Tuesday, 28 June 2016
I am delighted to see that there has been a substantial increase in tourism over recent years. In 2015, 29.8 million passengers passed through Irish airports. Of these, more than 24 million or 83.8% of the total passed through Dublin. Cork handled 6.9% and Shannon 5.6% while the remaining airports were responsible for only 3.7%. Passenger numbers to Cork continue to fall annually. The Shannon Airport Authority has worked very hard to increase throughput of 1.68 million in 2015 but this is far from the 2.95 million it handled in 2008. This is neither desirable nor sustainable and is certainly very far from the kind of regional development we need.
In 2015, the number of overseas visitors reached 8 million, an increase of more than 14% on the previous year and in February and March 2016, there was a 16% increase on the corresponding period last year. In 2015, tourists spent €4.1 billion with the airlines and ferry companies earned €1.3 billion, a huge boost to the national economy. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport believes that the tourism industry is directly responsible for providing 205,000 jobs in Ireland, with the accommodation and food sector providing 137,000 of these. The challenge we face is to manage and grow this very valuable resource. Dublin Airport is operating at or beyond full capacity while the regional airports are capable of handling much greater numbers than they do now. The chairman of the International Airlines Group, IAG, Willie Walsh, has aired his concerns about bottlenecks in Dublin. He believes this could have a negative impact on future expansion by IAG at the airport.I am aware of the Dublin Airport Authority plan to invest €320 million in constructing a second runway, but it will not be operational until 2020 at the earliest. Difficulties with the transport infrastructure between the airport and the city centre still need to be addressed.
Dublin hotels had a room occupancy rate of 82% in 2015 - much higher than the rest of the country. In Limerick, which has the lowest average room rate in the country, the occupancy rate was 68.3%. We all know how difficult it can be to get hotel accommodation in Dublin for most of the year. In addition, average room rates in the capital have increased from €77 in 2010 to €111 in 2015, and the rate has subsequently increased further. We could face cost and capacity issues going forward unless more tourism activity is redirected towards the regions.
Apart from Dublin, Shannon is the only airport that has direct flights from the United States, a growing market. It provides excellent facilities and ease of access to Limerick city, and is strategically located on the Wild Atlantic Way. Surely it makes sense to assist the airport authority in marketing it as an alternative to Dublin. The airports in Kerry, Knock and Donegal can be promoted as gateways to the Wild Atlantic Way from Britain and Europe, while Cork and Waterford, as well as Dublin, provide easy access to Ireland's Ancient East - indeed, Cork would serve both attractions. There are excellent accommodation and catering facilities available in all of those locations.
I maintain that there is an opportunity to greatly increase tourism visitor numbers by highlighting and promoting the use of regional airports to access the numerous attractions around the country. We should strive to develop this very valuable resource, not at the expense of Dublin, but to the benefit of the regions. I request the Minister to favourably consider the points I have made and look forward to hearing his response.
I thank Senator Maria Byrne for raising this important subject. I agree with much of what she said, and although I am very new in the Ministry I am still rather staggered by the number of people who prefer to come to Dublin despite the inconvenience and the expense. Senator Byrne put her finger on many of the difficulties. Hotel rooms are a major difficulty but people still seem to pay those sorts of prices. I suppose the problem is that the hotels themselves might be killing the golden goose and we may get to a point where they go over the top. Perhaps Cork, Shannon and other places will benefit as a result, and the market might even itself out, but at the moment there is no sign of that happening.
I also share Senator Byrne's puzzlement about the fact that Cork, Shannon and other airports do not seem to attract the passenger numbers one might expect because of the lack of capacity at Dublin Airport and the crowded conditions there. That has not happened yet. I am looking at the entire airport scenario. Many of the airports are not commercially viable. They are not working very well and they need to get subventions from the State to survive, but they are a very useful add-on and contribute to the prosperity of local communities. There is no doubt about that, even if they make a commercial loss. That has been Government policy for some time.
I do not know whether it is worth spending an enormous amount of money transferring people from one place to another. I do not know at the moment and I do not think Senator Byrne would expect me to do so at this stage in my sojourn in the Department, by means of the incentives and attractions to which she referred, because I do not know enough about it yet. However, I will do shortly and I will consider such matters over the summer to see whether there are any fundamental changes that might be made. I do not promise anything, but I am just saying the Senator is kicking at an open door if she has new ideas. The point she made is a very good one, and there are certain problems related to the concentration of tourism in Dublin which we are trying to address.
My Department is committed to strong regional dispersal in tourism. It is vital for the sector to increase the geographical spread of activity as well as lengthening the season and increasing activity outside the peak summer months. With Dublin city accommodation close to full capacity at peak times, it is especially important to provide visitors with credible, compelling and attractive reasons to travel outside Dublin. None the less, it is important to recognise that Dublin is the main point of arrival for visitors coming to Ireland from abroad and should continue to be promoted as a destination in itself and as a gateway to the rest of Ireland.Further growth in tourism nationally is being progressed under the tourism brand experiences, namely, the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's Ancient East and Dublin: A Breath of Fresh Air. These geographically based brand propositions have been designed to achieve international cut-through, secure customer attention and promote the regional spread of visitors. They are tailored towards the most promising consumer segments in overseas source markets and utilise their natural and built assets to grow tourism to that region.
Of course, air connectivity between Ireland and the UK, continental Europe and further afield is critically important for further tourism growth. Thankfully, our efforts are well placed to attract and accommodate increased passenger numbers. Cork and Shannon airports play a vital role in providing regional access. In addition to Dublin, Shannon is one of the only airports in Europe to offer US pre-clearance facilities, allowing US bound passengers to clear all US entry controls prior to departure, giving the airport a significant competitive advantage in its efforts to retain and promote transatlantic services. Furthermore, Cork Airport is launching nine new routes and services in 2016 and passenger numbers are expected to make a good recovery this year.
In addition to Cork and Shannon, the national aviation policy, published by my Department last August, acknowledges the role played by regional airports in Donegal, Ireland West Airport Knock, Kerry and Waterford. It recognises that they promote a level of international connectivity to support the tourism and business sectors in their regions and confirms that these four regional airports are being given the opportunity to grow to a viable self-sustaining position.
In this regard, my Department's latest regional airports programme 2015-19 will continue to support safety and security measures, where appropriate, at these airports. An extra €10 million in capital funding is provided in the programme for Government for the regional airports, in addition to the €28 million already provided in the capital plan 2016-22 which will enhance my Department's ability to further support the four airports.
With the specific goal of encouraging regional access and enhancing the geographical spread of tourism, my predecessor last year announced a specific funding allocation under the regional co-operative marketing programme to support co-operative marketing activity to points of entry outside of Dublin. Under this programme, €1 million has been made available to Tourism Ireland in 2016 for co-operative marketing activity, to encourage new access and maximise the potential of existing air and ferry services to the regions.
As well as the €1 million being provided by my Department, local authorities and tourism interests in the regions added to the funding for routes serving their access points. The fund was also matched by carriers and overseas partners for maximum benefit. The €1 million fund leveraged an additional investment of €1.5 million. This generated promotional activity worth a total of €2.5 million for regional access and delivered visitors directly to the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East. As a result of all of the measures outlined, I am confident that Ireland will welcome increased numbers of visitors outside Dublin this year and beyond.
I thank the Minister for his reply. It is very positive that he acknowledged he is aware that most tourists come through Dublin. There is a problem with bed capacity. I welcome that the Minister has acknowledged it is something he is willing to examine. I look forward to hearing about whatever plans he has for the future.