the pirates and slaves unite, the billabong big wave, Paddy McGinty's boat and the hedge school. I began to wonder what on earth was going on but in a way I love that idea. It is a terribly creative concept. Perhaps the most oddly named one is the Scattering Gathering, which transpires to be a visual arts exhibition in Waterford to remember those people who have emigrated from Ireland over many years and to celebrate those who have come to settle in Ireland. We also gather people from other places. In that way The Gathering has sparked our great Irish imagination in terms of activities across the board ranging from walking, surfing, cycling, bodhráns, flutes, storytelling, soccer, the GAA, film, poker, food, piping and drumming, police officers gatherings, bangers and barges. I am disappointed there is no jam making event and I am very surprised somebody has not come up with the idea of poitín making.
They will have it in Carlingford. The Minister will have to go to it but there will be no poitín for him while he is working.
I might take a parochial leaf out of the Minister's book - he will have been invited to every country in Ireland by the time he leaves the House - and point out that in Sligo we will climb Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, play music in the Coleman Centre, have sea shanties in Rosses Point, we will have the Celtic Fringe Festival - we have our twin events as well - and most of all we have William Butler Yeats. I could not possibly fail to mention him. The Minister's Department has been very generous in its understanding of how we would like to reconnect with Yeats. As the Minister will know, I have a very deep interest in that, having launched Yeats Day last year. I have been working very closely with Jim Miley and The Gathering to create a bigger event, a poetic and literary event, which would celebrate the idea of coming home. The very strength of the two words "coming home" when one says them has an extraordinary resonance for people. When one says "I am coming home", it means something much different from other things one does in one's life. I am very keen to make that work.
The great strength of The Gathering is that it reminds us not only of our vast heritage and modern vibrancy but of our capacity to harness our energy and creativity, to pull together and put on a year-long celebration of what it means to be Irish and what it means to understand our roots, our past, our history and our people. It reminds us of our great céad míle fáilte tradition, which we ensure we do not lose in these modern times when people are much more brash, sharp and everything is quick and hurried and we do not have much time. The céad míle fáilte tradition is what is and what always was authentic here and what people still expect when they come here. We should celebrate that and remember we can be a little more laid back as that is what was always strong about Ireland.
I want to finish by referring to two events. There will be a gathering event in Limerick called "Recruit and Mobilise". It is not an event one would draw out at a first glance of the events. It involves a group coming from the US to work with the local rape crisis group to complete work on its new building. The Minister will know this is the start of the area of volunteer tourism - I can never easily say that term, it is a mash-up term. There is a big growth in this area. I would love to see the Minister's Department supporting that through a particular initiative, perhaps through Fáilte Ireland. The Irish volunteer spirit is very strong. Leitrim takes the lead in that in terms of the number of volunteers but we are all volunteers in Ireland. Therefore, we would be able to reach out to other countries in the world and develop a very strong volunteer tourism industry, of course, underpinned ethically.
Can the Minister outline what will happen in 2014 and beyond? The Gathering has been a great umbrella and it is a great initiative. I will do everything I can to assist and I particularly want to acknowledge Jim Miley's work in this area. I know that sustainable projects are part of this. I am not suggesting it has to keep going in the same guise but what is the Minister's goal or dream for what The Gathering could be as we continue on? I hope the many initiatives that have started will continue. I thank those locally and nationally who have got the finger out and said "Let us get up and do this and let us have a good time".
I welcome the Minister to the House and it is always a pleasure when he comes to see us. I will not make any remarks about the descendants of shoemakers trying to cobble together some economic policies or anything like that. I note one of his critics in a subsequent television role became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. We should ask him to resume his support for The Gathering and I hope he will continue to do that. The fact that Senator Ó Murchú was able to deliver a major event to Senator O'Keeffe's area proves the power of the Seanad and that useful information should be conveyed any place the Minster might be discussing the future of the Seanad.
I look forward to the Strawberry Beds Festival, where we will meet in honour of the late Brian Lenihan. I attended the Carlingford Festival on one occasion but I cannot remember meeting Senator Brennan at it. I was canvassing there before the election. There was an excellent commemoration of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, one of the founders of Canada, who came from Carlingford. There is obviously a connection there.
I very much welcome that the Minister on page 1 of his speech referred to lower VAT and PRSI rates. That is most important because tourism is about price and product, and I will give the Minister evidence of where we ran into problems in that respect later. He referred to legacy issues. He has inherited a pretty unattractive brief because in the Celtic tiger era Irish tourism priced itself out of markets. The Gathering can only do a certain amount to try to restore our reputation and I will talk about that later. Tourism promotion in Ireland exhibits another characteristic of how we got ourselves into trouble in the Celtic tiger era, namely, the problem of bureaucracy, and I will also talk about that. Trying to correct some of that, to which the Minister referred on page 1 of his speech, is most important and I commend the Government. People's visits to this country must be of good value.
The Minister mentioned on page 7 of his speech the contribution by IPB, an insurance company. The tourism industry got itself into trouble before. I remember being at an event in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham when John Bruton appointed me director of Bord Fáilte. At the event Mr. Colm McCarthy, a well-known economist and scribe, said to the hoteliers gathered that if somebody stays in their hotels they get to keep the money. He said to them, therefore, that they should not always be demanding that the Government promotes tourism. He added it is called "capitalism" in case some of the hoteliers and others in the tourism industry did not understand it. The fact that an insurance company sees the benefit of this is a wake up call for some of the people in the industry. Concerns were expressed at that meeting that sometimes we are better at promoting Irish hoteliers going to Chicago at taxpayers' expense when the object was to get the Chicagoans to come here.
