Tuesday, 12 June 2018
Tourism Industry: Statements
We will start with the Minister of State. Group spokespersons will have eight minutes and all other Senators will have five minutes. It is open ended so the Minister of State will be called on to reply when no other Senators are offering.
I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad to speak about tourism. It is a vital industry in Ireland, one that is perhaps unique in that it reaches every part of the country. It is a sector that has, without doubt, made a very important economic contribution in recent years. I am sure that every Member of the House would concur with me on this point.
The year 2017 was another record-breaking year for overseas visits to Ireland and marked seven years of consecutive growth in overseas visitor numbers. This is a fantastic achievement given that 2016 was an exceptional year in its own right and particularly in view of the fall in visitor numbers from our largest market, Great Britain, which I will come back to later.
Overall in 2017, according to CSO data, there were over 9.9 million overseas visitors to Ireland, up 4% on 2016. They generated approximately €4.9 billion for our economy, up 6.5%. This figure rises to €6.5 billion if we include the fare receipts of Irish airlines and ferry companies. Domestic tourism was worth €1.9 billion in 2017, meaning the sector was worth approximately €8.4 billion to the economy in current expenditure alone in 2017. Fáilte Ireland estimates that the tourism and hospitality sector now supports about 235,000 jobs across the economy, or approximately one in ten jobs. We can sometimes think that numbers such as these are mere statistics but these are 235,000 individuals, households and families, with hopes and aspirations for the future and for whom their job is critically important. It is a huge achievement and I see no reason we cannot grow the figure even more in the future.
Initial data for 2018 indicate that we are continuing to grow our visitor numbers, with Europe and North America again performing strongly. The continued growth in visitor numbers reflects the ongoing efforts of the tourism agencies, in collaboration with the industry, to market Ireland at a range of markets with the highest revenue growth potential. Tourism Ireland focuses investment on the basis of market potential and continues to implement its market diversification strategy. Market diversification is a major factor contributing to our outstanding performance in 2017 as it targets markets proven to stay longer and spend more. The contribution of North American visitors in 2017 was over €1.5 billion, making it the second largest market for revenue behind mainland Europe. Remarkably, revenue from this vital market has more than doubled in the last five years, which has produced a lot of money for the Exchequer.
With the launch of the Global Ireland strategy by the Taoiseach earlier this week, we can look forward to continuing to grow tourism from a wide variety of markets. Why do tourists come to Ireland? Research by Fáilte Ireland consistently shows that our people and our scenery and environment are the biggest draws for visitors to this country. That does not mean we can sit back and expect people to come because of those natural advantages. We operate in a very competitive international marketplace in tourism and the tourism agencies, Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland, do a great job both in marketing Ireland abroad and ensuring we are equipped to provide the type of experiences people want when they get here.
The brand experiences have turned into a real success story with the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East benefitting from growing international awareness. Dublin, as we know, is an iconic destination which attracts large numbers of visitors to experience city living side by side with the natural outdoors. Fáilte Ireland has further developed the approach this year with the launch of a new brand for the midlands, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, which I have no doubt will be a success in its own right. To help get the message out there, we invested an additional €2 million in Tourism Ireland this year for investment in its digital tourism marketing, both to help restore Ireland’s share of voice vis-à-visits competitors in the British market and also to develop growth from alternative markets.
The Government, through Fáilte Ireland, continues to support the expansion of the tourism experience on the ground in line with the relevant experience brands.Priority areas for tourism capital investment include the development and enhancement of tourist attractions and activities to provide the type and quality of experience that our visitors are seeking. Fáilte Ireland operates both large and small scale capital grant schemes. It also has strategic partnerships with bodies such as the Office of Public Works, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Coillte to further develop our tourism assets. In addition, the agency invests directly in architecture, such as signage, for the brand experiences. Current investment in tourism provides for further enhancement, animation and promotion, allowing Fáilte Ireland to fund festivals, events and other programmes and to provide related business supports and training.
The forthcoming publication of a strategy for the future development of greenways will set out a framework by which we can develop more of these wonderful attractions around the country. I have seen at first hand how greenways can provide a boost to tourism in an area and I look forward to a time when we have a network of these facilities traversing the country. Last month, I had the great pleasure of doing the Waterford greenway with Senator Paudie Coffey, who was here a few moments ago. We were there on a Tuesday morning in early May. Seeing the level of economic activity in a rural area between Kilmacthomas and Dungarvan was remarkable. I remember writing a blog after finishing the Westport to Achill greenway in 2013, while sitting in the hotel on Achill Island. I wrote it under the heading, "Why Greenways should be called Goldways", because of the sheer level of economic activity that was taking place along the route of that greenway. I had visited three years earlier when it was a fledgling greenway and businesses were starting to get off the ground between Newport and Mulranny. Within three years, it had grown to be a great success and it has grown even further since. Greenways offer a great opportunity for the entire country and we need to grasp it.
As I mentioned, people are one of the reasons visitors come here. Having appropriately trained staff is extremely important for our tourism enterprises. For its part, Fáilte Ireland provides complementary tourism-related business development and training supports in line with its responsibility for encouraging, promoting and supporting tourism as a leading indigenous component of the economy. Furthermore, in line with the Tourism Action Plan 2016-2018, it is committed to working with the tourism industry and the wider education and training sector to implement recommendations contained in the report on future skills requirements in the hospitality sector. In this regard, Fáilte Ireland participates in the hospitality skills oversight group, which oversees skills development and promotion in the sector, including monitoring the implementation of the expert group recommendations.
Despite the strong performance and success that I have outlined, we cannot be complacent about the future success of tourism. We are, as Senators know, heavily dependent on attracting tourism from outside Ireland. Anything that causes economic upheaval in our main source markets can have a detrimental effect on the industry here. I remember the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 and the severe impact it had on the tourism industry. I was working in Aghadoe Heights Hotel in Killarney as a porter on the morning of the attacks of 11 September 2001. The plan was to try to earn a few extra pounds - I think it was still pounds at the time - before going back to college two weeks later. I was back in college two days later because, effectively, the tourism season ended that morning. We need to be robust enough to deal with these shock events that happen, such as volcanic ash clouds.
One issue that has been on the horizon for the last two years is Brexit. The UK vote to leave the European Union caused considerable concern for the sector here. Brexit has yet to fully play out and its longer-term effects on tourism are difficult to gauge at this point without knowing what the final terms of the agreement will be. We know the initial effect was a 5% reduction in British visitors in 2017 as sterling weakened against the euro. Monitoring and responding to this is something that I have been closely involved in with Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and the tourism industry. We have put in place a number of measures to help counteract these initial effects, including the Wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way marketing programme earlier this year. I am pleased that visitor numbers from the UK have stabilised this year to date although we only have four months of data at this point. While we have not returned to the figures recorded before the Brexit vote, the figures have stabilised and have risen slightly this year. The good news is that UK visitor numbers are no longer in decline and have turned a corner. The pre-Brexit figure should be our natural benchmark and the point to which we will fight to return. The British market is so important that we cannot afford to give up on it. It is a critical market for us. The proximity of the British market presents major opportunities but we need to fight hard for it.
Events such as Brexit highlight the importance of market diversification. The greater the variety of source markets that we have, the more resilient we will be in times of difficulty. We cannot be sure what the next economic or political shock will be but we can be ready by being adaptable enough to turn to newer markets where that is necessary. It is in everyone's interest that the tourism industry continues to grow. However, we must be conscious of the need to grow it in a sustainable way. This is an important part of the Government's tourism policy. This policy is implemented through tourism action plans, which are monitored by a tourism leadership group that includes industry representatives. The current tourism action plan covers the period from 2016 to 2018, and the tourism leadership group has concluded that most of the 23 actions are complete or nearly complete. Work is currently under way on drafting the next tourism action plan for the period from 2018 to 2020 and a number of workshops are being held to progress this.
The need to grow sustainably will be an overriding theme of the next action plan. Across the world, there is growing recognition that tourism needs to be sustainable. It needs to be environmentally sustainable and also economically and socially sustainable. We have seen to our cost in this country that growth for the sake of growth is not always desirable. We must also remain conscious of the need to maintain our competitiveness. Ireland is a location that offers a great visitor experience and value for money. It would be a shame if increased demand for tourism-related services resulted in price inflation of a level which would see us losing that reputation again. It has happened before, as we all know, and we know the complete devastation that resulted from that previously. We need to avoid that at all costs in the future because jobs will be lost if that happens. That needs to be one of our key focuses.
