Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Chathaoirleach Gníomhach agus leis na Seanadóirí as ucht an tseans chun cúpla focal a rá maidir le cúrsaí turasóireachta in Éirinn faoi láthair.
I thank the Seanad for this opportunity. These statements on tourism are coming about as a direct result of a number of Commencement debates. I told Senators from both sides of the House that, if they wanted a genuine and robust discussion on the development of tourism, I would be delighted to return. As such, I welcome the opportunity.
We must consider the current context. The performance of the tourism industry has been exceptionally strong in recent years. Last year, a record number of overseas visitors - more than over 9.5 million - came to Ireland. That was almost 11% more than in 2015, which was itself a record year. It is worth mentioning that the 2016 numbers were an amazing 59% higher than the corresponding figure for 2010. Good growth was recorded from all our source markets, with Ireland's market share growing ahead of that of its competitors. Overseas visitors contributed more than €4.5 billion to the Exchequer and the economy, representing a 9% increase on the previous year. This helped to sustain more than 220,000 jobs in communities across the country. It is fair to say that that figure is closer to 230,000 jobs now.
In 2017 to date, the performance has remained robust. It is a concern, but not a surprise, that the number of visitors from Great Britain has fallen in the early part of the year. I will speak about Brexit shortly. By the same token, it is encouraging that numbers are up from virtually every other market, with North America increasing by a considerable 25% for the most recent quarterly period. It is worth pointing out that, while the greatest number of overseas visitors to Ireland come from Great Britain, individual spend from the North American market delivers a higher return in respect of revenue.
Clearly, 2017 has started well. The challenge for us now is to maintain that growth. There is no room for complacency, particularly given the highly competitive nature of the global travel industry and the uncertainty that exists in some markets. Our capacity to sustain growth will depend on, among other factors, Ireland maintaining its competitiveness, effective marketing and the continued development of iconic holiday experiences.
The Government's ongoing commitment to tourism was reflected in budget 2017. Despite demands on the public purse, the 9% VAT rate on tourism services was retained and funding of €122 million was secured. This will enable Tourism Ireland to continue its effective marketing overseas and Fáilte Ireland to continue its work in developing our industry on the ground. Although most Senators will know, it is worth pointing out for the record the differences between the two. Tourism Ireland is an all-island body established under the Good Friday Agreement whereas Fáilte Ireland is the national tourism development authority for this jurisdiction.
Following what was a record year for overseas visitors to Ireland in 2016, recent figures published by the Central Statistics Office show that overseas visitor numbers from February to April 2017 were slightly up on 2016. While there was strong growth from the North American market, which increased by 25.7%, the number of visitors from Great Britain decreased by 10.7% year on year. This is obviously a cause for concern. It is too early to state definitively what the reasons are for this decline and whether it will carry through to the remainder of the year.It is clear, however, that the sterling depreciation following the Brexit referendum result has made Ireland and every other eurozone country more expensive for British travellers than had been the case previously. Furthermore, research has indicated that British consumers are likely to scale back on overseas holiday activity this year.
The tourism action plan is committed to seeking to restore the tourism marketing fund to pre-recession levels on a phased basis. Budget 2017 included increased funding of more than 2% for the tourism marketing fund this year and the Minister and I will seek further additional funding for next year to mitigate any negative effects of Brexit on tourism. Tourism Ireland will continue to focus on protecting our market share in Britain, while seeking to increase diversification into other markets, particularly those that deliver higher tourism revenue.
Maintaining overall competitiveness in the tourism industry is also vital at this time. While the industry acknowledges its primary responsibility in this regard, I will endeavour to assist by seeking to maintain the lower VAT rate for the tourism industry and to keep the air travel tax at zero. The aviation sector is critical to Ireland and tourism. As an island with an open economy, the sector is essential for our trading relationships, all of our industries, especially tourism, manufacturing and retail, and our participation in the global economy. Brexit, unless accompanied by some form of agreement replacing the impacted traffic rights and associated regulations, will affect the existing rights of Irish licensed airlines to fly between the United Kingdom and the European Union, within the United Kingdom, and between the UK and a range of other third countries, including the United States and Morocco.
Our preparations for the impact of Brexit are continuing at both political and official level in order that we are ready for the challenges it may bring for Irish tourism. Tourism Ireland's market diversification and rebalancing strategy is already paying dividends as we can see, with mainland Europe now clearly the star performer in terms of delivering tourism revenue and North America overtaking Great Britain in terms of its contribution to overseas visitor revenue in the Republic. Many tourism businesses have already successfully rebalanced their marketing emphasis to reflect the new reality and I expect that others will follow in the coming months. That said, Britain is our nearest market and will continue to be the most important market for tourism to Ireland for a long time to come.
Fáilte Ireland continues to deliver on its commitment to the industry, providing a suite of targeted training and business supports to enhance the competitiveness, enterprise capability and sustainability of the tourism sector. It is also placing a strong emphasis on assisting the tourism sector to increase the geographical spread of activity and lengthen the tourism season beyond the peak summer months. It is working on a number of fronts to assist the diversification and development of our tourism industry and the attractiveness of our tourism offering. Fáilte Ireland is also rolling out a new Brexit response programme that will focus on delivering a capability building programme for tourism businesses.
The Government’s tourism policy statement, People, Place and Policy - Growing Tourism to 2025, brought a particular focus to what is perhaps our greatest potential tourism offering, namely, where the aspects of people and place converge at the level of the local community. Senators will be aware of the success in 2013 of The Gathering. Local authorities were the essential link that enabled community effort to be supported by State resources. The success of The Gathering has provided a foundation on which to develop a more structured role for local authorities in support of community initiatives in tourism. In this regard, it has been a priority of mine to ensure local authorities are encouraged to support communities in tourism development and will co-operate with neighbouring authorities, as appropriate, to maximise tourism opportunities for their region as a whole. Accordingly, I was delighted at the end of March to attend a local government tourism conference in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, under the heading, Collaborate Locally to Compete GlobaIly, and, crucially, for the first time to officially launch tourism statements of strategy and work plans for each of the 31 local authorities.
A key element of the reform of local government was the strengthening of the role the sector plays in economic development. Tourism is recognised as an important driver of the local, regional and national economies and is, therefore, a central component of the economic ambitions of all local authorities. A local economic and community plan has been prepared for each county and city area throughout Ireland and these set out clear objectives, specific goals and actions to support the tourism sector in each county.