Some of that expenditure gave the industry a bad name and made it substantially reliant on hand outs from the Government.
Good value air fares on north American routes are most important and I am pleased with the new arrangement at Shannon Airport introduced by the Minster and his colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The airport priced itself out of the market. Officials there increased charges by approximately 700% and lost a great deal of business. I acknowledge the problems with debt and productivity and so on. Cork Airport should be deal with similarly. The decision by the Minister's predecessor to order the regulator to increase landing charges at Dublin Airport was short-sighted. We need the co-operation of airlines to come to Ireland and overcharging them at airports was silly on the part of many of the Minister's predecessors. It is important to remedy these faults. I support the Minister regarding The Gathering but there is evidence that tourism is not about once off gimmicks. For example, the Homecoming in Scotland has its critics while the holding of the Olympics n London may have resulted in a reduction in tourism activity.
I refer to the problems we face. Our wonderful research service put together some of the numbers prior to us discussing the National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill last year. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of tourists who visited Ireland who thought we were fair, poor or very poor value for money increased from 39% to 71% while the number who thought we were good value reduced from 39% to 25% or very good value reduced from 23% to 3%. Tourism is about price and product. We priced ourselves out of the market and Fáilte Ireland is aware of this because I am quoting its data.
Airlines have largely dispensed with expensive downtown offices. There was a time when Grafton Street, the Champs Élysée and the equivalent street in London were populated by airline offices. Have tourism bodies moved with the time? Airlines have largely dispensed with advertising literature and have moved everything online. Are the tourism bodies keeping abreast of that? We have the bureaucracy problem and the cost problem.
I commend those who kept Irish tourism going during the Celtic tiger era when everybody wanted to be an auctioneer, a conveyancing solicitor or a bureaucrat. The people who kept tourism going were those who came to Ireland from eastern Europe. We were too arrogant to be bothered with tourism and the Kerry accent disappeared from a large number of Kerry hotels but, happily, these people kept the industry going and we now have a better sense of perspective on these matters. We cannot neglect an industry, as we did shamefully, over ten years and expect to revive it overnight.
On the issue of the cost base, I question the way the then Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport, as it was configured before the Minister took office, regulated the sector. The Exchequer lost approximately ¤1 billion in revenue through foreign exchange from a peak of ¤4.9 billion in 2007 down to ¤3.9 billion in 2009. During those three years, ¤492 million was spent feeding the tourism bureaucracy comprising ¤310 million in operating expenses or 63% of the budget of Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland. What kind of bureaucracy to promote Ireland spends 63% of its funding on itself? A total of ¤154 million was expended on marketing, which was approximately one third of the budget, at a time tourist numbers reduced. Does anybody in those organisations stay up late at night wondering how they spent so much money to reduce the number of visitors to Ireland? They have a great deal to answer for and part of what the Government was elected to do was to reform bureaucracy. I hope the Minister is asking them plenty of hard questions as to how such a marketing budget was mostly spent on themselves. They did not evaluate the marketing nor did they move with industry trends. It comes down to price and product at the end of the day and that is where we have been doing badly but I commend the Government parties on their attempts to correct that. I do not want us to be disillusioned this time next year.
I wish The Gathering every success but there are serious product and bureaucratic problems with the way Ireland has promoted itself as a tourist destination. Sometimes taking second-hand remedies from other countries may not be the best resort. We need to improve the product and reduce the price.
I welcome the Minister. Like him, I acknowledge that tourism has been an important driver of the economy, especially in tougher times and I welcome the increase in the number of visitors to the island in both 2011 and 2012. This improvement will surely accelerate this year and The Gathering will be central to that. The early signs are positive with one tangible measure being the increase in the number of seats sold on flights from the US to Ireland and a 34% increase in seats sold on flights from Abu Dhabi. That indicates higher demand, which is welcome.
As with all sectors, as Senator Barrett said, there is room for improvement. The UNWTO estimates that international tourism receipts in Ireland hit ¤4.64 billion in 2011, up from ¤4 billion in 2010. It is a great deal of money and a testament to the work of the Department. However, in an international study, Australia, which may not be a fair comparison, recorded 5.8 million international visitors, which was fewer than Ireland, yet the receipts were ¤31.4 billion, seven times more than Ireland. This reflects the fact that people spend more time in Australia than in Ireland due to the size of the country and the distance required to travel there. Initiatives such as the American football game that was played in Dublin last year attract high quality tourists who will spend extensive time in the country. We must find a way to keep people in the country rather than attracting them to Dublin at weekends for stag and hen parties. That is a significant element of the tourist numbers. In Ireland, the per capita spend was ¤718 while it was ¤5,143 in Australia and ¤1,714 in Israel. Comparisons are odious in many ways but it is illustrative of the fact that we should try to keep tourists in the country for longer durations. I am sure the Minister will be more than aware of that.
The Gathering marks an important year for the tourism industry and it presents great scope for our entrepreneurs and those with the gift of the gab to get people to come home to Ireland or to visit for the first time. As previous speakers said, there are many good and novel ideas and a number have caught my attention. In Cork, people are working on reuniting the "Leeaspora" during Cork Rebel Week while in Crosshaven, there will be a ginger gathering. There is an annual ginger festival in the town but they are holding a ginger gathering this year to reach out to gingers everywhere. Senator Burke referred to a natural red head in his area but I should point out to him in no uncertain terms that I am a natural ginger as well. Claremorris, where I grew up, is holding a smaller gathering to get people who lived in the area to come together and I am looking forward to that.
