I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share time with Deputies Boyle, Eamon Ryan, Morgan, Cowley, Finian McGrath and James Breen. I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this modest legislation. It addresses an issue, which, if not resolved will have far reaching implications for the tourism sector. The intention of the legislation is plain and simple. We want to ensure the listing of public rights of way becomes a mandatory function in the drafting of development plans. Under current legislation, the preservation of existing public rights of way is deemed optional and it is not taken up that frequently by local authorities.
The background to the legislation, however, is much more complex. By introducing legislation that obliges local authorities to list rights of way, we are attempting to prevent the continued erosion of both urban and rural rights of way throughout the Twenty-six Counties. They have gradually diminished for different reasons. While protecting them, we would like to go further to ensure access via rights of way to commonage and rough grazing ground but not without an inclusive deal.
My colleague, Deputy Boyle, will outline the position in urban areas later while my party's environment spokesperson, Deputy Cuffe, will deal with the overall legal framework under the planning Acts, as will Deputy Gormley. These issues, however, are only part of the story. The broader story relates to how walking and hiking, a vital element of our tourism sector, is being allowed to die because no one is prepared to make tough decisions. Rural and agricultural communities are being denied incomes because of bad leadership and a lack of balance at both local and national level. My colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has years of experience in the tourism industry, will discuss these and other matters from a business perspective shortly while my party leader, Deputy Sargent, will examine the issue and opportunities for farmers tomorrow.
Walking is an important but declining part of our tourism industry. According to Fáilte Ireland, approximately 320,000 overseas walkers visited Ireland in 1993 but by 2002 100,000 had been lost and it is possible they will never return. Last year, 50,000 fewer walkers visited Ireland, which represents a 23% decline in 12 months. Given that the remaining sectors of the tourism industry are holding up following 11 September, why is Ireland haemorrhaging walking tourists? The anecdotal and factual evidence is that when it comes to walkers Ireland has changed from céad míle fáilte to céad míle "f. off".
While only a minority of angry, frustrated and sometimes downright ignorant landowners are giving Ireland a bad name, there is enough of them to do our tourism industry untold damage. Abusing law abiding and polite visitors is an insult to our nation and it is also hits rural communities where it hurts most, in their pockets. There is no excuse for the antics of a minority of landowners, whatever their frustrations. Equally, there should be no place for the cold, stony refusal to allow walkers to roam on lands on which their forefathers roamed for generations. That stony silence is, however, more understandable.
Every day more restrictions are placed on walkers throughout the country through the erection of fences around old commonage, tracks and roads and a plethora of unfriendly and unwelcoming "Keep Out" signs. This is wrong, damaging and dangerous. UK and continental organisers of walking holidays are withdrawing from Ireland because of these access difficulties, which are not experienced elsewhere in Europe. The figures reflect the word of mouth message spreading across Europe that Ireland is not a good place for a walking holiday, unlike Scotland or Wales.
Are we shooting ourselves in the foot? What needs to be done? The Green Party has acknowledged that a solution to the current impasse involves the full input of the farming community, which should also include a financial recognition of the role playing by farmers. I pay tribute to the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for his role in setting up Comhairle na Tuaithe, which has attempted to create dialogue between walkers, mountaineering groups and farmer representative bodies. Such dialogue has not been easy on both sides and while it is a welcome and positive development, it has not yet been a resounding success. The reason for this lies in the refusal of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to introduce a system similar to that which pertained under REPS 1. This would recognise the role played by farmers and provide financial remuneration.
Farming groups insist that walkers should seek permission to cross private land and they will continue with such insistence, some nicely and some rudely. However, if a deal could be struck, it would be a win win situation. Farmers maintain the countryside in a state that walkers enjoy and it would not be in a fit state to walk across if farmers did not do so. However, they do not generate revenue similar to people in other sectors of the tourism industry for doing so.
As my colleagues, Councillor Mary White and Deputy Sargent, have pointed out, farming may be changing but farmers are being presented with new opportunities. A healthy walking tourism sector could provide additional income opportunities for farmers such as the development and maintenance of walking routes, working as tour guides, providing transport or even offering walkers lunch. However, financial recognition of the valuable role of farmers in this area is needed. This would allow them to contribute to the rural economy so that everybody would benefit from tourism as equal stakeholders.
The Green Party, contrary to a number of scurrilous remarks by Government Deputies, is a true friend of farmers and rural communities. I have pushed in previous contributions for the recognition financially of their substantial contribution to tourism. However, we are precluded from introducing provisions with budgetary implications in this legislation. In the interest of common sense and, hopefully, with a shared concern for the future of both our tourism and agriculture sectors, I ask the Government and Opposition Members to support the legislation, which is a small but important first step. I also urge the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Cabinet to examine our recommendations regarding the essential financial package needed to bring farmers on board. Then everyone can be brought together for a proper nuts and bolts debate.