It is more important than ever that we create what we describe as "stand-out" for Ireland in our markets by rolling out inspirational Ireland destination messaging. This essential destination sell will be supported by the promotion of our iconic holiday experiences, namely, Ireland’s Ancient East, the Wild Atlantic Way and the Dublin brand. I will discuss these later if Senators have questions on them. All three experiences are major themes for Tourism Ireland this year, as is the promotion of touring holidays, city breaks, festivals, events and activities. Work is continuing with airports and airlines to encourage the creation of new routes and expansion of existing services to the regions.
As Senators will be aware, Ireland is bidding to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. After much preparation, I understand the IRFU will lodge its bid with World Rugby tomorrow. The hosting of a Rugby World Cup on the island of Ireland has the potential to be very beneficial, both in terms of visitor numbers and the political dimension of an all-island tournament. It would have considerable tourism potential as it would take place during Ireland's shoulder season for overseas tourism, namely, between the middle of September and end of October. In terms of tourism earnings and jobs, it would provide increased business for hotels, restaurants and tourism businesses during the shoulder season. A successful bid for the Rugby World Cup would have the dual advantage of promoting sport and tourism. I wish the IRFU and the committee charged with lodging its bid every success in the coming months in their dealings with World Rugby and the individual rugby unions, many of which I have met.
I hope I have given the House an overview of the tourism industry, which has a proven track record in creating employment throughout the country and driving growth in the economy. As I stated, last year was a record breaking year for tourism. While this performance is encouraging, we are determined that growth will continue in line with the ambitious targets set out in the tourism policy, People, Place and Policy - Growing Tourism to 2025, which was adopted by the previous Minister and Minister of State in the Department, Deputies Paschal Donohoe and Michael Ring.
Brexit is a significant challenge but the tourism sector has overcome great adversity in the past and I am sure it will do so again. I look forward to working with the tourism industry and all the State agencies, including local authorities, to ensure we build on the achievements of recent years. As the Senators present will be aware, we take seriously all suggestions made in the Seanad and we are open to Senators' proposals on how we can grow the tourism industry. I look forward to their contributions.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus tá súil agam go mbeidh diospóireacht úsáideach againn. I have heard the Minister of State speak many times. We do not live far from each other and we have encountered one another at several functions to promote tourism. He is doing a very good job and I compliment him on his performance yesterday in Achill in the Acting Leader's county. I hope we will see him performing as well in Ballybunion and other places in the near future.
I will be positive in this debate because tourism is a positive story. It is important that we try to sing from the same hymn sheet. While some cracks and flaws are starting to appear here and there, I am pleased to note that the Minister of State is well aware of them. While I was unable to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport this morning, I followed proceedings closely on the monitor and listened to the Minister of State's comments to my fellow committee members. He is clearly aware of what may lie around the corner.
The Minister of State provided a series of figures outlining the good news in tourism. While I do not propose to repeat them, the 13% increase in visitor numbers in 2015 was a magnificent achievement. Many other countries that may have as much to offer as Ireland would be very proud of such growth. The negative side, to which the Minister of State alluded, is the 11% decline in visitor numbers from the United Kingdom recorded in the short period between February and April of this year. This downturn contrasts with the substantial increase of approximately 25% in visitors from North America. However, the good news underlines how worrying the bad trend in UK visitor numbers is.The indications from people in the industry are pretty clear that there is already a softening in UK bookings for the rest of this year. I come from a county that is heavily dependent on tourism and the anecdotal evidence, as well as the little signs one picks up on the ground, are bad. When swallows gather in the fall of the year, one knows that winter is coming. Little things are happening, and other little things are not happening, which indicate that we may have serious problems with UK visitor numbers this year. We will have to be alert and the people for whom tourism is a livelihood are making plans. They know how to adapt and, with the Minister's support and the full backing of the Department, we can forestall the worst scenarios.
I accept that the Minister is working with the tourism leadership group and I understand he will have a further meeting with them before long. Can he outline who is in the group and what does he think of the way they work? Is there any room for improvement? I presume the Minister agrees that the three priorities for the Government must be to preserve the common travel area, to avoid a hard Border and to maintain an open aviation regime, the last of which will always be important for us as an island nation. The devaluation of sterling is an imponderable and who knows what will be the result of the UK election? All of a sudden, it seems to be quite interesting but it could have a further depressing outcome for us. The more sterling drops, the more expensive it will be for somebody to spend sterling over here.
I spent a few days touring the east midlands of England, around Nottingham and Lincoln, and I encountered many people. I was surprised at how many were totally opposed to Brexit, although obviously they had not been in the majority. I was also surprised by how many loved Ireland and loved coming to Ireland, although they probably will not do so this year for financial reasons. We therefore have to look at alternatives and at diversification, something I raised at our last debate at which the Minister was present. I know the Department is working very hard on diversification and there is a huge world out there. In particular, there is a huge eastern market. While our share of it is small at the moment, it is growing and people who come from as far away as China stay a lot longer, spend a lot more and tend to travel around the country, rather than just pick one spot such as Dublin, Galway or Killarney. We need to do more work on the niche markets and one for which we can do even more is the market for the elderly, the people who are in their golden years. Ireland is an ideal place for them because everything is relatively safe, although no place is safe from global terrorism at the moment. There is more potential to attract these people than we are exploiting at present. Speciality holidays and activity holidays are hugely important but we must not forget the golden pound.
The Minister referred to local authorities and I commend the local authorities around the country on taking a hands-on approach to promoting and developing tourism in their respective counties. We were recently at the launch of the Kerry effort some months ago. Doing this is not a huge financial burden for councils and small moneys can go a long way in good communities. I am very proud to be from Listowel and tonight is one of the biggest nights of our year, being the opening night of writers week. It is not a huge enterprise with a huge budget although we enjoy certain levels of support from the Arts Council and private sponsorship, but the amount of money it will generate in the restaurants, bars and shops over the next few days will be phenomenal.
I am conscious of the issue of regionalisation as, I am sure, is the Minister. I will not bore people with statistics but approximately 40% of all our visitors will perch in Dublin for some part of their stay. We in the south west are next at approximately 18% and the west gets 13% but the poor north west gets 5% or 6%. I do not understand this disparity because there is no more beautiful countryside in the world than Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo.
We have spoken of the price of hotels in Dublin and I did a little survey this week. I challenge anyone to find a hotel within a half mile from Leinster House where a room costs less than €200. It is absolute madness and I am grateful that Airbnb is coming up. I propose that the Minister work with Airbnb to develop it. It has got some bad press but it is the only thing that is keeping visitors in Dublin at the moment.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about tourism in Ireland. Working in the hospitality industry myself it is an area with which I am very familiar. I understand how Government and the industry can work hand in glove to deliver for what is a very important industry to this country. Tourism is one of Ireland's most important economic sectors, with total tourism revenue for the economy in 2015 of over €7 billion, while employment in tourism in Ireland is estimated at 203,000 jobs.
