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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 6 Apr 2004

Vol. 583 No. 3

Priority Questions.

Abbey Theatre.

Enda Kenny


137 Mr. Kenny asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if a final decision has been reached regarding the refurbishment of the national theatre on its present site, in view of the difficulties being encountered in acquiring the necessary additional property adjacent to the existing site; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10663/04]

On foot of Government decisions of 19 February 2002 and 29 January 2003, the Office of Public Works has carried out a preliminary assessment of the property acquisition issues arising in the context of redeveloping the national theatre at its existing location via a public private partnership. This assessment indicates that the acquisition of property which would be essential for redevelopment at the existing location could be very costly and time-consuming. Redevelopment at the existing location would thus appear to be problematic.

As a result, I am considering how this development should progress, in view of the Government's commitment to provide a new home for the national theatre and of the critical importance of this development to national cultural life.

I support the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism in this matter. The replacement of the Abbey Theatre as a national institution is a priority and should be a national project. Will the Minister confirm the decision not to go ahead with a redevelopment on the existing site?

The Office of Public Works and the Abbey Theatre project teams worked together and produced a blueprint of the theatre's requirements. That design could fit into the Carlton site, depending on how much ground is made available. There is a court case related to that at present and the Minister cannot indicate the outcome at this stage but is it one of the locations that is being considered? Are other locations in the Dublin docklands or on a greenfield site being considered? Is the Minister happy with the agreed blueprint of requirements produced by the Office of Public Works and the Abbey Theatre project team in terms of the needs of the Abbey Theatre as the national theatre?

It is agreed that the new theatre must be a signature development that is reflective of a national theatre in the 21st century and that it should be in an appropriate civic setting and form part of the overall urban regeneration represented by the O'Connell Street integrated area plan and the north-east inner city plan. Clearly, three significant enlarged auditoria are required, as are a dedicated education and outreach facility, a publicly accessible archive, a restaurant and bar, public areas, disabled access for audiences and artists, best practice theatre production facilities and a third multi-purpose space outside the significantly enlarged auditoria.

A theatre on the present Abbey Theatre site would be extremely problematic and, in those circumstances, it appears there will be little alternative other than to look elsewhere. In this context, the Carlton cinema site will have to be viewed as an option but that will become clearer after judgment has been given in the High Court hearing into Dublin City Council's CPO.

I am glad the Minister has confirmed that it is not intended to proceed with problematic acquisitions on the existing site — that is progress. I visited the Abbey Theatre last week with Deputy Deenihan and, to put it mildly, the facilities, space and entire area are totally outdated, outmoded and antiquated. I compliment the 100 or so staff on their work in promoting our national culture. The backstage and upstairs of the building are too cramped, crowded, damp, dark and unfit. In that context, I support the Minister's view.

The centenary of the founding of the Abbey Theatre will be 27 December. Will the Minister arrange for talks to resume between the OPW, his Department and the Abbey Theatre to update the necessary requirements for a national theatre of which we can be justly proud in this centenary year?

I do not want the Minister to prejudice the court case but does he have a personal preference for the theatre to be placed in a city centre, for example, on O'Connell Street, given the three high standard criteria he has laid down or is he willing to look at a greenfield site, for example, in the docklands area?

There is general recognition that a national theatre should be a signature development. Most people would prefer to see the new national theatre in the centre of the city. In this regard, the plans for the rejuvenation and regeneration of O'Connell Street come to mind. It is clear that, despite our living in one of the most imaginative and creative generations of Irish people, there is no architectural public expression of that creativity or imagination and this project presents the opportunity to do precisely that. I sincerely hope that an adequate site becomes available — in the city centre preferably — because that is what most people desire. It would contribute greatly to the rejuvenation of O'Connell Street, which is something everyone regards as desirable.

However, we are faced with the difficulty of acquiring a site. It is clear from the OPW's report that there are serious problems in regard to the present Abbey Theatre site in respect of cost and time. In those circumstances, as I indicated earlier to Deputy Kenny, it will be necessary to look elsewhere and the Department is doing that. The Carlton cinema site is one option but the outcome of a reserve judgment from the High Court is awaited.

One final question——

Sorry, Deputy Kenny, we have spent eight minutes on this question and, in fairness to other Deputies——

In fairness to the national theatre——

I call Question No. 138 in the name of Deputy Wall.

This is most unfair.

The Chair has been more than generous to Deputy Kenny.

The national theatre has existed for 100 years and I am just looking for an extra 30 seconds.

I appreciate that but six minutes are allocated for a Priority Question. As the Deputy is a party leader, he was allowed two minutes extra. In fairness to other Deputies in the House——

It is grossly unfair.