Overall, we are in a very good place with tourism. The growth in recent years has been impressive and a major contributor to our ongoing recovery from the difficult times we experienced in the last decade. I am confident that, with the ongoing support of Government, we will continue to grow in a smart way that will mean that tourism reinforces itself as arguably our most important indigenous economic sector. The key issue is collaboration between Government, agencies, industry, the people working at the front line and local communities, with tourism that is built from the ground up, that is, from community level. It was viewed as the role of the State to provide tourism and everything related to it for too long. All over the country, I have seen the remarkable work led by people of individual communities. If we are to expand regionality and seasonality, we need to empower local communities to sell their communities and locations and the great stories and heritage they have. All parts of this island have fantastic heritage and each part has a great story to tell. The process of spreading regionality needs to be a key Government policy and one that empowers local communities throughout the island of Ireland. If we can do that, we will provide our future generations with an opportunity that many generations in the past did not have, namely, to stay in the part of the island that they love and in which they want to grow up, grow old and live their lives. Tourism, with other industries, gives us a great opportunity to achieve that and that is a goal worth fighting for.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive opening statement. Eight Senators have indicated and they will contribute in the order they indicated. The first speaker will be Senator Ned O'Sullivan followed by Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Martin Conway, Grace O'Sullivan, Gabrielle McFadden, Joe O'Reilly, Anthony Lawlor and Maria Byrne. Senator Warfield may also wish to contribute.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Griffin. As a fellow Kerryman, I wish him well. We have much in common and naturally I support many of the points he made. Tourism is a good news story and long may it remain so.Like all good news stories, it has to be minded and nurtured because it has its pitfalls as well as its upside. It would, however, be churlish not to welcome the figures the Minister has presented us with. We cannot overestimate the importance of the fact that we are now in our seventh successive year of growth in tourism and I am glad the last Fianna Fáil-led Government is included in that seven years. We are often forgotten for being the originators of The Gathering, which has been one of the most inspiring projects in recent Irish tourism development. Well done to the current Government for capturing the Fianna Fáil idea and developing it well.
I also give credit where it is due to other recent initiatives, such as the Wild Atlantic Way, which has been brilliant. I also welcome Ireland's Ancient East and the new promotion in the midlands as they are all important.
We have to keep coming up with new initiatives because we cannot rest on our laurels. There are many reasons people come to Ireland to visit and the Minister referred to a few of them. Essentially, it comes down to the Irish people and the traditional céad míle fáilte. We like people, we want people and we welcome people and we treat them properly 99% of the time. They get a fair deal and they go home to America, or wherever they came from, with a feeling of having achieved something, whether that is relaxation or a more spiritual thing, which is part of the experience. They see how we live, our music, our dance and our games and we have to support all these things with financial help.
The biggest worry for everybody is the decline in the British tourist spend, which is not dramatic but is a decline nonetheless. British and Northern Ireland tourism accounts for up to 40% of the total tourism spend so it is a huge segment of the market. It is under threat, like everything else, from Brexit and I know the Minister and the Department are well aware of his. The priorities have to be to preserve the common travel area, avoid a hard border and maintain an open aviation regime. Hopefully the British will come to their senses. It has taken a long time to do so but somehow I think the penny is beginning to drop. I hope our Government can manage Brexit to the best advantage of our country and for the advantage of all of Europe, including Britain itself.
The figures are worrying. I do not have the figures for the first quarter of this year but I would be very interested to know the figures for British tourism for that period. I would also like to know the figures for American tourism for the first four months of the year. I suspect the figures are up but I have heard that there is a continuing softening in the British spend in the south west, where I and the Minister of State are from. If it is happening in the south west, it is probably happening in Dublin too, and around the country.
We refer to diversification every year in our speeches on tourism and they are almost single transferable speeches at this stage. The Asian market is huge and even if we get the slightest increase it would be of great significance. Long-haul travellers from the East are good tourists because, having travelled so far, they spend longer here and travel around more to visit more of the country than those who come for a week or less. The data are vague on these travellers, though I know the Department is trying to improve this. A former president of the Irish Hotels Federation famously said that we know more about the travel patterns of the 6.8 million cows on this island than we do of the 6.5 million visitors who come to our shore each year. Information is strength.
We need to know why Chinese people want to come to Ireland and what their travel patterns are but we do not have enough data on it.
I welcome the take-up of tourism promotion on the part of local authorities. When I was a county councillor we were always trying to get management in Kerry to be more hands-on and proactive in promoting tourism in the county. We are an easy county to promote because we have nature's bounty in our mountains, rivers and lakes but it is only in recent years that councils have got in on the game. Great work has been done in Kerry under the work of Joan McCarthy and her team, and Moira Murrell, the county manager. It seems that other counties are getting with the programme too, though I heard an anecdote this morning about a county manager in the midlands whose councillors wanted him to promote tourism, to whom he replied "This county is not Kerry". I will not name the county. We cannot all be Kerry and we cannot all be as fortunate as the Minister and myself to be born in County Kerry but one has to be more positive than the county manager.
As John B. Keane said, it is an awful responsibility to be a Kerryman. On the question of regionalisation, 40% of our tourism is made up of the Dublin market while the next strongest is the south west, with 19%, while the west is at 13% and the poor north west is at about 5%, which I cannot understand. I know that infrastructure and bad roads are a reason and I was pretty shocked at how long it took me to get back to Dublin from Ballina recently, where I had been attending a funeral. We have to watch that because tourism needs to be spread over the whole country.
The overpricing of hotels in Dublin is atrocious, especially when there is a big event on in Croke Park or the O2. We are putting ourselves out of the market and will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Finally, I ask the Minister to continue to ensure we have the skills we need. There was a shortage of 5,000 chefs at the last count and we have a shortage of training kitchens, something which hotel managers tell us when we go out for a meal at night.
Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit os comhair na Seanadóirí. Tá mé an-bhuíoch dó as ucht an cur i láthair a rinne sé. I echo everything Senator Ned O'Sullivan said and he made some really important points. The numbers on tourism are very good and it is a great success. This is down to everybody concerned but, in particular, it is down to the staff in Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, who have done trojan work to develop tourism in Ireland. I was on the board of Fáilte Ireland for a number of years and the effort, commitment, and passion they had and have is absolutely fantastic and we are well served by civil servants.
There were 9.9 million overseas visitors, though the numbers from the UK are down a little. To look at it in purely financial terms, the tax revenue the Irish State gets from tourism is almost €2 billion a year. Some €1.5 billion comes from foreign tourists, so it is critically important for our country. The Minister of State's Department also deals with transport and sport and that is the budget the whole ministry has so it is very important that we do this right, which we do in many areas.
I know the Minister is passionate about tourism and I support him in this area but there are a couple of areas which we should look at. We need, however, to look at the big picture and at where we want to go in tourism. What is our big plan and our strategy and where do we want to be in ten or 20 years' time?What kind of a destination do we want our country to be in ten to 20 years? The Minister of State rightly mentioned our people. The people are at the core of everything we do, particularly from a tourism point of view. Fáilte Ireland has identified this. Visitors come to our shores because of the experience and it is the people who give them the experience. They might go to Florida or other places for a different type of an experience they call Disneyland, but what we have here in Ireland is the real McCoy. As the Minister of State said, let us empower communities to continue to develop what they have done on the Wild Atlantic Way and in other areas. That was visionary from Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland in marketing Ireland worldwide fairly recently.
Transport is a big issue. Metro north is critically important, but I ask that is not done through Scoil Caitríona and the Na Fianna GAA club up along St. Mobhi Road because that community needs to survive as well.
I have a concern and I suggest to the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, that it be addressed. Dublin Airport is growing at a rate of knots, but what about the strategy for Cork Airport, Shannon Airport and the Minister of State's own airport in Kerry? That is hugely important. The Minister of State emphasised the importance of regionality. Airports are, as he will be aware, a key access point for an island community such as ours. In the past month or so, Dublin Airport announced 14 new services plus four new airlines to start serving Dublin Airport, including services to Hong Kong and Beijing. If we are looking for Chinese and eastern tourists coming in there, that is very significant growth. I have a concern, however, about what is happening in the other regions and whether we are creating a situation where everything in terms of the economy is being pushed into Dublin, which is not necessarily good for Dublin Airport or for Dublin as a capital city. We should have a good regional strategy that supports the Shannon, Cork, Kerry and Knock airports.