It is important that The Gathering be embraced in the commercial space. For instance, Guinness has launched its ambassador programme for The Gathering, which allows native Dubliners to get a Guinness ambassador card giving them free access to the Guinness Storehouse while giving their gatherees 10% off.
It is a nice idea and one where a smaller gathering might be framed. It would be great if, where possible, other businesses got on board in such a way. Business will also play another important role for The Gathering in enticing annual conferences to come to Ireland. This is something which happens on an ongoing basis and The Gathering further bolsters the opportunity for people trying to get conferences to Ireland. Beyond that, The Gathering is, as the Minister said, about Ireland and its global network building on its relationships, not only in economic terms but in community and connection. For my part, I am involved in the committee the Minister mentioned which was proposed by Senator Mark Daly, the aim of which was to get politicians to come to the Seanad.
People coming to Ireland for The Gathering will not be disappointed. Although the visitors attitude survey certainly showed room for improvement, many guides, including Fodors travel guide, have shown it as a place to visit. There is much more I wanted to say. The VAT reduction has been instrumental. I congratulate the Minister and his Department who have worked hard on the issue. We are enthusiastic about it and will promote it as much as possible.
Tá céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá áthas orm bheith anseo agus muid ag labhairt faoin tóstal seo agus bheith in ann é a mholadh. Is rud an-fiúntach é agus tá súil orm go néireoidh go geal leis. I suppose it is an Irish solution to an Irish problem that in times of austerity we decide to organise a year long party but if it works, it works, as some would say. I note my great friend and colleague, Senator Terry Brennan, has spoken about the leprechauns in Carlingford. I am sure the Minister is hoping that not only will they find a leprechaun but a pot of gold which they can share with the State.
Is it in the ownership of the State? I am glad to have the opportunity to comment on this initiative which is positive and valuable and merits discussion to see how we can improve it. Sinn Féin supports any measure to boost domestic tourism which it hopes will lead to increased employment in the sector and, in so far as The Gathering may do so, it is a positive initiative. We hope that the Irish people and the diaspora respond positively. It has the potential to add to the several million tourists who arrive here each year and we hope it can prove a boost to the economy. However, it should be more than about monetary issues and it should bring the nation closer together as a people, whether abroad or at home, North or South. We are all part of the Irish nation and I hope that this year will offer an opportunity to reflect on that and to enjoy the rich cultural heritage, be it linguistic, literary, artistic, sporting, etc. We need to consider ways in which we can better value the role of the diaspora in Irish life, a point to which I will return later.
I note the event is happening at a particularly difficult time for the people. Perhaps it is needed in such a context but we should be cognisant of the current situation. Someone noted that just as 2013 has been promoted as the year of The Gathering of the diaspora coming home and making a connection once again with Ireland, it has also been called the scattering. I do not wish to be churlish and I do not dispute the value of the exercise but it would take wilful blindness not to recognise that there are thousands of Irish citizens being forced every day to emigrate for work reasons. It is a different debate but the aim of bringing them home and keeping them here must always be in our consideration.
It is right and proper that we would seek to make the diaspora welcome and encourage them to come home and participate in the events that are being organised, be they family, local or national. We share the concerns expressed by Gabriel Byrne regarding Irish emigrants, especially those who have left Ireland due to economic need and the way in which they are treated.
In August 2012, Sinn Féin's finance spokesperson, Deputy Pearse Doherty, visited Australia specifically to engage with the Irish community there. Successive Irish Governments have ignored the plight of the Irish abroad. This is particularly the case with regard to the undocumented Irish in the US and Australia. However, we must do more for the diaspora in the long term to include them in the life of the island. We need to do more to ensure they have a voice in the way we govern ourselves to feel as if they have a stake in the nation. We need to find better ways of including them. The most obvious way is to offer certain voting rights for the Irish abroad, subject to reasonable qualifications. Many have left because they felt they had no option but to emigrate to seek employment and would very much like to come home and would be likely have it as their aim to return eventually. If they intend to return, why should they not have a say in the island to which they are returning?
There is a need for The Gathering to be promoted, as mentioned by Senator Ó Murchú, as an all-Ireland initiative. Sinn Féin has raised the matter previously and I understand that my colleague, Elisha McLaughlin, MLA has met the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, on the matter. I understand the Minister of State shares our view that this should be an all-Ireland initiative. However, the Minister, Arlene Foster, MLA, is not of the same view. That is regrettable. A failure in the North to capitalise on the tourism opportunity provided by the Irish Government's promotion of The Gathering would be unbelievably short-sighted. None the less, I urge the Minister to persevere with the Minister with responsibility for tourism in the North. We will certainly do our part to lend support.
There is much happening in the North this year, the City of Culture in Derry all year as well as Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. These are the two of the biggest events and they need to be part of The Gathering. Tourism Ireland is the obvious body to work on this issue. I encourage the Minister to continue to work on this as an all-Ireland project and perhaps he can provide an update as to what progress has been made in this regard.