As the Minister knows all too well, Great Britain is Ireland's biggest source market for overseas tourists, representing 41.6% of all such visits and 26% of total tourism revenue. The end of the common travel area between the UK and Ireland would thus be very costly and disruptive to the tourism industry in Ireland. Moreover, the continued and expected long-term depreciation of sterling against the euro will have inevitable consequences for the number of visitors who come from Great Britain to Ireland. This is already having an effect and, according to some recently published figures, the number of British tourists was down by 10.7% over the course of the summer.
The Seanad Brexit committee heard that Tourism Ireland has cut its forecast for the coming year by 6% because of Brexit. In 2016, tourism in the North of Ireland increased by 26% and tourism in the Border counties increased by 14%. It is the second biggest industry on the island of Ireland. The Seanad committee learned that the problem coming down the road relates to who will fund Tourism Ireland in the future. There has been a reduction in the number of EU visitor numbers in the first three months of this year, which are down 5.5% on last year.
The tourism industry is vital to the country but we are in uncertain times with Brexit. I was very surprised to hear from Tourism Ireland at the Seanad committee that people want to know whether tourists will be safe if there is a Border in two years time, and that this question specifically came up in trade missions to Italy and Germany. It is vitally important that Tourism Ireland knows where it will get funding as it goes forward, and what level of funding it will get. Are the Twenty-six Counties to be marketed separately from the Six Counties? Will Tourism Ireland be selling an island that is partly in the EU and partly out of the EU? These are the questions which Tourism Ireland asked at the Seanad Brexit committee.
While many people may view the tourism industry as urban based, tourism is the second largest industry in rural Ireland. The smaller businesses, whose owners perhaps own farms but rent holiday homes, boats or bicycles to tourists, are suffering from the uncertainty that Brexit has brought. This uncertainty is affecting not only the industry but the funding of the very State agency that is responsible for bringing people to the island of Ireland.The Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union was told that Northern Ireland has received over £7 billion in EU funding through various programmes, including the Erasmus programme which gives students an opportunity to spend 29 days in various parts of Europe. Their accommodation, food and travel costs are paid for. Those who participate in the Erasmus programme become tourist ambassadors abroad. According to Tourism Ireland, this is the best and cheapest way of marketing Ireland as a tourism product. We need bold thinking of how to protect the tourism industry from the crosswinds of Brexit. At the peak of our economic crisis, the Government launched The Gathering to attract US tourism and it was a massive success. Since The Gathering, tourism from the US has increased by 15% year on year.
A Bill which I have put forward on lifting the ban on selling alcohol on Good Friday will shortly come before the Cabinet. I expect to receive the Minister of State's full support for the Bill. We should also consider having a gathering for Europe. There are many Irish emigrants living across Europe. This calls for a marketing tool similar to The Gathering.
The Minister knows the challenges we face but we must react now rather than in two years' time. I urge the Minister to be bold and to ensure that one of Ireland’s greatest export products, our country itself, can continue to thrive and generate the employment and income that this State so badly requires.
Like other Senators, I do not want to go over the figures but we all know that since 2010 or 2011, tourism has been a reason for the stabilisation of our economy. In 2016, 20,000 extra jobs were created in the tourism industry. Along with agriculture and foreign direct investment, it has been the saviour of our economy.
The 6% drop in the number of British tourists coming to Ireland in the first quarter of 2017 was correctly predicted. It shows that we cannot become complacent and that tourist numbers will not keep going up if we do not work at maximising the number of visitors from Great Britain, Europe and the rest of the world. Much work is being carried out. State agencies such as Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland deserve much credit for the way they have targeted their money, marketing and branding in order to get people into the country. However, although the reduction is only 6% approximately, the worrying aspect is that British tourists make up over 40% of the total. We cannot say that we will get the tourists from the rest of the world and not worry about Britain. There is also the issue of Brexit.
As Senator O'Sullivan mentioned, there are issues apart from Brexit and weak sterling. One issue is the spiralling cost of hotel rooms in our capital city in particular. It needs to be addressed. It is difficult to do so because when the 9% rate was brought in approximately six years ago it was a saviour because the tourism and hotel industry was going through horrific times. However, there has to be a quid pro quo. The issue may be a lack of rooms, which has been spoken of here today. One solution could be getting more tourists to travel to regions outside Dublin. If one goes to a country, the capital is where one would usually go. One reason for that is that the capital is the brand name for the country. I have travelled abroad several times on holidays. It is only when one researches areas outside capital cities that value for money can be obtained and a good experience similar to that in a capital city can be had. That is possible in Ireland. The Wild Atlantic Way and so on has been brilliant in regionalising tourism. Tourism is the hidden gem in every part of the country. We need to get people directly into the regions rather than visit them as an add-on to a trip to Dublin.
Airports and transport accessibility is a huge vehicle in this regard. There have been massive developments in that regard in terms of travel tax and so on. Figures released yesterday or the day before showed an increase of 4.1% in passenger numbers at Dublin Airport but the biggest increase in the country was in Ireland West Airport Knock. It is a percentage increase on a much smaller figure but it is significant. I welcome that the Government has put €11 million into that airport since 2011 for marketing and so on. It is money well spent and great value has been obtained for it. The airport currently caters for the whole north-west region that was mentioned earlier. It has more passengers than all the other regional airports combined. Yesterday it was announced that it is to be designated a strategic development zone which will enable it attract new investment such as a hotel near the airport. That would be a great vehicle for extending the visitor experience in the region because I have heard visitors to Dublin over the past couple of years complaining about the spiralling cost of hotel rooms. Prices in other areas of the country are a fraction of those in Dublin. There needs to be a way of getting that message to our tourists as well.
I fully agree with many of the measures that the Government is implementing and policies such as extending the season and the shoulder season. The Women's Rugby World Cup will take place later this year in Ireland. It would be phenomenal if Ireland were to win the bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The massive benefits from that event would be spread across the country. Sports tourism can be wider than that. I have long made suggestions for the expansion of sports tourism. There were just over 30,000 spectators at a major hurling match in Munster last weekend between Cork and Tipperary . There were approximately 12,000 empty seats in the stadium in Thurles. There is no reason the tourism agencies and the GAA could not link up in some way. I am sure there were thousands of tourists in the region who would have loved the experience of going to that match. Even if tickets were offered at reduced rates, it would mean more bums on seats and a full stadium.