I will not go back over what was said in any detail about skills but there is a huge shortage in staff skills. There are 150,000 people employed directly in the tourism sector, and between full and part-time, 225,000 people in total are employed. If there are roughly 2 million people in full employment, 11% or 12% of the total employed are employed in tourism.
I mentioned originality and my concern about being too focused. Another area of concern is the majority of these businesses are small and medium-sized, SME, businesses, as the Minister of State will know well in Kerry. We in Galway and other parts of Ireland are trying to emulate the success that Kerry has created. There was significant collaboration in Kerry between everybody directly and indirectly involved in tourism. We need to model the rest of the country on that as much as we possibly can. The bed and breakfast sector needs significant focus. These are very small businesses with, normally, a husband and wife and maybe the family involved. They do not have the resources to market their bed and breakfast in any real effective way. They are a very important part of the future of tourism in Ireland, especially when we are talking about experiences and engagement with people, as highlighted by the Minister of State and by Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland.
Another area of concern in the tourism sector is that we need more joined-up thinking, not in the Department but in other Departments, in the kind of supports that are available across sectors, in particular, for the tourism sector. My feedback from the sector is that it does not quite understand what is available, what is not available, how it is available and how they employ. That needs a co-ordinated approach and I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would consider that.
Another area is foreign exchange. Brexit, the devaluation of the British currency and the effect of that on tourism from the UK was mentioned. In fact, the number of American and European tourists is increasing significantly. British tourism numbers are down since Brexit, but there is evidence that a number of tourists are choosing Ireland instead of the UK who would have gone to the UK in the past. There is some silver lining there for us. As the Minister of State says, we cannot be complacent. We have to give this 110% because the tourism sector is one of the most important, if not the most important, sectors in the country because of the number of SMEs and the number of part-time jobs. As the Minister of State said, when he was in college in Galway, and this happened to all of us, he was making the few bob working during the summer. There are the chances and opportunities as well as the personal development one gets in engaging with foreign tourists and the confidence it gives.
I find myself in agreement with the overall thrust of what my colleagues, the two previous speakers, have said. In the first instance, it is two years since we held a discussion on tourism in the House and it is good that the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, is here. I cannot think of anybody in the Houses of the Oireachtas who is more suitable to the role of tourism Minister. He has character, intelligence, great wit and great charm. He epitomises everything that is good about the west and County Kerry, and that is what we need going abroad. I welcome him formally to this House to talk to us in his capacity as Minister with responsibility for tourism about what is the jewel in our economic crown as far as I am concerned.
We have had a recession for the past decade but the sector that has continued to grow in those difficult years has been tourism. Our natural resource is not oil, steel or anything like that. It is our céad míle fáilte, our landscape, our scenery and our unique character as a people. It is what we are and it is what defines us that attracts the world to our shores.
Much has happened. The Wild Atlantic Way is a classic example of what we can achieve when we work together and pull all the various strands together in a focused international marketing effort. Prior to the Wild Atlantic Way, we had Clare competing with Kerry, Kerry competing with Cork and all of us competing with Connacht. Now what we have is all of us working together, telling the people of the world to come to Ireland and walk, cycle, drive or stay on our Wild Atlantic Way. Up until then, there was the Camino, which is very beautiful, but I would suggest that the Wild Atlantic Way is as beautiful and has as much to offer. In many ways it has much more to offer because we have character, energy, tradition, culture, music, the spoken word, stories, seanchaís, fairies and shamrocks. We have what people want. We have an experience that is weatherproof. People do not come to Ireland for the sunshine. They come to Ireland for all of the above. They come here to experience what is different and unique about Ireland.
There is much that needs to be done to improve it. I agree with Senator Ned O'Sullivan and others that chefs pose a big problem. We need joined-up thinking between the Departments of the Ministers of State, Deputy Griffin and Deputy Halligan, to put programmes in place to ensure that the restaurants stay open seven days a week. There are restaurants in my area that could only open at weekends last summer because they could not get chefs to work the other days. We need to look at that. That is a challenge.
The rip-off republic is back. There is no point in saying otherwise. People are greedy. Human nature, unfortunately, creates a certain greed in individuals. We have seen it. Five or six years ago, many of us from the country who come to Dublin to work were getting rooms for €40 or €50 a night. It is now €140 or €150. The reality is somewhere in between but it certainly is not €150 a night in the dead of winter when there is nothing much happening in the city. That needs to be looked at.We need to ensure that the people who work at the coalface of tourism are trained to the highest possible standard in customer service. In particular, we must ensure that they understand the uniqueness of this country and what attracts people here. We must ensure that they are trained and equipped to wear the green jersey. We also need to ensure that standards are kept at an acceptable level across the various suites of accommodation. I do not know if a particular standard applies to holiday homes, for example, as applies to bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels that have a star rating.
Airbnb needs to be regulated. There are some unscrupulous owners of desperate kips who offer Airbnb accommodation and rip-off unsuspecting decent people who come here to experience what is good here. Unfortunately, people end up in terrible accommodation because the Airbnb website is unmanaged and unregulated. Many thousands of people offer a high-quality service on Airbnb but, unfortunately, a minority do not offer accommodation that is up to the standard that we expect when we go abroad, and that we want this country to offer people who are good enough to visit Ireland.
Capital funding needs to be significantly increased so that we can offer tourism projects year around and which are weather resistant. There are lots of wonderful interpretive centres in this country but we need more, and we need more variety. Let us say somebody travels to County Clare for a week. I believe there should be enough indoor activities available during the day to occupy people and compliment everything that is provided in the evening by the people who work in the hospitality industry. There are challenges but the good news is that 9.9 million people chose to visit this country in 2017. I have no doubt that that figure will increase in 2018 and that it will continue to increase.
We need the people in the private sector who work in the tourism sector to be flexible because we are an island nation and, therefore, we will be affected by international circumstances whatever they may be. I recall that in 2001 the Minister spoke about his experiences in terms of the 9/11 attacks. One business lesson that I learned was from Mr. Mark Nolan and his team in Dromoland Castle. The morning after the terrorist attacks in New York the castle switched its entire marketing budget for America to Europe and mainland Britain. As a result, the hotel was full that year and for the next two years simply because the castle was flexible enough to move its budget and react to international circumstances. That is what must happen with an island nation. We cannot be entrenched and need to be totally flexible.
Earlier Senator Ó Céidigh spoke about airports and I agree with him that they are extremely important. I believe we should consider arranging public service obligations between Ireland and other European countries that have connectivity throughout the world. Therefore, an airline could buy into a PSO arrangement between Kerry Airport and Stansted Airport or another hub thus allowing millions of passengers to travel. We need to think outside the box and be creative. The Gathering initiative and the creation of the Wild Atlantic Way were examples of thinking outside the box. We need to continue such thinking because tourism is the one industry that is somewhat recession proof, will create thousands of jobs and is a natural resource.
I welcome the Minister of State and it is great to see him back in the Seanad. It is great to hear that tourist numbers are up. Ireland, as an island nation, has something to offer tourists. As has been said, people come here not only to see this country's natural beauty but they also come for the culture, heritage, pub life and everything else that is available here.
I would like to discuss slow tourism. Fáilte Ireland has plans to develop slow tourism in Ireland in terms of lakes and waterways. However, it is imperative that people who come here for a cycling holiday have good transport and cycling networks across Ireland. At present this country is part of the EuroVelo route. That means people can come from the UK, the Netherlands, Spain or France with their bicycles and they can cycle. If they have arrived in Rosslare Harbour they can cycle along the EuroVelo route, which is fantastic. We, as a nation, must embrace the opportunity to become part of European initiatives that will help, like Senator Conway has mentioned, to provide creative and innovative options for tourists.
Yesterday, I was delighted to be invited to attend a heritage day in a rural village called Larha in north Tipperary. The village has incredible heritage and the inhabitants from the village and its surrounding area are delighted to be part of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. The village is located between the M6 and M7 motorways and so it is a little bit off the beaten track. These small rural communities will create mechanisms that allow them to grow their tourism offerings if the signposting is good and there is sufficient support provided. If the Minister of State had been at the heritage day yesterday he would have experienced the ancient castles, etc., in beautiful sunshine. That is just one of many rural areas that needs support in order to develop and have something to offer tourists.