In terms of specific projects there is huge potential in language tourism. I have raised this point previously. Language tourism is an area which is under-exploited and we should seek to use this opportunity to expand on it in the State. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil suim faoi leith ag an Aire féin ann agus go bhfuil se ag déanamh iarracht faoi leith ó thaobh na Gaeilge trí chúrsaí a dhéanamh é féin agus ag foghlaim Gaeilge chomh maith céanna. Is maith é as sin. Mar sin féin, nílimid ag baint leas as an nGaeilge mar acmhainn eacnamúil agus turasóireachta go dtí an leibhéal ba chóir dúinn a bhaint. Is fiú go leor é cheana féin. Is fiú an Ghaeilge ¤136 milliúin sa bhliain do gheilleagar Condae na Gaillimhe agus b'fhiú ¤14 milliúin iad na coláistí samhraidh don gheilleagar áitiúil i 2007. Tá i bhfad níos mó gur féidir a dhéanamh ina leith seo. Molann Gaillilmh le Gaeilge go mbeadh cúrsa traenála Gaeilge a d'fhéadfaí a chur ar fáil le Fáilte Ireland go dtí na gnóthaí turasóireachta agus fáilteachas sa Ghaeltacht agus níos leithne. Aontaíonn muintir na Gaillimhe liom go bhfuil an Ghaeilge luachmhar don ghnó agus don turasóireacht. Is dóigh le 91% de mhuintir na Gaillimhe go bhfuil an Ghaeilge tábhachtach nó fíor-thábhachtach.
The Gathering is a worthwhile initiative and we in Sinn Féin hope it succeeds in its aims but it should be accompanied by other initiatives such as those I have outlined. There are a number of initiatives in the parochial sense in Galway which catch the attention, one of which is the Roundstone time capsule. Guím gach rath ar an dtóstal agus go néirigh leis an Aire ina chuid oibre.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on a great initiative to showcase the best of Ireland. We are fairly good at talking about Ireland as we are great for chatting and sharing. The old meitheal system in Ireland is coming to the fore with The Gathering. Therefore, with The Gathering we are going back to our roots and showing what is best about Ireland and the connections at home and abroad. People are being parochial. In south Dublin it is Meet to Compete where 25 organisations from all over the world are coming to play games at the Tallaght stadium and the National Basketball Arena.
I congratulate Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú as Comaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has had a gathering for many years. Another organisation that has showcased Ireland and Irish culture all over the world for many years is Irish dancing and the Irish dancing world championships which have been held in Ireland. Those taking part have visited almost every country in Europe. For my daughter, Irish dancing was a way of seeing Europe when she was young. The Irish dancing agencies are participating in The Gathering at the Bastable Warren School of Irish Dancing in Rathfarnham.
I have got permission today for the holding of an event on renewable energy at Dublin Castle. Members of Parliament from every European Union country get together with the EUFORES, usually in Brussels, but they reach out sometimes. I told the organisers last year about The Gathering and said it would be a great idea if, as part of it, we could bring the event to Ireland.
It has been agreed by all parliaments in the European Union. A previous speaker spoke about the brand. It is difficult and I found I had to jump through many hoops. The Department of the Taoiseach has laid down criteria on the use of the brand. We had to ensure that this conference of parliamentarians met the criteria to use the brand. It has now been sanctioned as an associate event of the EU. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who got Fáilte Ireland to work with me on this. I would not have been able to do it without Fáilte Ireland and the support I got from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
The main organiser will be coming to Dublin and he has asked me to organise a high-level group to meet him. I want to get together a group at the end of February and so I will contact the Minister's office or the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, will be the main speaker at the conference, the theme of which is renewable energy and energy efficiency. We will have chairpersons of all the energy committees and energy spokespersons from every party here. It will be held in the Seanad Chamber, organised by Senator Cummins and me. The dinner will be held here. We need help to get it organised because it is a Seanad event. We need to get the people in power to help us out. Senator Cummins and I have been working on it since last July but we need somebody to take hold of it from the ministerial aspect and the Minister might do that for us.
I welcome the debate and I welcome the Minister, who is clear and efficient, and prepared to take practical measures. One aspect that needs to be emphasised and has been emphasised by other speakers, particularly Senator Ó Murchú, is the cultural dimension because cultural tourism is one of the most important drivers of the tourism industry. I am not downplaying golf, even though it is a game in which I have very little interest, and it is a very big earner. However, it would be a pity if this island were turned into one enormous golf course. We have quite enough of them already with a fair amount of support from various groups.
I am not prepared to be cynical about The Gathering, but we also need to be clear-headed. I do not agree with those who appeared to give the impression in the earlier part of the debate that it does not matter, that it is smoke and mirrors and as long as we get the people here that is all we need. Perhaps I misunderstood it because there is that view and I thought it was reflected here. It does matter because we must give them a good experience.
One of the most important aspects of tourism is repeat business. We will not get repeat business if our attitude is clearly seen as being callous and exploitative. We should ask not just what they can do for us but also what we can do for them. Our history is not always good in this regard. I had long correspondence, as many other Members of both Houses will have had, with people in Argentina, where there is a very strong Irish connection. A large number of people live all around Argentina, but very concentrated in Buenos Aires, where they have their own newspaper, The Southern Star. Many people have a very sentimental connection. As I am sure the Minister knows, if one goes to Buenos Aires or anywhere in Argentina, one will meet Irish people whose families have been there for more than 100 years. They speak classical Spanish beautifully and when they speak in English they have Westmeath or Wexford accents. That is how strong the connection is. However, when they wanted to get a connection here in terms of some little certificate to prove their Irish ancestry or Irish citizenship through grandparents or something, we just rebuffed them. We were just not interested and they were very badly hurt. So I believe we need to treat these people with the maximum respect and give them the best we possibly can in terms of experience.