Hopefully, Ireland will win the bid for the Rugby World Cup. However, we have an offering every year from February until the end of September which would show our culture and games to visitors. That should be explored. Activity holidays, greenways, golf and so on are fantastic but there are enormous possibilities that would not cost much and would improve the visitor experience not just in Dublin but in the whole of Ireland, from Casement Park to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and from Croke Park to McHale Park.I will finish on those thoughts. It is important that we continue to do what is necessary to keep tourists coming from right around the world.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith linn. Tacaím agus aontaím leis an gcuid is mó den stuff atá ráite ag na cainteoirí eile go dtí seo. Ba mhaith liom cur leis na ráitis sin agus cúpla ceist a chur ar an Aire faoi chúrsaí turaiseoireachta chomh maith. I thank the Minister of State for being with us today. I agree with most of what my fellow Senators have said so far. The Minister of State has painted a very positive picture of the importance of the tourism sector to the economy but and he gave us very positive statistics. At a time of great uncertainty and many unknowns as a result of Brexit, it is encouraging to hear those positive statistics. What we need to do, as the Minister has acknowledged in terms of his own contribution, is ensure we continue with those positives and with that benefit to our economy.
The 9% VAT rate for the tourism sector which includes all hotels, restaurants and pubs was reduced from 13%. It was supposed to be a temporary measure, but as the Minister of State acknowledged, it is still in place. In our last alternative budget, Sinn Féin proposed removing the reduction for hotels and hotels alone, something we estimated would return in the region of €175 million to the Exchequer. As other speakers have observed, hotels are fuller than ever and unfortunately they have not passed on any price reductions to customers. Like Senator Ned O'Sullivan, I have also seen the rates in Dublin and there is no sign of any reduction there. Given all the statistics and the scale of them, this particular tax break is no longer justifiable. The Government's own tax strategy papers have almost said as much. The ESRI has questioned it for the whole sector, not only hotels. Unfortunately, the Minister, Deputy Ross, has refused to comment on it but maybe the Minister of State will tell us something about that today.
The Minister of State and other Senators have raised the issue of Brexit, the uncertainty of it, its impact on tourism generally and in particular its impact on Tourism Ireland. Tourism Ireland is an all-Ireland body established under the Good Friday Agreement to promote the island in its entirety overseas. In a previous life, at Belfast City Council, I worked very closely with Tourism Ireland as a member of Visit Belfast and Belfast City Council's development committee. They have done a fantastic job in recent years to promote the island across the world. However, there are huge uncertainties. There are significant negatives as a result of Brexit and we are kidding ourselves if we do not accept that Brexit is going to impact on the remit and the ability and capability of Tourism Ireland to promote the island overseas. When one looks through the Brexit prism, it really impacts on tourism. It highlights the fallacy of Brexit but also the impractical and detrimental nature of partition itself, because we have two competing systems and two different currencies on a small island. Here is the unwanted, negative dynamic of Brexit being thrown into the mix.
The Minister of State has alluded to some preparations which are ongoing in Tourism Ireland to offset that. Could he outline some of the practical preparations that are planned? For instance, Senator Lawless noted, that Tourism Ireland and other tourism bodies across the island, not least along the Border corridors who will probably feel this most acutely, can prepare for their tourism offers three years in advance. They do their practical preparation, they then go out to the markets, whether that is in the Far East, Britain or North America, and then in the third year, that hopefully sees a return. There is at least a three-year projected plan for tourism bodies whether it is Tourism Ireland or the more local bodies across Ireland.
I do not say this to be facetious, but rather sincerely, but I would love to know what those preparations are. I would love to hear some of what they are hoping to do because the greatest certainty in Brexit has been its uncertainty. We do not know what manifestation Brexit is going to take. We do not know how the Border is going to be impacted. We do not know a whole series of things. There is a great deal of uncertainty and sympathy on my part, and on the part of my party, for our tourism sector.
Due to the nature of Brexit, I hope the Minister of State remains very firm that there is no compromise around the responsibility to promote the island as an entire entity. Senator Lawless's idea of a European gathering to encourage an influx of Europeans to Ireland is a positive one. It is almost the reverse of the flight of the earls. I understand it could be easier or a bit more safe to simply promote the Wild Atlantic Way because of the uncertainty of Brexit. Why would one want to go and encourage people into a whole lot of uncertainty in the North? Would we really encourage them to go to the Giant's Causeway or Titanic Belfast or the walls in Derry, when we do not know what that is going to be like? That is a practical point that I wanted to make to the Minister of State, for him to keep a close eye on it and I am sure he will.
As Senator Ned O'Sullivan noted, we all agree on the need for some form of special status and want to mitigate against the negative impacts of Brexit. While appreciating the impact that overseas tourism has on the State's economy, we should encourage tourism across the island, back and forward whether it is weekend breaks or staycations. The biggest community arts festival in western Europe will take place in Belfast in August. I do not know how many people in Kerry or Galway know about that. Government Senators often say here that we need to put on the green jersey, so let us do that. I will encourage people to go down to the Ring of Kerry and similarly, I would encourage people to come up and spend a weekend in the North. If we are serious about mitigating against Brexit and trying to offset some of the negatives, let us do that. Here is a modest way. Let us look at the strategic political moves but let us also encourage people to move back and forward and oppose any notion of a barrier or a block on our people and enjoy the best that our country has to offer overall.
The Acting Chairman has been very indulgent and I will finish on this. I am sure it grates on the Minister of State as much as it does on me, that Ireland's Ancient East stops in County Louth and does not extend to the birthplace and homelands and playground of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill in north Antrim. I wonder has he had any dialogue with colleagues in the North about extending Ireland's Ancient East for the benefit of communities on both sides on the Border. Everyone acknowledges that we do not want to see boom and bust on either side of the Border, where it is Newry at one time or parts of Louth the next.
