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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Jan 2009

Vol. 672 No. 3

Priority Questions.

Tourism Industry.

Olivia Mitchell


92 Deputy Olivia Mitchell asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if, in view of various recent developments, he is satisfied that the level of access to the capital and to the regions is consistent with maintaining and expanding Irish tourism; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2753/09]

While access is essential to tourism, the primary responsibility for transport and access issues, whether access to and from overseas or within Ireland, and for investment in transport infrastructure generally, lies with my colleague, the Minister for Transport, and the agencies under the aegis of his Department.

The Deputy will be aware that our tourism strategy framework, New Horizons for Irish Tourism: an Agenda for Action 2003-2012, addresses this issue, among others. Since the report was published in 2003, there has been progress on a range of access measures with substantial investment in airports across the country, including Dublin Airport, and considerable improvements have been made to our national road and rail infrastructure. This was endorsed by the tourism strategy implementation group in its report to me last year. The investment in transport projects continues and the coming months and years will see many more significant transport projects completed.

One of my priorities as Minister is to ensure that the tourism agenda is accommodated in all the relevant policies and programmes that impact on tourism. This is being put into practice in the access area on an ongoing basis by my Department and the tourism agencies, by engaging with the Department of Transport and its agencies, as well as with other key players, including carriers and operators, on their plans and programmes.

As with other key drivers of tourism development, the access issue is a rapidly evolving one. In that context, I announced recently the establishment of the tourism renewal group. This high level group, comprising representatives of the tourism trade, national and international experts and senior public servants, has been tasked with reviewing and, where appropriate, renewing the current tourism strategy to ensure that it is focused for the short term and that the tourist industry is well placed to benefit from the upturn.

In terms of growth in Irish tourism, there is no doubt that one of the principal drivers of the growth in visitor numbers in recent years has been the improvement in the volume, range and competitiveness of air access. We are also well served by some of the world's most modern passenger car ferry services, which have benefited from significant investment in recent years.

Air and sea travel are not immune from the downturn in the global and domestic economies. The combination of falling consumer confidence, adverse exchange rate movements and volatile fuel costs has made it difficult for carriers to sustain route profitability. In that context, I am advised that Ireland is likely to see somewhat reduced access capacity in 2009. This is, ultimately, a commercial issue for the carriers concerned. Even with this phase of consolidation, access levels still compare favourably to those in place some years ago. I especially welcome the recent decision by Aer Lingus to restore the Shannon-Heathrow route.

The tourism agencies will continue to focus on maximising visitor numbers and associated revenue in 2009, through increasing investment in co-operative marketing campaigns and working to help fill any air access gaps. The agencies will also continue to promote sea routes, especially any new ones that may commence this year, with the aim of promoting car touring holidays.

As the Deputy is aware, the tourism state agencies have recently undertaken comprehensive briefing sessions for industry representatives throughout the country, including one in Waterford recently, which I attended.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I accept that international and internal access routes are not directly the concern of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. Nevertheless, the matter is of concern to the Department. Tourism cannot exist unless access is good. It is crucial that as the market contracts, we maintain our links with the outside world.

Recent developments include the reduction of services on several routes. Some routes are being cancelled altogether, including the important air route to the Middle East, which was initially announced to great fanfare by Aer Lingus. More recently, I heard of the effective cancellation of the plans for a new runway by Dublin Airport Authority, which was vital to the China strategy.

Some years ago in Dún Laoghaire there were five Stena Line departures every day to Holyhead. Now, there is only one, the future of which is apparently in question. The Cork to Swansea route is gone, although I heard there is a possibility that it will be restored. Decisions have been made about postponing the independence of the airports at Cork and Shannon. All these factors are inhibiting growth. Even when people arrive in the country, there are many impediments to good transport and roads. Today, I heard of plans for roads being dropped, which were important in accessing various airports, including the State airports. Is the Minister talking to other Ministers about such issues? I understand growth in Dublin Airport this year was as low as 2.5%, and it was the only airport showing any growth. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, will remember from his time as Minister for Transport that, at the time, the annual growth of at least 10% was forecast. The new terminal was built in expectation of such growth and the airport now has capacity. Is Dublin Airport Authority seeking further business?