We need to think outside the box. We need to think what we could do really well. As a consumer, I think farmhouse holidays are wonderful. They are the best value one can get and one gets really good produce as well as getting to see the Irish landscape and so on. We also have the festivals, including some of the most significant such as the Wexford Opera Festival the Minister mentioned. It was started by amateurs, motivated by a love of the culture and is now international. Nobody thought a small fishing town, Wexford, would produce this international thing but the people there saw a niche market for operas by famous composers that were rarely produced. It is absolutely wonderful.
There is also the important question of heritage - the built part of the environment. The Minister needs to talk to his colleagues about the property tax. What will we do to the great houses of Ireland - the few that are left - if we assess them for property tax? It will destroy them. We have done this before and we have very little left there. For instance, Birr Castle not only has the magnificent architecture and the beautiful parkland but also the contribution to science that we never plug. We need to bring scientists here and tell them we have imagination. That is what characterises us as a people and it is not just in culture, but also in the sciences. We had the largest telescope in the world for many years and invented the steam turbine. That is just one family and one house. The property tax could crucify these people and those houses will not have the same interest unless the people are living there.
The Minister indicated this - I am not sure whether it was done consciously. In America they deliberately placed the television advertisement during "Downton Abbey" because that is what the Americans are interested in. We need to have that product there for them. People who have spent a lot of time in list 1 houses should not be punished as they were in the British days for improving their property. We had the Queen's visit, the Eurovision and the visit by President Obama, where we placed immensely valuable television images. It is important that we do that. I would not write off any of these things. Advertising is very significant.
On genealogy, Laois will host the Fitzpatrick clan rally in July. These are very important as we are all part of a tribe and we should use clan rallies. I salute the Minister for what he had to say.
I wish to speak briefly about James Joyce. A Government-appointed representative told us that the James Joyce Centre could not survive.
Our figures have increased by 14% over previous year, which also had an increase. We have met our budgets. I am also on the board of St. Patrick's Cathedral, home of Swift, where visitor numbers have increased by 9%.
I will just finish on this. Bloomsday needs to be supported. The cathedral could also do with a bit of money for the roof and so on. Whoever thought that Finnegan's Wake would be a bestseller in China? There is a huge market and events such as Bloomsday can do it, despite the sceptics.
I wish to deal with the role universities can play. Universities in the United States have a system whereby in every class year one person is appointed to keep track of 14 other people in the class. That person's job is to follow them and relate back information to the university on an annual basis as to where those 14 are now working. It works very effectively there but I am not sure if we have the same system in Ireland. When our graduates leave university there is a huge disconnect and we should work on that. In some universities in the United States, graduates pay the university $100 for the first ten years after leaving, which goes into research and development of the university. In the second ten years they pay $500 a year and in the third ten years they pay approximately $1,000. While it varies from university to university people have a great sense of pride in keeping in contact with their universities. I do not believe our universities are doing enough in that area. It is a huge system of connection that people maintain with their university, city and country. It is something we should try to develop within our universities.
There is such support in UCC. For instance I know of a person working in a university. She goes to the United States for the three weeks leading up to St. Patrick's Day and she does all the Irish functions. UCC is very lucky in having received approximately ¤87 million in donations and gifts to the university, which have helped them to develop further facilities.
That is something that we should grow out of The Gathering.
I want to touch on the use of established names. The message was sent home clearly to me recently when I contacted a friend who works in a lawyer's office in New York and spoke to her about the golf classic being organised by Senator Eamonn Coghlan. At first, there was not an enthusiastic reaction to it. This person is involved in the Cork society in New York. Once I mentioned the name of Senator Eamonn Coghlan, the attitude totally changed. We need to use established names, such as the Senator. There is a considerable number who are world-recognised names in promoting events. It is something we should take on board.
We need to work on selling the concept that there are significant connections from Ireland right around the world and established organisations, such as the different county societies in different cities around the United States. Even in China, there are associations being set up. There are GAA clubs in China and we also need to make contact with them to ensure they are kept informed about what is happening.
We can make this a major success. Much work has been done already but we have much more to do. I was Lord Mayor leading into the year when Cork city was the European capital of culture. We put a great deal of planning into it, but we could have done much more by using those who already had a connection with Cork. We relied too much on a small number of people. This will be a success if we have the maximum number of people involved. Going back to the university point, we need to look at medical organisations, accountancy organisations and architects' organisations, because they have worldwide connections, and use them much more to promote this event. Much work has been done, but we have a great deal more to do. It will be a success but we all have a part to play, even by making that one telephone call or sending that one letter. It all adds up.
I thank the Minister for the work he and the Department have done to date and I wish him every success for the remainder of the year on this matter.
I also welcome the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and echo the positive comments that have been made about his progressing and promoting of The Gathering initiative which has been several years in gestation. I hope the early indications are positive in that regard. It is early - only one month into the year - but perhaps he might provide an update. He has gone into some considerable detail about what will happen over the next year but he might give some indication of the sentiment that is out there and how he has experienced that in the first month of The Gathering year.