I welcome the Minister of State. It is great to hear some very positive suggestions here today about the all-island approach to tourism. Coming from Waterford, I was delighted to be at the opening of the 3D king of the Vikings virtual reality experience in Waterford which is part of Ireland's Ancient East. I commend the local authorities for that initiative and especially Eamonn McEneaney who has been so involved in the development of the Viking triangle in Waterford. It is a huge tourism offering in the south east. As a brand, Ireland's Ancient East is working in some areas but not in others. From our perspective in Waterford, it extends as far as the beautiful new Waterford Greenway, which traverses the county, but we are losing the blueways or the sea ways. We have the beautiful coastal environment in and around Waterford, but also through the south east and the 7,500 km of coastline on the island of Ireland. What is the Minister doing with regard to blue tourism? We are an island nation. I am so proud to live on this island, having lived abroad for 20 years. It is a gem. I heard the word "treasure" used to describe it today. We recognise that we have something special and unique. We are out there in the Atlantic. As they say, between Ireland and America are the Azores. We are a great island frontier. The Wild Atlantic Way is a super brand. It does what it says on the tin, so to speak. Ireland's Ancient East is not as explicit. It is developing, and I hope the Minister will fund it fully to put it on a par, if possible, with the Wild Atlantic Way.
As the spokesperson for tourism and the marine for the Green Party, I want to focus on the waterways and look at the potential in terms of our lakes and rivers. The rivers of Ireland are like the arteries of the country; they are like the blood flow. We need to make sure that we maintain them, and our coastal environment, in pristine condition so that we can take full advantage of the full potential of the blueways around the island of Ireland.
Tourism and sport is part of the Minister's portfolio. That area covers kayaking, surfing, running along the coast and so on. I ask that we would invest more in tourism, sport and well-being. We need to join the dots because we have a great offering in that regard. The Minister might speak about his vision in that area since it traverses his portfolio.
We need to protect our environment. In addition to the arteries of the country, the rivers, we also have a system of hedgerows, which are linear corridors of woodlands. This morning in the Dáil, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, had a short five minutes to talk about the Heritage Bill. I lived out of Ireland for almost two decades and have been living here for three decades - I am giving away my age - but I know that the hedgerow systems are old and unique to the island of Ireland. Many of them were set in the late 1700s. They add something special to the uniqueness of Ireland. They are part of the tourism offering. In addition to the ecological services, it is also a beautiful system in terms of tourism and that uniqueness that I believe foreigners enjoy. The Netherlands has that mono-culture. One does not see the hedgerows. One does not see them in other countries in mainland Europe such as France, but the hedgerow system in Ireland is beautiful and we need to maintain and preserve them in terms of tourism.
An area that drew huge attention last week was Bantry Bay where a licence has been granted to harvest approximately 1,800 acres of marine kelp, which is big seaweed. Seaweed supports huge biodiversity. That is the reason there was a large turnout in Bantry this week at a community meeting organised by Coastwatch Ireland. There were Bantry Bay locals, tourism operators, surfers, divers and many more in attendance who were very concerned about the issuing of this licence because the harvesting of the kelp will impact on the tourism offering in that area. There will be an impact in terms of the divers and fishing, in addition to the impact on the biodiversity. People come to Ireland because they love our biodiversity. They might like us as quirky people also, but our diversity is what we have on offer and what we use to encourage people to come here. Issuing a licence to cut the kelp is interfering with the community and tourism. It is a mistake, and I hope something can be done about it.
As I have indicated, we have a great offering. We have eco-tourism and something special. I ask the Minister about his sense of vision in terms of all of these natural tourism offerings and the assets we have available. How does he see that working out with regard to the marine, rivers and lakes and protecting our environment to make sure that the offering is sustainable and that we are not cutting off our nose to spite our face? I would like a sense of the Minister's vision over the coming years in that regard.
I welcome the Minister. I am aware of his passion in terms of tourism and compliment him on his interview yesterday. I holiday in Achill every year so I was very moved to hear his interview. He described it very well in terms of looking out at the beautiful scenery, and I compliment him on that.
Tourism is something that is vibrant and exciting, certainly in terms of Ireland and especially the hospitality sector. It is the biggest employer in Ireland and more jobs have been created in recent years. There is 11% total employment in the tourism industry.
I am the education spokesperson for Fine Gael and an area I have been keeping an eye on is the different courses being offered in tourism in training centres. I compliment the education and training boards, which are tailoring courses to suit the needs of the employer. That is most important. The Minister for Education and Skills is increasing funding towards apprenticeships and skills, but for us to grow the sector it is important that that would happen alongside the promotion of the tourism industry.
Not only have we 11% employment in tourism, it is also one of the biggest industries in the world. Since 2011, 13,000 jobs have been created in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Two initiatives have contributed to that, namely, the travel tax and the 9% VAT rate, which the Minister alluded to in his contribution. It is important that they are retained in terms of growing our sector.
Many of my colleagues spoke about regional balance. It is an issue about which I have spoken to the Minister previously and of which he is very aware. For a long time Tourism Ireland promoted the Dublin region, but there is a greater balance now. The Minister referred to the fact that Germans make up the largest number of visitors from Europe. Fáilte Ireland launched a six-week campaign to promote Ireland in Germany. I compliment it on that, which is very welcome, but could we look at attracting visitors from other countries across Europe in terms of areas they may be interested in?The figures show that most German tourists will go on three or four holidays a year with at least one or two of those holidays being outside their own country. It is important that we target the German tourist. It is estimated that German visitors spent up to €600 million in Ireland last year. Fáilte Ireland also gives business support, marketing and publicity, along with destination and sector development to businesses. This is most important.
The Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East have been spoken of here, and I have asked the Minister of State to include Limerick city in the Wild Atlantic Way, which he since has. It is most important that he has taken this on board. Using Limerick, my home town, as an example, we are older than the city of London, the amount of sports tourism in Limerick is up and it is very hard to get a hotel bed in Limerick now in many places. This must be transferred down to the smaller towns and villages for regional dispersion. It means the airports must promote themselves to show they are tourism destinations because everything does not always start and finish in Dublin.
Ireland is 26th overall in the world rankings out of 133 countries in holding conventions and conferences. This is important because we have so much to offer in Ireland. Not only do we have the whole business side of it, we also have our history, our unique tourism attractions and so on.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I shall speak briefly on Brexit. I know that our visitor numbers from Britain are down. If we are to have a hard Border, will there be restrictions on free movement of people between Ireland and the UK? There has been much investment in respect of Brexit and the agrifood sector-----
With regard to the Rugby World Cup I wish Ireland the very best of luck in its bid. I know the Minister of State has put a lot of work into the bid, as have some of his ministerial predecessors and through his initiative around the local authorities. We are developing a tourism strategy in Limerick and I compliment the Minister of State on that.
Ba bhreá liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire, dar ndóigh. It is clear that massive work is being done on tourism. As a country we should be very grateful to all of those who put their shoulder to the wheel and who have their hands on the plough - and any other cliché one cares to use - in the hard and important work of promoting Ireland. Senator O'Mahony has said how important a feature tourism is in our economic health, taking into account agriculture and inward investment also.