I assure Deputy Kenny that every effort will be made to advance the matter.

Tourism Industry.

Jack Wall


138 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his views on figures recently released by the Central Statistics Office that for the first time the amount being spent overseas by Irish persons exceeded the amount spent here by tourists; if, in light of these statistics, he has plans to encourage Irish persons to holiday here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10662/04]

Paul Nicholas Gogarty


139 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism the trends he has identified in the latest tourism and travel figures from the Central Statistics Office; his views on whether the underlying trend still leaves cause for concern for the Irish tourism sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10838/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 138 and 139 together.

The most up-to-date CSO statistics for 2003 show a 5% increase in the number of overseas visitors to Ireland, representing a continuing recovery in this vital sector of the economy. In numerical terms, visitor numbers have exceeded the previous peak achieved in 2000, with 6.3 million visits recorded. In conjunction with the growth in volume terms, revenue earnings grew by just under 3%, at over €4 billion.

As the Deputy rightly points out, 2003 showed a marginal net outflow of earnings on the tourism and travel account of €58 million. This is hardly surprising as expenditure by Irish tourists on holidays overseas has been on an upward trend as a result of the greater prosperity experienced by Irish people in recent years. This greater prosperity has also provided a major boost to Ireland's domestic tourism market, which remains central to Ireland's continuing tourism success. A separate CSO release — the household travel survey — indicates that more than 5 million domestic trips were taken in the first nine months of last year, representing an increase of 3.4% on the same period in 2002. In expenditure terms, the first nine months of 2003 have also shown very positive results. Between January and September, more than €745 million was spent on domestic trips in comparison with €645 million in the same period in 2002. This represents a substantial increase of 16%, which far outstrips the growth in expenditure by Irish people on foreign holidays, at 5%, last year.

While the two surveys are not directly comparable, they provide a strong indication that the home market remains buoyant and continues to win market share against stiff international competition. In terms of other trends emerging from the CSO figures on international travel, I would make a number of comments. As a tourism destination for overseas visitors, Ireland continues to out-perform many of its nearest competitors.

The Iraq war, the outbreak of SARS and a weak global economy all played a part in suppressing the demand for international tourism last year. Worldwide, the number of tourists fell by 1.2% and Europe's performance was at best flat, according to the World Tourism Organisation. With growth rates of 5% in volume terms, Ireland is clearly increasing its share of a highly competitive marketplace.

It is also apparent that the North American market, particularly the US, has finally turned the corner with numbers beginning to rise again. US visitor numbers to Ireland increased by over 6% in 2003 despite the impact of the war, increased threats of terrorism and SARS. This compares to a 1% increase in the number of Americans visiting Europe generally and a decrease of 8% experienced by Britain.

Continental Europe, a market which has remained stagnant for a number of years, is also looking positive with visitor numbers up in the order of 8%. A 4% growth figure for Britain last year was also a strong endorsement of Ireland's continuing competitive edge in what is Ireland's largest tourism market by far. It is also clear that this performance has been hard won, with enormous pressure being placed on the industry's bottomline. It is also evident that this performance has not been shared equally, either on a regional or a sectoral basis. I am very conscious of growing concerns about the regional distribution of tourism growth in recent years. It should be recognised that all regions and sectors continue to experience growth — the issue relates to the growing disparity in the rate of growth between the regions.

In this context, the development of good access, particularly air access, is key to strengthening the competitive position of the regions. Both tourism agencies recognise this issue and are investing significant time and resources in encouraging improved air links. Already, Knock and Galway airports are reaping the rewards of their efforts to promote direct access to the west, particularly from Britain.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Tourism Ireland has also taken a strategic decision to target significant promotional resources at family touring holidays, particularly from Britain, which favour the regions. Tourism Ireland is also investing significantly in the US market. The coach tour business will continue to feature strongly in their promotions and they will also be encouraging the growing number of independent travellers from the US to spend longer and travel more extensively on the island of Ireland.

The marketing programmes in train for 2004 will build on the momentum generated in 2003, both on the international and domestic front. They are also being backed by an unprecedented level of Exchequer support for tourism services within my Department, particularly for marketing purposes, totalling well over €110 million.

I welcome the figures the Minister highlighted today, which demonstrate that despite difficult times on the international scene, tourism has done well in Ireland. The number of visits by Irish people living abroad has dropped compared with the number of foreigners visiting Ireland. It will take several years before we know if that is a once-off statistic or represents a trend. What research has been done by the Department or by agencies under its aegis in this aspect of the tourism industry?