I acknowledge and thank my colleagues on both sides of the House, including my friends, Senators Ó Murchú and Brennan, for making reference to the Tóstal festival in Drumshanbo which was, perhaps, the first national initiative undertaken in the early 1950s to encourage the then focus on the Irish in America. An Tóstal, which, literally translated, means muster or pageant, resulted in the setting up of Tóstal councils across Ireland with the theme of Ireland at home. The theme that was encouraged by the local Tóstal councils was to reflect the cultural, social, economic and commercial life of each of the towns and villages in which the festival took place. It was a marvellous initiative. I have a feeling that it might have been inspired by the Festival of Britain which had taken place two years earlier. Either way, when one thinks about marketing, merchandising and all of the modern tools that are used, it was a great tribute to the leaders of both the Government and, as it then was, Bord Fáilte that they were able to introduce modern methods of selling Ireland. They had a slogan, postage stamps and merchandise, all of which we now take for granted. When one considers this was 1953, it was quite extraordinary. It was very successful and it lifted the morale of the country in the way that I hope this gathering will lift the morale of the country at this difficult time.
I am particularly interested in the Minister's focus on the United Kingdom. Irrespective of whatever efforts are being made internationally to bring the Irish family back home - as the Minister pointed out, America looms large in that regard and it is a wonderful initiative to advertise during the "Downton Abbey" series which is very popular in America - the United Kingdom market in general is key. The Minister pointed out that he is using flyers and whatever else, but does he have any insight into why there is a drop in the number of visitors from the United Kingdom? Is it a perception that Ireland is still an expensive country to visit? Is it because it is as cheap to go for a week to a sunny clime from the United Kingdom as it is to come to Ireland? Has there been any sort of insight - with the massive amount of time, effort and money, and the Minister's personal participation - by profiling in the United Kingdom over the past number of years? There seems to be a continuing decline in rather than even a stabilisation of the United Kingdom market, which is our single most important market. I wonder if the Minister has anything to add to what he has already said in terms of how he will address this because, as he will be aware, it is extremely serious.
I also hope that throughout the year there will be an opportunity to promote Irish culture and Irish cultural activities, in other words, the concept of Ireland at home. We have such a valuable cultural identity to offer to the world and I hope an emphasis will be placed on that. I refer to culture in its widest possible diversity, right across the spectrum of Irish life.
I welcome the initiatives. In my county, I have the honour of chairing the Leitrim Tourism Forum set up by the local authority. It, in turn, has set up a special Gathering committee which is chaired by the Eurovision winner, Mr. Charlie McGettigan, who is now a native of Drumshanbo, my home town. They have embarked, like many other counties, on a number of activities that will take place throughout the year. I am sure it is welcome news to the Minister that such a local response has been enthusiastic and that all agencies and all engaged in tourism, from the local authorities down, are getting involved.
My original focus was on the United Kingdom market. I am not for one moment anticipating the Minister has ready answers to this, but there is something radically wrong there. There is some difficulty. Despite what we are throwing at the United Kingdom market, it does not seem to be generating the response that it should.
Agreed. I welcome the Minister to the House. Unfortunately, I missed his speech because I was at the Mass for the late Minister of State, Deputy Shane McEntee, but I am sure it was insightful as always.
The Gathering was officially launched in Clare on Sunday. There were not hundreds of people at it, but thousands. It was heartwarming to see how ordinary people have engaged with the project. Basically, there was a launch and an expo, where every community put on an exhibition of the events that are taking place within their community for the year of The Gathering. The organising committee had prepared 500 visitor packs containing biros and other bits and pieces for this event that took place between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, and they were gone within an hour.
There has been significant buy-in by the community in County Clare, as there has been in the community in general. For County Clare and along the west coast, The Gathering is more important than it may be in other parts of the country because we are so heavily reliant on tourism. There is such a requirement for employment in the tourism sector to keep families going - to keep young people in university, college, etc. When there are the bones of 873,000 people visiting the Cliffs of Moher visitor experience in a year, County Clare has a significant responsibility to ensure that it is professional about how it goes about its business in the year of The Gathering.
Clare has appointed a number of high-profile ambassadors for The Gathering, such as Ms Aoibhinn Garrihy, the actress on "Fair City" who is from Doolin, Mr. Marcus Horan, the rugby player, and Mr. Martin Hayes, the internationally acclaimed violinist, and others are coming on board.
Most organisations and communities are running events. I would like to see more buy-in from golf clubs because they have thousands of international members. I am in discussions with my local golf club in Lahinch to see what it can do to create a free week for its international members, perhaps in the latter part of the year. As leaders in our communities we all have a responsibility to motivate and encourage people to organise events. There may be old festivals which no longer exist. Why not reactivate them for the year of The Gathering? What is great about The Gathering is that it will be successful, and depending on how successful it is I would like to see it repeated in four years time. The Homecoming in Scotland is repeated every four years. The Gathering is very much based on this experience so there is no reason if it is successful, as we suspect it will be, that at the end of 2013 we cannot start planning for 2017. I will finish on this hopeful thought.
The Minister is welcome to the House and the concept of The Gathering is very welcome. It is a great initiative and I congratulate the Minister on it. I grew up in the tourist business. My father ran Red Island holiday camp and from the age of ten I looked after British tourists. Senator Mooney spoke about the difficulty in attracting British tourists but we had 500 guests a week coming from England. If there is one message to get across it is my father's message from then, which is to give customers such a good time that they come back again. We call it the boomerang principle. If one does nothing else one should excel and explain to the tourist business in Ireland the boomerang principle, which is that everything we do is to make visitors welcome so they return. It is possible to do this in many ways.