When one looks at the figures we can see €4.7 billion being spent by international tourists, another €1.5 billion is being spent in terms of air and sea carriers, and 220,000 people are working in the sector, which is one in nine people. It is an ambition to have 250,000 people working in the sector by 2025 with a €5 billion spend by international tourists in Ireland. It is important that the good work is being done but also that there is the ambition to do more and achieve more.
It is impossible to talk about the success of our tourism effort in recent times without thinking of the "waw" factor, which is the Wild Atlantic Way. It appears to be a prominent and dominant feature, which we would all welcome. While saying that, and in congratulating all of those involved in promoting the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's Ancient East and Dublin - A Breath of Fresh Air, I want to focus on the need to promote the midlands in Ireland. I feel that region has been left behind in these heavily backed State tourism exercises. The chief selling points associated with Ireland's Ancient East are heritage and history, and this is good and well. To date, I believe the midlands counties have not been promoted in a way that could showcase their extensive natural beauty to international visitors. These districts have waterways, lakes, forests, mountains, bogland, rolling hills and flat landscape suited to outdoor holidays involving walking, cycling, angling, horse riding and golf.
The central spine of the country, if the Minister of State thinks about it, from the Silvermines to the drumlins of Cavan, could be developed as a thematic package in the new multifaceted tourism initiative. Counties such as Tipperary, Laois, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Roscommon, Cavan and some of my own county of Galway, have been somewhat forgotten by the Government in its recent tourism push. Towns such as Roscrea, Athlone, Tullamore, Longford and Carrick-on-Shanon have major growth potential and have a range of existing services and offerings to build upon. We are all aware of the decline of our towns in rural Ireland. There has been much talk about it and programmes devoted to the issue in recent years. We should always see tourism as a part of that process of giving life back to our rural towns.
The locations I have mentioned have been undervalued and much more could be done in a co-ordinated and coherent way to improve and transform the midlands as an attractive region in which to stay. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister of State on the efforts being made by his Department and the satellite agencies under his aegis to create a majestic midlands experience that would appeal to visitors of all ages, especially those who enjoy the outdoors.
Obviously this requires investment but it would be money well spent. A feasibility study was done around Ireland's proposed lakelands brand, which would focus on the midlands and the Shannon. I hope the draft report will offer some hope to those in the tourism industry in that wider area. The midlands is more than just a collection of inland lakes, of course. The region's relatively flat and open environment makes it particularly suitable for new eco-tourism initiatives.
If the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Fáilte Ireland can execute marketing campaigns for the regions - be it for the east or west of the country - then surely a cohesive marketing initiative can be created for the midlands in the heart of the nation. I note that when the Minister, Deputy Ross was in the Chamber last March he committed his Department and associated agencies to strong, regional dispersal in tourism.
There are other points I can make in the brief time available to me. The Minister of State knows well that the issue of skills in tourism is vital. We need some 5,000 chefs each year between now and 2020. I believe there are some 8,000 pubs and restaurant venues in the State, tourists always have to eat, but there is a big concern among restaurateurs and others about the costs of insurance. It is a key issue. Obviously there are issues around claims and dodgy claims, but there is also the factor where success itself seems to be penalised when there is increased custom in venues and the insurance premiums go up. This must be watched. Those who operate food delivery services have seen their motor insurance increase by 100% in some cases in recent years.
I shall make my final point if I may-----
Senator O'Mahony made reference to sport. Recently I was impressed to meet with groups from the Archdioceses of New York and Boston, which are sending people to Knock and taking advantage of the airport there. I would love to think the Government is on the ball there. There is not a diocese in the United States of America that does not have a strong Irish footprint and there is huge potential for what might be called pilgrimage tourism. I would love to hear what is being done in that regard. I suspect there is real, untapped potential there.
Tá céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Gan dabht ar bith, tá go leor le maoibh faoi in earnáil na turasóireachta sa taobh seo den tír, ach tá go leor le déanamh go fóill. There are many laudable aspects to Ireland's tourism industry and it has been quite successful in a lot of different areas around the State. I note a lack of discussion in today's debate about the people who may be the greatest asset in our tourism industry; the staff and workers in the tourism industry. I shall focus my comments on some of the conditions in which these people work. We certainly have a lot of very laudable employers and some really good places to work, but there are issues in the industry and we cannot deny those.
I am very disappointed that when I raised these issues with the Minister, Deputy Ross, during a debate on tourism some months ago, he showed a certain amount of concern and asked me to pass on my report, which I have done. I reminded him since then that I had passed it on and I was hoping he or his officials would engage with me on the report we did into the abuse of workers in the hospitality sector in Galway. The Minister has not, to date, done this. I know he has been quite busy but I hope he will get back to me on that report.I would like to outline some of the issues for the Minister of State as well. We have raised issues around some of the conditions under which people find themselves working. It is obviously a very transient working community. The working situation is quite precarious for many people. There are many young people and non-nationals working in the hospitality sector. The practices of many employers leave a lot to be desired.
We carried out a survey of people working in hospitality in the Galway area, to which we got 415 responses. The results were really quite shocking. Some 45% of respondents were not given a written statement of the terms of their employment within the first two months and 18% did not receive a regular payslip. Regarding rest breaks, almost 60% claimed not to receive the statutory 15 minute break after four and a half hours worked and 50% did not get a break of 30 minutes after six hours worked. Almost 50% did not receive their entitlement of nine public holidays per year. Almost 50% did not receive 11 consecutive hours of rest between shifts and over 14% did not receive four weeks paid annual leave. These are the basic legal entitlements that every employer is supposed to give its workers.
Some 44% of respondents reported that their employer used the rota as a negative control mechanism regularly, very often or constantly. Basically, people were told that if they caused trouble they would lose hours or they might not be needed the next week. Some 34% of respondents reported the withholding of tips regularly, very often or constantly, and 28% of respondents reported being underpaid regularly, very often or constantly. Perhaps the most worrying data is that on physical or sexual abuse, harassment or negligence. Some 78% of respondents to our survey reported experiencing verbal abuse in the workplace sometimes, regularly, very often or constantly. That is 78%. Three out of every four experienced some form of abuse. Some 36% reported experiencing sexual harassment or abuse sometimes, regularly or very often. Some 65% reported experiencing negligence on a regular basis. These are really stark findings which need to be addressed.