I would like to draw the Minister of State's attention to the skills deficit in terms of cross-departmental work. As other colleagues have said, there is a shortage of 5,000 chefs in the hospitality sector at present, which has put a lot of strain not only on large hospitality offerings but on small family-run businesses. The latter must compete with larger hotels to attract chefs. I suggest that an apprenticeship or a buddy system is put in place. In the old days a chef could avail of a buddy system whereby one person would assist him or her until certain skills were developed. In other words, chefs learned in situ. Perhaps we could view apprenticeships as taking place in institutes of technology and in the catering sector when there is a dire shortage of certain staff. Such a scheme would be a pathway for people to become skilled chefs or alleviate areas wherever a skills deficit has been identified.
I want to talk about the beautiful beaches in this country, particularly ones that have been awarded a blue flag. We are lucky to be experiencing a big influx of tourists who come here for many reasons, including to surf, for birdwatching, cycling or just to see the scenery.I ask that the number of lifeguards be assessed to make sure there are sufficient numbers on the beaches around Ireland, in particular during high season, and that people are safe when using beaches. I also ask the Minister of State to liaise with the Department of Education and Skills as water safety skills should be a mandatory part of the primary school curriculum. I am thinking of the big picture in developing a significant pool of young school leavers who would know what to do in the event that they or someone in the communtiy gets into difficulty in the water. It would also help in making sure people who come here to enjoy our tourism offering would be protected.
The Minister of State referred to the Deise Greenway in County Waterford. Between March and September 2017 it received approximately 250,000 visitors, of whom 141,906 cycled and 105,639 walked the greenway, of whom 94% said their overall perception was either excellent or good, 70% mentioned that they liked the scenery and nature, 51% said they liked being away from traffic, 36% talked about the peace and quiet and 18% referred to friendliness. It is a major success for County Waterford, but we need to keep the momentum going and get small businesses to support it in order that it will not be a once-off wonder. The Government should invest in it to make sure it will be sustainable into the future.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tréaslaím leis an mhéid atá ráite ag cuid mhaith de na cainteoirí a labhair romham. Is féidir linn bheith iontach dearfach faoin ábhar seo.
The Minister of State is most welcome to the Seanad and I welcome the opportunity to engage with him on tourism. I will begin by focusing on the important and valuable work done by Tourism Ireland to promote the country overseas. Tourism Ireland has the great benefit of being able to promote Ireland as a single entity. It is able to promote the diversity of all of the great assets which have been mentioned, including the Giants Causeway, the Game of Thrones Trail, Titanic Belfast and the Peace Bridge in Ebrington Square in Derry. For me, tourism is a glaringly obvious example of where Ireland works best when it works together. I take the opportunity to commend the chief executive of Tourism Ireland, Mr. Niall Gibbons, and his staff both here and all around the world who do a fantastic job in drawing tourists and visitors not just to the well known iconic attractions but also some of the smaller and, I dare say, more authentic experiences across the island. I wish to get a plug in for the community arts festival which is taking place in west Belfast, Féile an Phobail. The programme was launched last week by the Taoiseach in St. Mary's University College on the Falls Road. I commend the festival to the Minister of State. I have a copy of the clár in my office and will make sure to leave it in the Minister of State's pigeonhole in order that he can read it. I am sure I am not speaking out of turn when, on behalf of the organisers and management of Féile an Phobail, I extend a very warm invitation to him to come to the festival to see what is on offer.
I wish to hone in on an issue that cuts across briefs within the Minister of State's Department. We recently saw the launch of joint plans to promote connectivity and positive working between Translink and Iarnród Éireann. Plans were outlined for the much talked about high speed rail service connecting Belfast and Dublin, an hourly service which would reduce travel time to about 1.5 hours. Has the Minister of State had any engagement with either of the organisations on the tourism benefits? I understand the benefits will be much broader, but tourism will be a central plank of the benefits which will flow from the project. If the Minister of State has not done so, he might consider having a conversation with the two organisations, particularly given the impending threat posed by Brexit. We need to put infrastructure in place and improve the infrastructure which has served us reasonably well up to this point.
Given all of the statistics outlined by the Minister of State, we should punch well above our weight. We need to meet demand by having a world-class professional service which is what people expect when they visit Ireland. I am keen to hear the views of the Minister of State in that regard. On behalf of the Government, the previous Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade declared publicly his support for the project. I would like to hear that there has been some movement in that regard.
I appreciate that we are here somewhat later than normal on a Tuesday, but behind all of the fantastic and proud statistics we are able to recite about the benefits of tourism to the economy and broader society, there are people working in the hospitality sector and elsewhere in the State who find their employment to be very precarious, unstable and low paid. That is why it is important that we continue to lend our support to Senator Paul Gavan's Bill which seeks to make it illegal for employers to take tips from persons working in the hospitality sector.
As a member of the board of Visit Belfast and during my time as Lord Mayor of Belfast, I placed major emphasis on tourism within the city. The Minister of State is absolutely correct. We do not need National Geographicor anyone else to tell us that our best tourism asset is the people. If we are going to continue to provide a first-class service and utilise the people as the wonderful tourism asset that they are, we also need to care for and look after them when working in the sector and ensure it is a viable and sustainable career such that they will have a good decent living wage and that there will be an opportunity, as Senator Grace O'Sullivan said, to bring young people into the industry. I do not say this to be combative or confrontational. While it is easy for us to hone in on the many positives, there can be a darker edge to the industry which many workers experience. I encourage people never to lose sight of that fact.
I welcome the Minister of State. As has been said, 2017 was the best year ever for tourism, with record numbers of visitors and expenditure. They followed the previous records in 2016 and 2015. In fact, tourist numbers and expenditure have grown every year since 2012. Last year, excluding fares, foreign tourists delivered expenditure of €1,021 for each man, woman and child in the economy. Total employment in tourism is estimated to be in the region of 235,000, while wages in the sector have increased by 11% in the past five years, compared to an increase of 7% in the economy as a whole. This is reflected in institutions such as Athlone Institute of Technology which has a thriving hospitality department which offers a diploma in restaurant management, an advanced certificate in professional cooking and a bachelor of arts degree in hotel and leisure management. This has significance for the country and did not happen by accident. Following the change of Government in 2011, tourism was set as a priority area for growth and plans and initiatives were put in place to bring this about. Tourism is a native industry and growth in tourism leads to a direct and immediate growth in employment. For a number of years before this, the Fianna Fáil Government had taken its eye off the ball. While chasing after the builders and bankers, it let tourism numbers decline year on year. The Fine Gael-led Government in May 2011 introduced a jobs initiative which included a reduced VAT rate for the hospitality sector. This decision to focus on employment and on tourism as a driver has marked a turnaround in jobs and in tourist numbers which has continued to this day. Hoteliers, particularly in the larger cities, must respect this VAT rate they have been given when it comes to the price of hotel rooms.
We should not forget, of course, the importance of proper marketing in growing tourist numbers. Initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way and The Gathering of 2013, both introduced by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, have played a huge part in the recovery of tourism and the economy in general. With this success, we must focus on ensuring that the annually increasing numbers of tourists get to see more than just Dublin and the west coast, and that they are led to other parts of the island where there is also much to offer.
Marketing is important at a local level also. When I was elected mayor of Athlone in 2013, I outlined a vision that I had for my town, including the concept of Destination Athlone, which has been very successful in putting the town on the map. It is now without doubt the beating heart of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. Athlone is positioned between Dublin and Galway and acts as a gateway to the west and north west. We are at a meeting point for road, river, rail and greenway, and for counties and provinces. We have a social and cultural infrastructure unrivalled in the region. We can claim to be the original source of whiskey and we are fast becoming one of Ireland's food capitals. Those familiar with Athlone will know the left bank area around Athlone Castle which is thriving with pubs and restaurants. My latest initiative is to extend this further by rejuvenating the west side of Athlone and making it a cultural and tourist quarter that can rival any.