Yesterday, I received a letter from a couple who got married in the 1960s. They bought an old castle in Knocklyon and have spent their entire lives there. They are not wealthy but she was an architect. The lady who wrote the letter stated she contacted me out of concern that the State does not appear to be giving consideration to excluding historic properties from its register of houses liable to the new property tax. The couple believes the preservation of our built heritage should remain a national aim and be encouraged by assisting its custodians where possible, in this case by ameliorating the effect of the property tax. I mention it because I heard Senator Norris also refer to this. It is a question of heritage homes and certainly heritage will bring tourists back to us.
Can we think of new ideas to attract new customers to the airports and at the same time bring tourists to some of the less well-known areas of the country? The Japanese have come up with a radical idea. On the southerly island of Kyushu a group of businessmen, bureaucrats and academics have proposed establishing free flights for people from South Korea, Taiwan and China subsidised by the government. The project proposes launching 35 flights a week between eight airports in Kyushu in ten small jets being developed by Mitsubishi. To qualify, and this is the interesting point, passengers must buy vouchers worth ¤1,000 to shop, eat, sleep or obtain medical treatment in the area. Perhaps it can be viewed as the aviation industry giving away the razor and selling the blades. The idea is to draw visitors to the hinterland directly and not via the main city of Tokyo. If the idea were extended nationwide it would give a purpose to some of the rural airports built there in the past decade. Similar to Irish regional airports, almost all of the large airports operate in the red but several welcomed an extremely low number of passengers. Perhaps concepts such as this could be used here.
The Chinese have been mentioned previously. China is a huge market. I ask the Minister to examine what Harrods in Britain and airports in Europe have done, which is to develop Mandarin speakers. I believe Harrods now has 50 Mandarin speakers and it is claimed they have paid for themselves over and over again. A large number of department stores throughout Europe, particularly in tourist areas, do the same. The Chinese market is already huge but it is capable of being much larger. The Minister is certainly going in the right direction. It is great to see somebody with such enthusiasm and the drive to get something done. The Gathering will be a great success and I wish the Minister well.
I thank the Senators for their contributions which were very interesting, stimulating and thought provoking. Senator Ó Murchú pointed out that the diaspora is not just about tourism or St. Patrick's Day and I strongly agree with this. I often feel the Irish abroad unit at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not get enough credit for the work it does. Everyone is very aware of what Ireland does with regard to overseas aid in Tanzania, Malawi and other countries throughout the world. People do not know how much the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does through the Irish abroad unit. I did not know either until I became a Minister and started travelling and meeting bodies supported by the emigrant support programme.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh mentioned Australia in particular. Every body which has applied to the emigrant support programme in Australia has obtained funding. Migrants and undocumented people are supported, and the Irish language is taught in universities in Sydney. There are also the Irish colleges which have been renovated in Rome, Leuven and Paris, and Irish centres in places such as Camden. Efforts are being made to assist the undocumented Irish in the United States. I also welcome Senator Ó Murchú's bipartisan comments and I thank the Opposition for its support for this initiative. I particularly wish Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann every success with the fleadh in Derry. It is great to see it happening. I congratulate Sligo which will host it next year.
I thank Senator Brennan for his invitation to Carlingford. I have been there several times. I was at the adventure centre once and I took my staff for dinner in Ghan House one Christmas which was lovely.
I did not. I do not think I knew him at that stage. It was several years ago. It is a lovely town with a lovely built heritage and great activities. I certainly intend to make a visit in the coming year or so.
Senator van Turnhout raised a very important question on the use of the brand and it has crossed my mind. I will follow up on it. I disagree with her in that I do not have any problem with companies being involved in The Gathering. They are very welcome and I have no problem with companies making profits as it is what they are supposed to do, but I would not like to see them abusing the brand. At present if one goes to the website and one wants to download or use the promotional material one must register and complete a form and go through a process detailing who one is and the nature of the event. People are free to use The Gathering logo for events, tourism promotion and posters but they are not allowed to use it for commercial gain unless they have permission from The Gathering team to do so. We probably need to keep an eye on this.
To respond to Senator O'Keeffe, I am delighted to hear the fleadh will go to Sligo and I compliment her on the work she has done, particularly with regard to WB Yeats. The question on what I see as the legacy in 2014 and beyond is a good one. I hope events such as that on New Year's Eve will grow into big annual events. People will build connections. We need to get across the idea that tourism must be more bottom up. People often ask me why Fáilte Ireland does not send more tourists to their town, as if a Government agency can collect people from around the world and bring them to a town. It must be more bottom up. It is often suggested that we establish more agencies and have regional and local tourist organisations. We do not need more chairs, vice chairs and secretaries; we need people organising events in their areas to encourage tourists to come or building up attractions. This is what works and The Gathering will have a good legacy in this regard. The model of community engagement will continue. We will retain and reuse the databases, websites and all other data. I hope the favourable coverage will encourage people to visit again and apply the boomerang principle. If people have a good time in Ireland, I hope they will return.
The Gathering presents an opportunity to rebuild connections with the diaspora. It can help us start a debate on voting rights, which was mentioned by a Senator. I very much support allowing any Irish citizen vote for the President because the President should be the President of the Irish nation and not only the Irish State. I have a slightly different view on Parliament because parliaments make laws and impose taxes and those voting for a parliament should be those who must obey these laws and pay these taxes and therefore should be resident.
Perhaps we could do something for people who have left for only two or three years. It is common that people leave for a few years for career reasons and it would be nice if they could continue to vote.