I also note figures I received yesterday from the Workplace Relations Commission, the WRC, in respect of issues and cases taken. When I have raised these issues with the industry I have been told that there is no problem. I have been told that nobody is taking cases to the WRC or the Labour Court, therefore there is no issue. There were, however, a total of 4,830 cases taken to the WRC in 2016. In the food and drink sector, an incidence of breach was found in 48% of those cases. In the hotel sector the figure was 35%. Obviously there is an issue.
On the issue of unpaid wages, the WRC figures which I have been given show that it has gotten reimbursement for workers who were not paid properly to the value of €1.5 million. There is a huge issue around the way employers are treating employees. I want to work with the industry to try to get that sorted and we are working on a campaign to do that.
The other very important point to which I must refer is infrastructure in rural areas, which has been mentioned previously. For example, many people like to go out to Connemara and visit some of our beautiful areas, but our road infrastructure is absolutely dire. We have a huge issue around the N59 and the R336. Those issues must be addressed. I would be grateful if the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Ross, would come back to me on the issues in the workplace for those workers. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend him for his stewardship and his contribution during his time in office. If I was to listen to Senator Ó Clochartaigh, notwithstanding the fact that he has articulated genuine concerns, I would swear the Government was doing nothing in the tourism sector at all. In front of us today we have a Minister of State. I ask Members to listen to Ryan Tubridy's programme yesterday on RTE Radio 1, where there was a Minister of State with passion, commitment, determination and a vision and plan to drive the tourism sector. It is important, when we talk about a whole of government approach, that we have a Minister of State on top of the brief being the driver of that engine. We are lucky to have the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, in that command.
The figures the Minister of State spoke about today are very strong. In his remarks he made reference to the issue of Brexit and British tourists. I want to turn my attention to the issue of North America. I commend Cork Airport Authority for its ability to reach out. Last week WOW air flew from Cork to the United States via Iceland and in the first week of July Norwegian will fly from Cork to Boston. That is important for the Cork region, from whence I come, because the airport is not just a source of pride, but it is crucial to the economy of the entire southern region. Cork is the hub of that region. The region is not just about a place, it is about people. We can help to grow and create jobs, have people come and live in the region and also have people visit.
I am a little concerned in respect of the approach of Tourism Ireland to Cork. In The Irish Examinerthis week we saw Tourism Ireland taking out a half-page advertisement for the Wild Atlantic Way, which did not mention west Cork at all. This poses the question of why it would not do so. I know that we have a tourism strategy for Cork called Growing Tourism in Cork: A Collective Strategy, underpinned by Visit Cork, but I have to say that I am critical of the tourism bodies in how they sell Cork - in terms of the city and its importance as a place of culture, culinary experiences and retail and then, linked to that, west Cork as a place of absolute beauty. As the Minister of State knows quite well, Cork is the only city and county on both the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East.
Okay, with Limerick. The Minister of State's heart is, of course, in Limerick. We will come back to that. I know the Minister of State spoke about the local authorities in his speech in terms of their campaign and the conference Collaborate Locally to Compete Globally, but we must get the city and county councils to become part of that strategy, to promote, market and invest, in this case, in Cork. In the case of Cork, we need a comprehensive marketing and tourism strategy, which we have, but we also need investment by the local authorities to help sell Cork in terms of promoting the Cork transatlantic route.
My final comment is that the Minister of State has been successful with Government in retaining the 9% VAT rate. We speak about bed shortages and different issues in hotels. Senator Ó Clochartaigh makes reference to pay and conditions. The cost of accommodation has gone berserk in places. There needs to be a reining-in of some hotels that are over-pricing and, in time, will price themselves out of the market.
We have a tremendous tourism product. We have a wonderful country. We have a very welcoming, hospitable people. We have tremendous people working in the service industry. We have a Minister of State who is on top of his brief and who has a command of it and passion for it, but we need all the pieces of the jigsaw to come together. Mar fhocal scoir, it is important in the area of Cork, from whence I come, that we go across the world to sell and promote Cork, through the Minister of State's office and the tourism offices.
I welcome the Minister of State. In his remarks, he talked about our capacity to sustain growth and that it will depend, among other things, on Ireland maintaining its competitiveness, on effective marketing, and on the continued development of iconic holiday experiences. On marketing, I would like to focus on, and ask the Minister of State, whether we are fully marketing an accessible product. I refer to people with disabilities, reduced mobility or different capacities - these people can be named in different ways. On both shoulders of this island, in North America and in western Europe, we have developed economies where there are many people with good incomes - retired people - looking for a good experience. They are more and more likely to be people with restricted mobility or conditions of one kind or another. Our country gives huge diversity and huge opportunities, but we must be a product that is fully accessible.We still have a way to go there although it has improved. There is what I describe as a hard and a soft element to having an accessible product. The hard element relates to our transport infrastructure being accessible - and we have a way to go there - along with our buildings and our street scapes and also the whole area of communication for people who are blind or deaf or whatever. The soft infrastructure I am happier about. To me that relates to the people who work in the tourism industry in Ireland and the people of Ireland. I see good standards and people wanting to be helpful everyday. That is a great asset and it is important not to take it for granted.
We also have our own folk in Ireland. People are living longer now. People with disabilities and families with a family member with a disability want to be able to go and experience Ireland in an easy way. In the past there were obvious anchor places in Ireland, like anchor tenants, counties obviously branded with tourism. It is lovely to see many more places developing in Ireland now, getting their own mojo in terms of tourism and developing greater pride in the product, in the raw material that they have and are developing. The midlands were already mentioned in this respect. This is the opportunity and the challenge that I want to put to the Minister of State. The populations to the east and west of us amount to half a billion people from developed economies, many of whom will want to come to a place like Ireland. We need to attract them.
We have heard of the beautiful glens of Antrim and Kerry and the east and the west. Farewell to Tipperary said the Galtee mountain boy a long time ago. I want to welcome everyone to Tipperary and particularly to my beautiful Glen of Aherlow.
I will address the last speaker first. The Senator will be glad to know that I launched the Tipperary tourism strategy with the county manager and I have to pay particular tribute to the people in Tipperary. That is where the good news ends from a Limerick man. The Glen of Aherlow is shared in close proximity and the peak of Galteemore is actually in County Limerick.
Just check the map. I agree with the Senator with regard to accessibility and this is not only an issue for people with disabilities but also for young parents. We had an experience recently where we went to London and it was horrendous pushing a buggy around. Try it sometime. As I said to my wife, God only knows how a person with a disability would manoeuvre around. It is right to acknowledge that a lot of progress has been made in Ireland but for people with disabilities and for young parents especially, accessibility is a problem. We came to Dublin in the not so distant past and there was a sign in a pub on the southside of this city, I will not name the suburb because people will find it, saying 'no buggies'. That is not welcoming in this day and age.