There is no shortage of opportunity for further development of tourism in Ireland. We must ensure that we are not limited by lack of imagination or sidetracked by naysayers. There are plenty of people who mocked The Gathering and the concept of the Wild Atlantic Way, but there is nobody who can honestly argue against their success in driving Ireland as a tourist destination and playing a major part in rebuilding our economy. Let us all support those who are positive and let us work with the dreamers. It is through positivity and vision that we can grow this sector further and spread it out more evenly, whether that is at a national level or in my native Athlone, which everybody knows to be the centre of the universe.
I join in the welcome to my friend and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin. We are delighted to have him in the House. He has been very successful in his Ministry to date and I have no doubt he has the capacity to go on being successful there and in a range of Ministries for many years. It is good to have him here today to discuss this very important sector.
The figures are very positive on a number of fronts in regard to tourism and I want to note the importance of tourism by way of introduction. There were 2 million visitors in the first quarter of the year, a 6.9% increase on the equivalent period the previous year, and there are two significant details regarding that figure, namely, the number of North American visitors is up 13% and the number of visitors from mainland Europe is up 13.8%. In 2017, there were 9.9 million visits in total. Overall, there are 235,000 jobs in the sector which has revenue of €2 billion a year. It is a vital and growing sector and one that needs nourishment and minding.
I want to mention one or two facets of the sector in the short time I have available. First, value for money is crucial. The VAT reduction to 9% was a very successful initiative in the tourism sector has had huge job implications and has been one of the greatest initiatives for the economy in recent times. However, it is being abused. The prices in hotels in Dublin certainly are astronomical and we have to watch this kind of pricing. I suggest to the Minister of State that he would keep strong vigilance in this area and, insofar as he can, achieve regulation and control, even using the threat of removing or changing the VAT rate if necessary to bring order to that area. If we price ourselves out of tourism, it would be a great tragedy.
Another issue that merits monitoring is the entire Brexit arena. The obvious objectives are, of course, to have no hard border and to try to deal with sterling fluctuations. In that regard, it is important that we support the tourism sector across counties like Cavan and Monaghan and along the Border and that the Minister of State is conscious of this issue. Those areas are under threat, first, from a potential hard border, which please God will not happen and is something we should all fight collectively to avoid, and second, from the very real threat of the sterling factor, especially the Northern Ireland dimension of trade in Cavan and Monaghan, for example, from Northern Ireland visitors, wedding groups and so on.
Infrastructure is critical, whether bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels or otherwise. I should declare a family interest in this area but I can sincerely say I raise the issue solely as a public representative. There is also the question of the rural pub, which is an important part of our tourism product. Pubs have been a focal point for Ireland and its tourism product and I am concerned to ensure they are not totally eliminated. It is an area that needs to be looked at, even in terms of examining pub facades and layout. Pubs are an important part of the product, as are bed and breakfast establishments and hotels. We need good product.
We need to spread the visitors throughout the country. While it is important that visitors are in all the hotspots, we need to spread them out to places like Cavan and Monaghan in my constituency. County Cavan has many products, for example, the Cavan Burren park, the museum, Killykeen forest and the UNESCO geopark. There is a great range of restaurants, a unique angling product and a number of woodland and forest areas. In Monaghan there is the whole cultural heritage aspect around Patrick Kavanagh and so many other facets, including Farney country music festival. There is a huge product there that needs to be developed and supported. It is very important to get tourists into the regions so tourism is not limited to a few parts of Ireland. While that is not completely the case, we need to develop the regions. I am delighted my county of Cavan is now part of the new initiative, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, and is also part of the eastern area. I hope that can all be developed.
I agree with the remarks on skill sets. The education and training boards, ETBs, should be marshalled in this regard because we have to ensure staff are available in the hospitality sector. We must diversify constantly and develop new product, and we need to continue to up our game. To finish where I started, it is important we do not price ourselves out of the market.
Having been a former five-a-side player in the past, I am sure he has enjoyed the sport side of it.
I want to focus on a couple of points. To start with employment, the worry for me is that while we have 235,000 employed in the tourism sector and we are constantly looking for growth there, it is a question of how we will recruit going forward. It is not about the specialist parts.It is about the staff who work behind the bars and counters in all our tourist venues. I am finding that we are heading back to where we were in the Celtic tiger era, when there were more and more non-Irish working in the facilities. That is a worrying concern for me because as has been said a number of times many tourists come here for the Irish people and the Irish welcome.
A number of months ago, the apprenticeship for commis chefs was finally agreed upon. One of the block release centres for that is in the Minister of State’s own constituency in Tralee. There are another three areas that were also announced five years ago, pastry chefs, sous chefs and other ones, but they have not been advanced. The Minister of State might be able to talk to his colleagues in the areas of education and employment about moving those apprenticeships on a little bit quicker. It is where we need to go in the future.
Sport tourism has not really been mentioned and is a potential growth area. My own constituency of Kildare is the focal point of the equine industry. If we look at Punchestown, there was 125,000 people there for the festival this year of whom 25% were from overseas, mostly from the UK. That is an area we have not really looked at. Can we bring in people for rugby or soccer camps, the novelty event of hurling camps or other types of event? Irish golf has marketed itself quite well as a good destination for overseas tourists. It could be a growth area.
The Wild Atlantic Way is one of the best things ever done along with the reduction in the VAT rate to encourage people to come and use hospitality. What I love is to link locally between restauranteurs, farmers and local suppliers. The more we can encourage that, the better. It brings a whole community effort together. It is not all about this fancy food which sometimes drives me insane. Most people like a good steak and a few spuds and that type of quality food is what we are great at producing.
I am going to be a bit parochial. There are two man-made waterways going through County Kildare, the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal. They are excellent facilities. I have been talking about this for five or six years. They should be upgraded. They are linking Dublin with the Shannon in the Longford area and south of Athlone. The Minister of State mentioned capital investment. They are two facilities that have plans. There are Part VIII applications coming out in respect of the Grand Canal shortly. The Minister of State could be instrumental in putting some capital investment into those projects which would be a great resource. We have seen investment in the greenways in Waterford and Achill but the midlands could do with something like that too, to generate employment in areas that are finding it difficult.
The second most visited tourist spot with free entry is Castletown House. About ten years ago it was a wreck and huge investment was put into it by the OPW. The number of tourists coming into it now is fantastic. There are hidden gems in the country that we still have not identified. We need to invest more in the capital side of things but we are certainly on the right road. We have had seven years of growth in the tourism industry. It is amazing. Fine Gael has been in power for seven years.
I welcome the fact that there are over 200,000 people in employment to do with tourism. I agree with colleagues in respect of some of the abuse of the 9% VAT rate. Many cities, towns and rural areas are not abusing the system and find it very useful in terms of employment. However, certainly in Dublin it needs to be monitored. I am volunteering this weekend in Dublin with Special Olympics Ireland. I looked for a rate in a few of the hotels and I would not like to tell colleagues some of the quotes I was given. We are going to outprice ourselves in the tourism sector.
The Wild Atlantic Way has been mentioned a lot. Back in 2006, we also launched the Shannon Estuary drive and the Burren drive but we do not hear very much about them nowadays. They were links to try to encourage inward tourism attractions off the Wild Atlantic Way to benefit places like Ennis and Limerick. We have had increased numbers in King John’s Castle. When the current Taoiseach was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport he put a lot of investment into the castle, which had not received investment for many years. They did a fantastic job renovating it and numbers have trebled there, which is to be welcomed. We need to look at niche things like the Shannon Estuary drive and the Burren drive in terms of linking up the bigger projects. Those initiatives for inward tourism links need to be looked at by the Minister of State’s Department and linked with Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland.
There was another initiative where visitors were given a passport and with every 20 tourism attractions they visited, there was a draw for something like an overnight stay in a hotel along one of the routes. That was launched as an incentive to get people to visit our heritage sites. A lot of people do not appreciate what they have on their own doorsteps and have not gone to visit some of those sites. It would be good if we had an incentive to encourage people at the weekends, during the summer time or whatever to visit heritage sites and tourism attractions. The OPW introduced free entry for children to its heritage sites at one stage, which I compliment. I would encourage many tourism attractions to give free admittance to children under ten. It can work out quite expensive to visit an attraction with a big family.
Skills shortages is an issue dear to my heart and I have raised it on many occasions in this House. Some of my colleagues have stated that there needs to be more joined-up thinking between education and tourism in terms of the creation of chef positions and so on. The issue of the licence also needs to be looked at. For non-Irish chefs, they have to bring a uniqueness to get a permit to work here but they are not considered to be unique. There is a huge shortage of chefs and we need Department officials in the areas of jobs, trade, tourism and education to come together to examine initiatives enabling people to go out and work. There is no point in us bringing tourists in if we cannot give them the level of service they require.