Recently released figures show that 4.5 million of the 6.37 million foreign visitors to Ireland come from Britain or through Britain. This represents a major proportion of the tourism trade. Has a breakdown of that 4.5 million figure been done? Do these visitors consist of Irish families returning home for annual holidays or world travellers who come through Britain to Ireland and continue to another destination? How much time do these visitors spend in Ireland? This group, 4.5 million, represents a large proportion of the overall figure of 6.37 million.

Regional development will be a major factor in the tourism industry. What influence can the Minister bring to bear on other Departments, such as the Department of Transport, or State agencies to ensure that the regions are developed more equally than at present?

My Department, as well as other Departments and State agencies, must rely on the figures we receive from the Central Statistics Office. The compilation of these figures is subject to the same criteria each year so they are comparable, year on year. It is clear from these figures that last year saw a record number of visitors to Ireland, something everyone will welcome. This is indicative of the resilience of the industry. Credit is due to the tourism agencies, to the industry itself and to the Government, which increased the marketing fund for tourism to its highest level ever. This money was well spent, not only in traditional markets but on the Continent, where we saw major increases in the number of visitors from non-traditional places such as France, Italy and Spain. These were particularly encouraging.

The related question of access is extremely important and the growth in low cost travel to Ireland has been a direct contributor to the increase in numbers from the continent. I would like to see greater capacity from the continent and, particularly, greater air capacity from North America. If capacity from the United States were improved the numbers would rise almost in parallel. One of the major difficulties experienced last year was the lack of capacity, particularly during the peak season. If we can increase capacity we will increase numbers.

The Government's target is to increase the number of visitors to 10 million by the year 2012 and to double revenue during the same period. If we continue to see growth figures similar to those of last year, and which we anticipate this year, these targets are capable of being realised.

What does the Minister believe to be the cause of the net outflow of €58 million when earnings from visitors to Ireland are compared with money spent by Irish people travelling abroad? If the Minister were responsible for trade and employment this reversal of fortune would be deeply embarrassing to him. Given the global economic uncertainty of recent years, which is being exacerbated by the policies of certain governments, what is the Minister's view of the drop in the number of stays in hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast establishments by British visitors between 2002 and 2003? The only increase of note was in the number of British visitors who stayed with friends and relatives. Does the Minister agree that our cousins in Britain are visiting friends and relatives for a cheap holiday because they have been priced out of the market? Hotels and guest houses are too expensive and are seen as a rip-off. The same is true of our European neighbours.

Possibly because long-term package holidays include stays in hotels, the rise in prices is not so noticeable to visitors from the United States and Canada. However, in areas where discernment is significant, such as caravanning, camping and hostelling, numbers from the USA, Canada and other areas have also declined. Conditions appear to be returning to normality in the global age of terror in which we live. Nevertheless, does the Minister acknowledge that major structural change must be carried out in the tourism industry to ensure that quality sustainable tourism business comes to Ireland and that the rip-off mentality is stamped out.

What is being done to exploit the potential of the midlands? The ecological sustainability of tourism on the western seaboard is being damaged by ongoing development and by traffic jams in places such as Clifden. Tourism growth in the midlands would not infringe on the industry's long-term potential.

Has the Minister had further discussions with his Cabinet colleagues regarding the feasibility of the western rail corridor? If more US and Canadian visitors come to Ireland they will probably come through Shannon or Knock. If they are to proceed to further destinations in Ireland such a rail route will be necessary.

Between 2002 and 2003 there was an increase in the number of bed nights in hotels, guest houses, bed and breakfast establishments, rented houses and apartments, caravans, campsites and hostels. All the indices of the number of visitors from our various markets, and the revenue from each of them, have shown an increase. None has shown a decrease. That is the good news. During the year 2003, against a very difficult backdrop, Ireland experienced a record year.

The fact that stays were of a shorter duration and money was not as plentiful led to a greater degree of pressure on profit margins. Some hotels, for example, had to drop their prices in order to attract visitors and some hotels found themselves in competition with guest houses. All of that is accurate and margins were tighter. None of that can mask the fact that we had an improvement against a difficult backdrop, that we are anticipating further improvement this year and that we are expecting a record year.

As regards developing tourism in the midlands and other regions, the tourism development group has examined applications from less traditional areas of the country with a view to allocating funds to improve amenities. The allocation of these funds is ongoing. The Deputy might care to address the matter of the western rail corridor to the Minister for Transport. When addressing the question of the number of visitors travelling from Ireland abroad, it must be recalled that Ireland is a more prosperous country today than it was ten years ago. An increase in the number of foreign visits by Irish people is expected as a natural consequence of more prosperous times. The substantial increase in the number of domestic trips taken by Irish people is encouraging. An increase of €100 million in revenue in a short period from €645 million to €745 million is encouraging.