I want to address the comments of the Senators who had the courtesy to stay. Some did not even come to my opening comment, came in then and criticised us for not doing enough and then did not stay for the closing remarks, so I will not refer to Senator Mullen's comments.
Regarding VAT, it would be completely remiss of me if I did not take issue with the suggestion that sustaining the 9% VAT rate was not a good idea when we needed it in the last budget. My view is that it should be sustained into the future. Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the roads into Connemara. I can tell the Senator that there will be very few people travelling those roads if his colleague gets his way because at the end of the day we are not yet in a situation, from a regional tourism point of view, where we can throw the baby out with the bath water. Talk to any hotelier in provincial Ireland, in my part of the country or in Senator Ned O'Sullivan's part of the country or anywhere else, and the stark reality is that the 9% VAT rate is still needed in provincial Ireland. We cannot regionalise VAT, much as I would like to, so it is completely irresponsible for a party to suggest that we should just abolish it. Approximately 35,000 people are at work in Irish tourism and hospitality today, more than when we went into government in 2011, and two measures contributed massively to that. The first was the abolition of the travel tax. There was a time when we charged people to get into and get out Ireland - how cracked was that? The second was the 9% VAT rate. I do not make any apologies for that to anybody. It was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do in the last budget and I hope it is sustained. I am not the Minister for Finance but I hope the new Minister for Finance will take this on board.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of training. She is right, the speed at which we are getting training out there is not acceptable. We will hopefully have news on this shortly through Fáilte Ireland and through the officials in my own Department. At the rate at which apprenticeships are being rolled out at the moment, it would take an average of 30 years to get through a hotel. That is completely unacceptable. I am not in favour of a new agency but Senator Byrne is right. There is a blueprint already through the education and training boards and I know that Senator Humphreys also raised this issue with me before on a commencement matter here. It is a matter that I am taking seriously.
Several Senators mentioned the midlands. They will be delighted to know that in the not too distant future Fáilte Ireland will be bringing its initial proposals together on this. It is not just about lakes and so on. I have said in both this and the other House that we have an area from east Donegal down to the outskirts of Cork city that needs attention. Fáilte Ireland is already doing that in their capital investment programme and in its marketing programme. That is being primarily driven by the local authority tourism strategies, of which County Tipperary is a fantastic example.
Regarding Ireland's Ancient East, Fáilte Ireland was the developer of this. Its remit under legislation is very clear; it is the national tourism development authority of this jurisdiction. We cannot take brands like Ireland's Ancient East or the Wild Atlantic Way across the Border into another jurisdiction. We can work with them, however, and we are doing that. When I was up in Donegal recently my colleague, Deputy Joe McHugh, pointed out that when one leaves Belfast Airport among the places that one is guided to are the Causeway Coast and the Wild Atlantic Way. That collaboration in local authorities is already happening and airports are addressing it-----
Regarding the conditions referred to by Senator Ó Clochartaigh, I will also bring them to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross. The North-South co-operation element is happening through Tourism Ireland, which is an all-island, Good Friday Agreement body. We cannot, however, avoid the stark reality that there is no functioning government in Northern Ireland. Some people in this Chamber have a greater influence than the rest of us when it comes to encouraging the establishment of a Northern Ireland executive. The sooner that is established the better because Tourism Ireland works in collaboration on a two thirds-one third divide. The Irish Government cannot act unilaterally on Tourism Ireland or on any other Good Friday Agreement body. The House knows that and the Members know that and I think certain Members are being a bit disingenuous when it comes to the level of North-South co-operation. We are very anxious to see a new executive established in Northern Ireland. Like the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, and like the Taoiseach, I appeal to those who have an influence in here to do everything in their power to get that executive established and to make sure that the executive functions and we can get on with developing the country.
Heckling will not get you anywhere lads. Senator Ned O'Sullivan asked about the Tourism Leadership Group. It comprises represenatives of the Department, myself, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, and the whole industry and it has been there for a while. People are talking about diversification of markets. I was up at Fanad lighthouse recently overseeing the work that is being done there by Fáilte Ireland, the Commissioners of Irish Lights and the Office of Public Works. The first visitors I met there were from Singapore. They did not come via somewhere else, they had specifically come to Ireland. Market diversification is working and Tourism Ireland is working.
On the issue of Brexit, we do not know what is going to happen there, it is a bit early yet. We are doing the best that we can, however, which is why we had the sectoral civic dialogue in Dundalk, a border area, and why in the last few weeks I have launched initiatives by Fáilte Ireland, through the Office of Public Works and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, in Fanad and in Carlingford. This is because we recognise that the Border area is vulnerable and that is why we want to build the product.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan is quite right about the north west, 5% is not acceptable. I holidayed in Donegal last year and the year before and the package there, and in Sligo and Leitrim, is phenomenal. The work already happening between the development of the Causeway Coast and the Wild Atlantic Way is tangible and being led by local authorities like Donegal County Council, who need to be commended on it.
I entirely agree with Senator O'Sullivan's point about sustainable tourism. I disagree with him about the bushes along the side of the road however.The Senator mentioned the important word "maintain". At the end of the day we have an obligation to ensure our roads are safe and traversable.
I agree with the points made in regard to the greenway strategies and blueway strategies. When I became Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the development of greenways was spread across many agencies, including the Office of Public Works, OPW, the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Coillte, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the local authorities and so on. That is no longer the case and the matter is now the subject of public consultation. I would welcome Senators' feedback in this regard. This is not only about greenways; it is also about blueways.
This has been an important debate. I thank the Senators who have engaged, particularly those Senators who have engaged from the start and have listened to what I have had to say on behalf of the Government. The industry is watching too. It wants to know that from a political point of view there is consensus that the development of Irish tourism is in a strong place and that the leadership can be supported by people, including Senators, but in realistic terms rather than with will-o'-the-wisp-type suggestions to scrap schemes for the sake of it.
I am open to suggestions. The industry is open to suggestions. This area is not without its challenges. This is a vulnerable industry. We know from what happened in 2008 that the slightest shock, be it an earthquake or a volcano eruption in Iceland, has the potential to do irreparable damage. The last thing we need is political damage to be caused from within this House or the other House.
I commend the Senators who have spoken constructively today. Their suggestions will be taken on board. I have taken a lot of notes. I hope that as we flesh out the development of tourism policy for the future, I can take on board as many of the positive and concrete suggestions made today that will add value, create more jobs and enhance the visitor experience for people coming to Ireland.