I compliment the Minister of State. He has hit the ground running and is very much on top of his brief. I encourage him to consider initiatives to encourage the smaller routes as well as the main routes.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Griffin, for being here and the strategic leadership he is showing in the Department. I do not want to be patronising when I say it is important for any Minister in any position to have passion, knowledge and a feel for his or her brief. I think the Minister of State has demonstrated that he has these qualities in abundance in his tourism and sport portfolios, as there has been a clear move within the Department in the past 12 months. There has been a reflection on the tourist experience as one that is visitor-led. There has been an emphasis on ensuring we are open for business.
The Minister of State who is a Kerryman is always welcome when he comes to Cork to launch various initiatives. I hope he and Senator Ned O'Sullivan will not leave Páirc Uí Chaoimh with a cup in two weeks' time. As someone who comes from Munster and Cork, it is important that we market Cork as a single destination. We need to recognise that it is a gateway to the south and initiatives such as Ireland's Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way. The national tourism policy, People, Place and Policy - Growing Tourism to 2025, is the basis that underpins everything we are doing. The figures show that there has been a significant increase in tourism footfall in Cork. This growth must be met by realism.
Senator Maria Byrne and others have touched on the shortage of chefs. Many of us who were in the Seanad in previous years did not want to see the closure of the training centres in Cork and Limerick. It can now be seen that the decision taken at the time was wrong.
The VAT rate issue is of concern to many. We must incentivise those involved in in the tourism, hospitality and catering sectors to continue to employ and provide an array of food and artisan products such as craft beer. It is about the visitor experience.
Fáilte Ireland has stated there is no iconic visitor attraction in the city of Cork, but our tourism product is about more than having an iconic visitor attraction. It is also about the sense of place we can offer. It is about the visitor experience which includes shopping, food and the night-time economy. It is about being able to move beyond the city to explore parts of west, east and north Cork.
There is fear in certain quarters as a result of Norwegian's decision to suspend its winter flights between Cork and Providence. I commend the Minister because he was in Cork two weeks ago when the first Air France flight landed. It symbolises growth and accessibility. When we spoke about the sale of Aer Lingus, many of us were worried that we would lose the service between Cork and London, but that has not happened. I have written to the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport to ask for representatives of Norwegian and the Dublin Airport Authority to come before the committee to explain the current position. We cannot allow Dublin to cannibalise or monopolise at the expense of everywhere else. I met my good friend, Councillor O'Connell, today when he was in Leinster House. He spoke about flying from Dublin to County Kerry. We lost the connectivity between Cork and Dublin, partly because of the completion of the motorway but also because of what Ryanair did.
As I know that time is against us, I will make two brief points before I conclude. I would like to mention two very good organisations in Cork. The Cork Convention Bureau is generating business tourism worth €70 million a year. I commend Mr. Seamus Heaney for the work he is doing to attract conferences and different types of event. Ms Ursula Morish of Visit Cork, a strategic tourism agency for Cork, is involved in the Pure Cork brand, the aim of which is to attract people to Cork and promote Cork city and county.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his work to date. I hope he will continue to challenge the tourism and hospitality sectors. I hope he will also put a light under Fáilte Ireland. People in many markets do not know about certain parts of the country. People in North America, in particular, tend to think about Dublin and Galway, but they forget about Cork. They might be aware of County Kerry as the home of tourism in Ireland, but we need to remember that tourism is not just about Dublin. The Dublin Airport Authority, in particular, must recognise that other airports throughout the country deserve an opportunity to have their business enhanced and increased.
I thank all of the Senators who have contributed to this discussion which I hope has been as informative for them as it has been for me. All of the contributions have been helpful.
The thing about tourism is that people come up with really good ideas all the time. It is a question of implementing them. Some things are expensive and difficult to implement but others are not. I mention the Wild Atlantic Way as an example. We have always had the Atlantic Ocean and the wilderness. Various ways were there for a long time, but we did not join all of them up until five or six years ago. It did not cost a hell of a lot to develop the Wild Atlantic Way and it is worth looking at the return we have gained from it. Reference has been made to the need to think outside the box. We need to think constantly of new ways and new ideas for what we can do, how we can enhance the overall product, add to what we have and protect the industry.
I thank Senator Ned O'Sullivan for his reference to some very positive initiatives. Senator James Lawlor wondered whether it was a coincidence that we had seen growth for seven years, given that a certain party had been in government for seven years.
When Senator Ned O'Sullivan referred to The Gathering, he might have claimed that Fianna Fáil was responsible for it. I am not sure. I know that it was responsible for the scattering, but I thought the concept of The Gathering was born in Dublin Castle. Regardless of who came up with it, The Gathering was a fantastic initiative at a time when the industry was struggling. We spoke earlier about the need to facilitate a community-driven approach by empowering local communities to take their fate into their own hands and put their best foot forward. Many communities throughout the country, particularly those off the beaten track, embraced the concept of The Gathering. There is scope for a repeat or a follow-up to it. It is a question of when it should happen. As Senator Ned O'Sullivan knows, many communities all over County Kerry, including Listowel in north Kerry, went out of their way to hold special events. It was very positive at a time when morale in the country was at a very low level. It gave people a little hope at a time when there was not much hope around the place.
I refer to the figures for British tourists for the first four months of the year. The number of visitors from Britain from January to April 2018 represented an increase of 1.1% on the figure for the same period in 2017. That does not sound like a lot, but last year there was an overall reduction of 5% in visitor numbers from Britain. We do not yet have the revenue figures for the period from January to April, but it is interesting that last year visitor numbers from Britain reduced by 5% and there was a reduction of 5.1% in revenue. The two figures were very close to each other. Given that visitor numbers have increased by 1.1%, as I mentioned, we could take it with a giant pinch of salt that the revenue figure will be closely aligned to it. The figure of 1.1% is not final. As the number of visitors increases, we hope the revenue figure will increase similarly. The good news is that in the first four months of the year, there were increases of 12%, 13% and almost 3% in the numbers of visitors from Europe, North America and other parts of the world, respectively. The indications at this early stage are very positive.
Regionality which has also been mentioned is at the heart of nearly everything we are doing. We are trying to ensure as many areas as possible benefit from tourism. We want to spread the benefits to areas which traditionally would not have seen much of them. That is why experiences such as the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, Ireland's Ancient East and the Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland are so important. They focus is on moving people away from the traditional hot spots into other areas that are visited less. The Causeway Coastal Route is a positive example of this.
I am a bit of an anorak when it comes to hotel prices. I am constantly on websites such as trivago.comto see what prices are. Hoteliers in Dublin sometimes get a bad name. There can be times when hotel prices are ridiculously high.I have seen encouraging evidence on many occasions and I encourage anyone to take a random look at hotel prices around the country, not just in Dublin. There is some really good value there also. It is even more important to highlight the good value that is out there and reward those who are putting forward very good value rather than to highlight the very high prices. We could talk ourselves out of the market even though there is very good value out there. I am not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand, but when there is good value, it must also be highlighted. That is very important.
I have comprehensive information in my briefing notes on the skills issue and I will go through it as quickly as I can. Nearly every Member raised the issue of skills. Addressing projected skills demands requires a combination of measures, including the provision of appropriate direct enterprise support, entry-level training, advanced professional training, increasing the attractiveness of employment opportunities, and improving staff retention in certain occupations. Accordingly, Departments, agencies, education and training providers, industry bodies and employers each have roles to play. The Department of Education and Skills has overall lead responsibility for skills-development policy generally across all sectors, including hospitality and tourism. The Government's tourism policy statement, People, Place and Policy: Growing Tourism to 2025, and the Tourism Action Plan 2016-2018 recognise the key role training and education play in ensuring there is an adequate supply of skilled staff in tourism and in the development of talent accordingly.