Regarding the allegation about "rip-off Ireland", I do not subscribe to that theory. I have continually warned the tourism industry of the need to remain competitive and I have repeatedly advised it of the necessity to give value for money. It is a tough world and competition is becoming tougher by the day. It would be foolish to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that in excess of 90% of visitors to the country still express satisfaction with the holiday experience here, although, on the other side of that coin, it must be admitted that, in a few years, the number of people questioning the value for money which they have received has increased from one third to two thirds of total foreigner visitors. That is a matter of concern. The need to be vigilant must be clear to everyone.

Arts Plan.

Damien English


140 Mr. English asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he has received a report from the chairperson of the Arts Council regarding the scrapping of the Arts Plan 2002-2006, which was included in the Programme for Government 2002-2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10664/04]

The Arts Plan 2002-2006 was prepared by the Arts Council and the Government had no part in its formulation. The council sought Government adoption of the plan that required funding of €314 million over the period of the plan. The Government was happy to endorse the general objectives of the plan, namely, to make an arts career a realistic ambition for excellent and innovative artists; to broaden and enhance audiences for the arts; to raise standards in arts leadership and management; to broaden and enrich participation in the arts; to extend the international impact and success of Irish arts and artists; and to work with others to help bring the arts closer to local communities.

However, our financial system, based on an annual Estimates cycle cannot accommodate the multi-annual financial commitment for which the arts plan called. For the Government's part, the phasing of the plan and the funding that could be provided in any given year would have to be addressed through the normal annual Estimates campaigns. There could never be any guarantee of funding being provided to meet the specific annual targets included in the plan by the Arts Council. Government endorsement of the broad objectives of the plan cannot restrict or constrain the council from changing or setting aside any part of its own plan.

In 2002 the then Minister and now Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, fully endorsed the plan and gave the impression that funding would be available. Does the Minister think the arts plan was scrapped because of the Government's neglect to provide sufficient funding? The Arts Council hoped to be allocated €53 million in 2003, but received only €44 million, which is approximately 83% of what was expected. In 2004 the plan was to be allocated €61 million but received only €53 million, which is 85% of what was expected. It will not be possible to implement the plan. Questions were asked at the council meetings about how the plan could be supported when it was not working. It was not working due to a lack of funding. The Government failed in that regard. The arts plan was scrapped because of the Government's neglect. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that. Would the director still be in place if the plan had been given proper support and if it had been funded by the Government? Did we let her down?

As Deputy English will be aware, Governments do not operate on a multi-annual Estimates basis.

That was not the impression given at the time.

Every Department must in each given year make its case for funding and then the Department and the Minister concerned must cut its cloth in accordance with the measure. The funding for the Arts Council in 2004 was substantially increased over 2003. The increase was 19% and the argument could be made that, if the Arts Council had decided to proceed with the arts plan, it would have had a sufficiency of funding to proceed with the portion which was appropriate to the year 2004. However, the views of various experts outside the Arts Council are of little consequence.

The Arts Council is charged under the new Arts Act with the administration of the arts on an independent basis. It is not my function nor the function of any expert to tell the Arts Council how it should or should not proceed. It is not possible for me or anyone else to tell the Arts Council who or what it should or should not fund. In the same way, the Arts Council makes a decision about its own arts plan. It is independent in the exercise of that function. It made a decision that it would proceed in a different direction. When the Arts Act was discussed in the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Opposition made much play of the fact that it was necessary, in so far as that was possible, to maintain the independence of the Arts Council. That is a position to which I subscribe and that is the situation.

The arts plan is about policy-making. The Minister said there was an increase in funding in 2004 over 2003. The funding in 2003 was less than that in 2002, which was a general election year. I wondered what was the reason for that. The impression was given that proper funding would be provided, but that did not happen. The Minister said it does not have any consequences, but that is not the case. There was a plan, but now there is none. How will funding be allocated this year and the following year?

The Deputy should be brief.

We do not know what criteria will apply for funding. That is not good for the arts sector which had a plan and a future. It does not know what will happen now. I await the Minister's response.

The Arts Council is more than capable of carrying out its own functions without looking for advice from me and it has not sought any from me. The Arts Council is independent in the exercise of its function and there are a number of good reasons for that, not least the question as to whether there could or would be political interference in the arts world. Some people would regard that as undesirable. We sought to avoid that, in so far as it was reasonably possible, when framing the Arts Act 2003. I have every confidence in the Arts Council to frame policy and to bring forward solid suggestions to advance the cause of the arts and artists in this country. My confidence in the Arts Council is 100%. I have no doubt it will serve the cause well and I have no reason to believe it will not do so.

That concludes Priority Questions. We will now take other questions. I remind the House that supplementary questions and answers are subject to a maximum of one minute each.