As always Senator Barrett asked pertinent questions and made good points. I agree with his suggestion that the tourism industry should contribute to their sector. The tourism industry is one of the few industries that does not pay for its marketing. The industry carries out marketing but relies a lot on Government for marketing too. If one is in the retail or another sector there would be no question of asking the Government to spend ¤100 million on marketing because those sectors contribute and do their own marketing. I shall give some examples. The hoteliers in Westport put money into a fund to promote the town and the measure works well. Killarney has done something similar for a long time. It is not done in Dublin and Cork but it probably should be.
New York city has a bed levy and taxis pay a small levy. The money raised goes into promoting New York, promoting the city, paying for the convention centre and for all of those types of activities. I am not sure if Ireland is ready for a levy yet. The tourism industry is on the floor so it is not ready for it. The principle is good and the same could apply to food and Bord Bia. Those who benefit from the cost of Government agencies and marketing programmes should make a specific contribution to such costs.
Statistics prove that costs and value perceptions have damaged Irish tourism, particularly for British people and with the movement in exchange rates for sterling versus the euro. It has left a bad taste in people's mouths. Value perceptions are improving, particularly in Europe and Britain. Improvements take time because people must come to Ireland, return home to Britain and then tell people that they were on holidays here and found it not to be expensive. It takes a long time to recover once a country has priced itself out of the market and got a reputation for being too expensive. An improvement is only happening now.
I often try to derange my agency staff and officials by telling them that I am a marketing sceptic and I am. Marketing has been interesting over the past while. We have marketed more to the UK than in the past but the number of visitors from the UK has fallen. We put less money into marketing for France and Germany but the number of visitors from both countries has increased. On that basis perhaps I could apply the crude principle that the best way to increase visitor numbers is to reduce marketing. Of course the issue is not that simple and there are many factors at play. The major factor that appears to be at play in Britain is the weakness of its economy. We often do not realise that, even though Britain has much lower unemployment, its standard of living is flat and falling. Fewer British people travel abroad now than in 2001 or more British people travelled abroad ten years ago and that is a big change.
Another problem is that Ireland is not considered to be different from Scotland, the west country and places that are a lot easier to reach. Those places have stolen our lunch in a lot of ways. Ms Vivienne Jupp has led a group that has carried out a lot of research on the issue and provided a detailed report on how we can recover our market share. We can achieve it largely by improving value perceptions. Of course improving value is necessary because one cannot improve perceptions without improving the reality. We also need to target particular groups such as social energisers, great escapers and so on. We must pick particular segments of the British market rather than adopting a broad brush approach which is what we do now. Research shows that British people often view Ireland as a party destination but when they want somewhere with great walks, or to spend time with their families and see beautiful scenery, they score Scotland, Wales and the west country and Lake district of England much higher than Ireland. It should not be that way because Ireland is just as good.
Senator Noone made a valid point about the spend per visitor to Australia and I agree with her. The only thing that might throw her figures slightly is that sometimes the spend includes the airfare. An airfare to Australia will always be much higher than one from London or Liverpool.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh mentioned that The Gathering should be an all-Ireland project. I wish it was more of an all-Ireland project but the Northern Ireland authorities decided that it wanted to concentrate on Northern Ireland 2012 and other events. Individual events and local authorities have become part of The Gathering. Even though it is not officially an all-Ireland event anything happening in the North can be included on the website and in the initiatives if they want to be.
I am happy to assist Senator Keane with her suggestion of an energy conference. Both Senators Norris and Quinn raised the issue of the property tax. It is beyond my remit but their points were well made. Perhaps there is a case for allowing a reduction in property tax for heritage properties who open to the public for a sufficient period. The tax code already contains a provision.
Senator Colm Burke mentioned the alumni networks in the US and I agree with his comment that our universities are not doing enough. We saw the strength of the Notre Dame University network and how much it gains from it. A big difference between Ireland and America is that getting into a university is different in America. Often one can gain entry not because one got a lot of points in the CAO but because one comes from a legacy family. Obviously being in an alumn is much more important when one can buy access to a university. I would not like Ireland to adopt the same process and we need to draw a line under it.
The Senator also mentioned the GAA, which is an amazing organisation. When I travel abroad I like to meet the GAA organisations on the ground. They have provided a home for so many Irish people who have emigrated, particularly young people. Often people who had nothing to do with the GAA in Ireland join the organisation when they go overseas. I always tell this story, when one travels to the United Arab Emirates there is an embassy in Abu Dhabi and Tourism Ireland has an office in Dubai. However, there is a GAA club in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al-Khaimah, and Al Ain and every emirate has a GAA club. The GAA has an amazing network in the region.
Senator Mooney asked about the sentiments for The Gathering so far. It is early days and I do not have the airport or visitor statistics yet. I should have some statistics in the next few weeks so I will have a better idea then. The tourism industry is very positive about the initiative. The fact that 2,800 gatherings have been scheduled is positive.
Senator Conway suggested that we repeat The Gathering in four years time. We should but let us see if it works first.
Senator Quinn mentioned heritage houses and free flights. With regard to the latter, we examined the issue of free flights and had some discussions with the airlines which did not prove successful. Free flights can be arranged to an island but it is trickier for Ireland because there are huge displacement risks. One could end up giving free flights to 80% of the people who would have travelled here anyway. State aid rules also mean that we would have to approach the European Commission for approval beforehand. The initiative was not a runner but it was considered.
I think that I have covered everything and I thank Senators for their contributions. It is always a pleasure to be here. I enjoyed the exchange of views and the rigorous debate.