The hospitality skills oversight group, under the aegis of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and chaired by the VFI, oversees skills development and promotion in the sector, including monitoring progress and implementing recommendations made in the report on future skills requirements in the hospitality sector in Ireland for 2015 to 2020, which was published by the expert group on future skills needs, or EGFSN. The expert group advises the Government on skills needs and labour market issues which impact on enterprise and employment growth. The hospitality skills oversight group involves key stakeholders, education and training providers and relevant Departments and agencies, including Fáilte Ireland. The oversight group is prioritising a number of actions arising from the key EGFSN recommendations. For its part, Fáilte Ireland provides complementary tourism-related business development and training supports in line with its responsibility to encourage, promote and support tourism as a leading indigenous component of the Irish economy. In line with the Tourism Action Plan 2016-2018, Fáilte Ireland is committed to working with the tourism industry and the wider education and training sector to implement the recommendations contained in the report on future skills requirements in the hospitality sector. In this regard, Fáilte Ireland participates in the hospitality skills oversight group which oversees skills development and promotion in the sector, including monitoring progress and implementing recommendations. The group's final report will be published shortly.
On chefs and culinary apprenticeships, the Department of Education and Skills has lead responsibility for skills development policy generally across all sectors and oversees the bulk of the required education and training provided nationally through the higher and further education and training bodies, namely, the institutes of technology and the education and training boards. There is a particular issue currently relating to a shortage of chefs. A suite of culinary apprenticeships is being developed and overseen by a collaborative consortium led by the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation and including education and training providers, Fáilte Ireland and other key industry stakeholders. The first of these apprenticeship programmes covers commis chefs. The commis chef apprenticeship programme secured QQI approval in July 2017 and its initial roll-out commenced in autumn of that year in Galway, Limerick and Clare followed by Kerry in March 2018 and Dublin and Kildare-Wicklow in April 2018, as Senator Lawlor pointed out. Cork, Cavan and Coláiste Íde are scheduled to commence the commis chef apprenticeship programme later this year. There has been an increase in the uptake of the apprenticeship with the most recent courses which commenced in Dublin and Kildare-Wicklow. The consortium will also progress the development of the further stages of culinary apprenticeship, namely, chef de partie, sous chef and executive chef. Good progress has been made on the development of the chef de partie apprenticeship programme with the occupational profile recently being approved by the Apprenticeship Council. It is expected that the programme will be rolled out in a number of institutes of technology in September 2018.
I will leave the briefing note there, but on top of that we have also been engaging with the Department of Business, Innovation and Enterprise and made great progress in February on freeing up the work permit rules to allow chefs from outside the EEA come to Ireland to provide their expertise and skills. We engage constantly with the Department to put in place the most responsive system possible to address skills shortages and to stay on top of our game. The people working in the industry are a crucial component of it. If one does not have skilled people, whether in the kitchen or front-of-house, the overall quality of the product suffers. That is something of which we are acutely aware. I apologise for reading all that but the documentation is detailed and technical in some parts. As such, that was the best way to reflect to the House what exactly is going on.
In response to Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh's contribution, I agree that Dublin Airport is seeing massive growth. The other airports are also growing, albeit in some cases their share of the overall Irish market is declining. One can be growing while one's share is falling. What we have done includes Wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way, a €1.8 million campaign in Britain, including in response to Brexit, which focuses on showing the proximity of airports on the western seaboard to six main urban centres in Britain, namely, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. The six airports on the western seaboard are in Cork, Kerry, Shannon, Knock, Donegal and the city of Derry. The campaign is very supportive of those airports. We also have the PSO for Kerry and Donegal which is of critical importance. Capital funding for airports was announced recently and a huge tranche of that is going to the regional airports. It is very encouraging to see the new routes to places outside Dublin. Whereas the Hainan route to Beijing and the Cathay Pacific route to Hong Kong from Dublin are massively important and a huge win for Ireland, other routes are also opening from different parts of the world to different parts of Ireland. I was delighted to be in Cork for the Air France-KLM Paris launch two weeks ago. It is very encouraging. We have seen other routes coming on stream in other parts of the country too. There is new Berlin route from my county. It is critically important that this trend continues for Shannon, Knock and Donegal so that we see growth not only in Dublin.
When the new Government in 2011 put through its mini-budget on jobs, the 9% VAT measure received a great deal of attention. However, the airport tax was also scrapped then. Since then, the lift in and out of the Republic of Ireland has increased by 50%. In Northern Ireland where there is a £26 tax on flights in and out, the lift has increased in the same period by 2%. There is a definite correlation. The airport tax measure was very important to support the industry. I am not playing the blame game here, but as an island nation depending on lift for its tourism industry, a tax on airlines seeking to bring people in and out was ludicrous. While it is a contributing factor in our recent success which has gone under the radar to some extent, scrapping the airport tax was a progressive measure and I note to Senator Ó Donnghaile that it could be replicated in the context of North-South, all-island tourism. It might be very beneficial to Northern Ireland tourism. I note also that the Northern Irish VAT rate is 20% whereas it ours is 9%. Again, that measure has made a huge contribution to our success and it could be looked at in the North also.
I thank Senator Martin Conway for his very complimentary remarks. In this country, one normally only hears remarks like that at one's funeral, if one can hear them then at all. It is lovely to get such compliments. Senator Conway referred to Airbnb and the maintenance of standards. Fáilte Ireland is working closely with suppliers on that matter and developing new standards and regulation for the suppliers of accommodation. The world has changed hugely in the last couple of years having regard to accommodation and how people book it. I am very confident that Fáilte Ireland, as our tourism development authority, is getting on top of that as quickly as possible.
Senator O'Sullivan and I met in Westminster at a CHAMP event at the World Travel Market. We discussed many of these issues then.I know the Senator has a huge interest in the area. I thank Senator Grace O'Sullivan for raising the issue of slow tourism because it ties in with the overall ethos of the greenway strategy and what we are trying to achieve with that. There is a massive future for us in that area. For the people we are trying to bring here for a longer holiday, that is, the culturally curious and those who go off the beaten track, greenways have a massive part to play, which is why I referred to them as "goldways". The development of walking routes also offers big potential.
I was also asked about small communities. While going around the country I found a level of authenticity in small communities that one might not get in other locations. The culturally curious visitors will find this in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, whose name will appeal to those who seek the authentic experience, with the word "hidden" lending an element of mystique. It has been well developed by Fáilte Ireland to date and I hope it will be a success like the other experiences, as it will benefit many small communities. Empowering local communities to tell their stories is one of the key things and we have to assist them with infrastructural supports to help with the narration of their stories. This is where Fáilte Ireland kicks in with funds.
A buddy system was called for and it may have a role to play so I will raise it with those concerned. On the point about lifeguards I believe that, at a minimum, every local authority should ensure that each blue flag beach has a lifeguard, though it is a matter for them. This week the RNLI has embarked on a new campaign to teach people the basic skill of floating in water. Our water safety agencies do a lot of good work but, unfortunately, last week we saw a huge number of tragedies all around the country in the hot spell. That is concerning and something we want to avoid.
I agree that we can do more as regards the Waterford Greenway. I was in Portlaw with Senator Coffey two weeks ago. Portlaw is only a few short kilometres off the greenway and we need to look at how we can link the greenways, which are expensive, with the little places off them. There does not necessarily have to be a brand new greenway costing €200,000 per kilometre. We can look at local tertiary roads which are rarely used, forest tracks, embankments or flood defences, which we currently see as expenses and a burden on our public finances but which we could look to get a return from by using them for something that contributes to society, industry and the economy.
I will check the diary to see how we are fixed as regards Féile an Phobail. A Kerryman always expects to be busy for the summer until the start of September and we will see how we get on in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in ten days' time.
I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for his compliments on the work Tourism Ireland does. Since becoming Minister of State almost year ago, I have found Tourism Ireland to be one of the most impressive agencies, with Niall Gibbons, Siobhan McManamy and their team doing fantastic work. They are fantastic beacons for the island of Ireland. One of the many positive things to come out of the Good Friday Agreement was the creation of Tourism Ireland. When one travels abroad with them one sees how many contacts they have all over the world and the power they have in selling the island of Ireland. Maria Melia is here from the Department too. She works closely with Tourism Ireland and I am very blessed to have fantastic people in my Department, working both on the international side of things and on the domestic side, the latter with Paul Kelly and his team in Fáilte Ireland. They have a good balance and there is good synergy between both the agencies, which also work with the tourism bodies in Northern Ireland which are doing their best to grow the industry and have seen excellent results in recent years.
On Translink, I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, about the work he has done on public transport in the Department. Anything that assists cross-Border tourism is really important. I was asked about workers and tips and I was very dependent on tips myself for many years, having spent seven years in hotels and thee years behind bars. I ran a bar for three years and was quite good at getting tips.
I was allowed to keep them. When an employer keeps tips meant for front-line staff it is soul-destroying for the workers and it is scandalous, appalling and disgusting. I would hope it is very rare and I am open to proposals to stamp it out. It has not been brought to my attention and in all the places I have worked over the years, I have seen nothing but a very positive treatment of staff in the way of incentives to do more. I am sure there are places where people abuse staff but one's strongest resource is one's people and I would condemn any such behaviour.
Senator McFadden mentioned Athlone. I do not know if it is the centre of the universe but it is a lovely place. The development of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands will be an interesting and exciting development for Athlone and something on which it can capitalise. With the water, blueways have a huge future there as it is the centre of many waterways.
Senator Joe O'Reilly referred to the 9% VAT rate and the price of hotels in Dublin, which I touched on earlier. I would hate to think that the solution to high hotel prices was to revert to the 13.5% VAT rate, which would be an increase of 50%. There is a lack of supply of hotel rooms and I do not see VAT as the solution. We need extra hotel beds and we need to disperse visitors as much as we can, as well as focusing on getting people here all year round rather than all at the same time in July or August. With such measures we can tackle the price issue. It is a good problem to have that we have so many tourists coming here because there were a few years when there was tumbleweed on the streets. The risk of reputational damage from price gouging is enormous, however, and we must be very careful about it.
The Senator also mentioned the issues faced by Border communities in the context of Brexit. We have a very strong Brexit response group that meets on a regular basis, both in London and in Dublin, where it met last Thursday. A number of representatives on the group are from Border communities, along with people from industry and the agencies both in the UK and here, and they do very good work. He also mentioned vintners and rural pubs, which are an integral part of our overall tourism product and which we need to protect. The Cathaoirleach knows how important a role they play in our economy and in the social lives of many people in the country, as well as in our culture.I am pleased to say that I have moved to ensure the vintners will be represented on the tourism leadership group, as will the restaurant sector. That is critical because they play such an important role in the overall tourism offering and we need to ensure their representation.
Reference was made to the experiences and the spread. That is critical. One Senator mentioned Ballybay in Monaghan. I always think of Kavanagh. We know that in Northern Ireland Bellaghy has become a great centre because of Seamus Heaney. Great work has been done there. In Sligo we have the Yeats connection and there is great potential for a writers trail in the country. We could bring it right down to Senator Ned O'Sullivan's town of Listowel. Not only John B. Keane but Bryan McMahon and so many other rich literary talents hail from north Kerry. The Seanchaí centre in Listowel is a fantastic centre. Anyone would be proud to bring someone from any part of the world there.
Interestingly, Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland carried out research recently. They asked potential Chinese visitors what they thought of when they came to Ireland. One of the top three responses to emerge from that research was the idea of all our great writers, including James Joyce. People were interested in coming here to learn more about them and to see the places that inspired them. That is interesting research into what is potentially a massive market for us especially with direct flights.
Senator Lawlor raised the skills issue. He is quite right and I hope I have answered some of his questions.
There is extraordinary potential in sports tourism. We work closely through Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland to promote golf as much as we can and to promote various other activities such as racing. It is great that we will host games for Euro 2020. That will help the overall tourism industry. We did not get the Rugby World Cup in 2023 but I would like to see us bid again at some stage in future. We are well capable of hosting such a major tournament. All these things boost our visitor numbers.
We should not overlook our native games and the impact they can have. It is not limited to bringing people here for the big games. We all know that so many of our diaspora return for the all-Ireland finals in August and September. It is a tourism product. Let us imagine a person is in Cork on 23 June when a great game of football is being played. It is a fantastic event to be able to go to in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which is now an outstanding facility. These are the types of things we need to do.
My first engagement in Dublin this morning on the way up from Kerry was at the national sports campus, where the bid for the European Cross Country Championships 2020 was being made. The idea is to try to bring the event here. Government policy is very much about trying to bring sporting events to the country and to highlight how open we are to sporting events. The Para Swimming European Championships will come to Dublin in August, which is also very positive.
Reference was made to local suppliers. In recent years, we have seen an improvement in the quality of food on offer. Visitor feedback is generally that the level or quality of food here tends to exceed expectations. It is great to know the story behind the food, for example, that Mary Murphy's duck eggs are from down the road or John O'Mahony's cow is the source of the steak. People love to know that. They love organic and local food and they feel they are part of the community. Senators are spot on in that regard.
Reference was made to the Grand Canal and Royal Canal greenways and blueways. We will publish the greenway strategy shortly, which I hope will inform further progress on these projects of major merit.
Senator Byrne referred to the loops on the Wild Atlantic Way. They are critical and can play a big role in getting people off the beaten track. Earlier, we discussed bringing people into different parts of the country. Fáilte Ireland is working closely with other communities throughout the country to develop visitor experiences. Officials have worked in Connemara and the Dingle Peninsula and they are working on the Skellig Islands at the moment. The Burren is also on the cards and they are working on that front in Donegal as well. It is a case of trying to get communities to come together to demand that their areas are looked at and to push harder to get them covered by the work of Fáilte Ireland.
Heritage sites are of major importance in telling our story. We know that a major reason people come here is to learn about our heritage and hear our story. The Office of Public Works has been a great leader in providing great value for money throughout the country in recent years. It is a case of trying to be as competitive as we can be no matter who the provider is. We need to try to strike the balance between making a living and ensuring the product is affordable.
A Senator put forward an idea in respect of children. It is important that we do what we can for children. As a father of two young children, I know the days of my wife and I visiting an attraction by ourselves are long gone. It really affects the bottom line now that the family has doubled in number. We see it across the board in everything we do, including accommodation, food and so on, and it is expensive. The more competition we have, the better. I hope I have addressed the skills issue and issues on the regions, which Senators raised.
Senator Buttimer referred to Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Some €30 million was invested in the stadium project. I was there for the last of Ed Sheeran's three concerts which brought more than 100,000 people came to the city. The development of stadiums can have a major impact on tourism potential. We see many of the headline concerts in Dublin, yet we now have a fantastic facility in Cork that can bring intentionally renowned acts. They can make a major contribution to Cork and the region. People were staying in Killarney for the Ed Sheeran concerts although it is 50 miles away. That was positive. It was an opportunity for Cork for the future.
I was glad to be in Cork for the launch of the new Air France-KLM route. I welcome the route. I announced funding for an Ireland's Ancient East capital grant as well. Cork county and city did well out of that. Senator Buttimer referred to Cork as a city with a great ambience and character. It is a great place to visit. I seldom get away for a weekend but I managed to get to Cork for a weekend in April. I absolutely love going there. It is a city with extraordinary potential. I admire the humour and wit of the people of Cork. It is a world-class destination as a city break. When the Queen came here in 2011 the first two days were filled with serious and solemn events, yet when she arrived in Cork we could see that even she was soaking up the atmosphere and the great outlook of the people of Cork. It was marvellous to see that and to see the city look so well on that occasion.
Reference was made to the Providence to Cork route. I led a trade delegation to Providence last July to try to give the Norwegian Air route the best possible start. We are disappointed the winter flights have been cancelled but we hope the route can be sustained, as it is important for Cork. Previously, when people left Cork for North America they went on the boat. Those journeys took far longer than the short number of hours it takes Norwegian Air to do the journey. It is a major opportunity for the entire southern region. We have transatlantic flights for the first time between Cork and North America. It is important for the morale of the airport and everyone involved who worked so hard that we hold on to this route. We would love to see it succeed.
Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland are working closely with the Norwegian Air to try to ensure it is a success. Both organisations work closely with all the airlines. That is a feature of modern tourism agencies. The relationship between airlines and the countries in which they operate is mutually beneficial. They do great work for us but we need to support them as well. We should not forget the success we have had in the country as a result of the airlines. Ryanair is given a bad press at times.Without Ryanair, think of the number of people who would not have come to Ireland over the years. The company deserves recognition, as do all the other airlines which operate here. We need to thank them for choosing to do business with us because we are an island nation. Let us not forget the ferry companies which operate to and from Ireland. We need to work with our partners in industry to ensure that they have an incentive to work with us and operate here. The benefits for us are substantial when that happens. I hope I have addressed all of the issues raised.