I do not necessarily agree with the Deputy's overall introductory remarks and assessment. We must understand that we have a responsibility to the market for the messages we send concerning the direction in which tourism is going. The figures do not correspond with the Deputy's comments. The number of tourism visitors in recent years has risen to 8 million per year, which is a phenomenal performance.

There is no question that the industry is under pressure. The second half of last year was far more challenging than any quarter in the years preceding. Nevertheless, I have been heavily engaged with all tourism bodies and other stakeholders, including the Irish Hotels Federation and other representative bodies, in terms of the approach for 2009. The market responds to its needs and requirements. We have been able to cater for all this, but suddenly the Deputy is suggesting we will not be able to cater for the need, because we need X, Y and Z. Investment in access to transport, including roads and rail, has been very substantial in recent years, and has clearly enhanced and adds to the tourism product. Investment from the public and private sectors in improving quality in the coach tourism business has been very significant. I can inform the Deputy that the attitude of the tourism industry is very positive. It is very aware and realistic about the challenges. It is very positive about the robust approach that it is taking to the challenges that lie ahead this year and in coming years. I believe the tourism industry is up to the challenge.

I am sure the principals involved in the industry are up to the challenge, but is the Minister? I have serious doubts and the Minister is in denial about the figures. I have before me figures issued by the Irish Aviation Authority. The numbers have been and continue to reduce, and the expectation is that they will get worse this year. It is up to the Minister to ensure that access to the routes are re-established. I admit that in the second half of the year the industry was subject to the large decline. Someone should be selling Ireland and the market is contracting. By denying this, one is not dealing with the problem. The market is contracting and if we are to retain market share, it is up to the Minister to ensure that people can travel here easily if they so wish.

I simply do not accept the Deputy's remarks. I have stated that there are major challenges in 2009 and that the last quarter of 2008 was especially challenging.

The Minister said he did not accept my figures.

I do not. I am aware that the industry takes grave exception to some of the most irresponsible statements made by the Deputy in recent press releases. The Deputy sent out a message internationally that Irish tourism is in meltdown, which is utter rubbish. A previous statement from the Deputy used words such as "catastrophic" to describe the state of the industry.

Does the Minister doubt this? He should discuss the matter with the people losing their jobs in hotels throughout the country. The Minister is in complete denial about what is taking place in the tourism industry in the country.

I call on the Minister to conclude.

The Deputy's party leader comes to the House talking of the need to be responsible and to make responsible statements regarding Ireland. That is wrong. The Deputy is factually incorrect and is creating a nervousness in the industry which is unwarranted.

The Minister's time has expired.

The Deputy is sending a negative international message about tourism, which is not the case.

The Minister is massaging the industry.

I suggest the Deputy temper her language. Either she supports the tourism industry, or she does not.

Departmental Expenditure.

Mary Upton


93 Deputy Mary Upton asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism the area in which he expects to make cuts in the budget for his Department for 2009 in response to the need to rein in Exchequer spending; the cuts to be introduced in his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2479/09]

As Deputies will be aware there has been a serious deterioration in the economic and budgetary situation since the budget for 2009 was presented by my colleague, the Minister for Finance. The much more challenging economic situation has significant implications for the evolution of the public finances. The Government is working on a five-year plan to restore balance with an overriding target of eliminating the current budget deficit by 2013. This will mean reductions in the budgets of Departments and I am prepared to make my contribution as part of the effort to the success of this plan.

I am responsible for the arts, sport and tourism Vote, which has an allocation of €563 million in 2009. This comprises Vote 35, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, and Vote 33, National Gallery of Ireland.

Deputies will be aware that the Government has agreed that 2009 expenditure savings of up to €2 billion should be identified and incorporated into the Revised Estimates. This matter is the subject of Cabinet discussions at present. I will inform the House of the outcome of these deliberations, as they apply to my Department's 2009 allocation, in due course.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Unfortunately, the allocation for arts, sport and tourism was reduced by 22% in the last budget and were any further cuts to be made, I would be concerned as to whether any budget would remain. The cut of 22% means the Department already has taken a major hit and I believe its allocation has fallen by €151 million. In the light of such an enormous deficit, what impact would it have were such cuts to proceed apace? The local authorities swimming pool programme already has been lost and nothing has happened since 2000. In spite of the Minister's remarks to Deputy Mitchell on tourism, clearly problems exist there. It is a huge industry that must be encouraged and developed and consequently, serious concerns arise in respect of further cuts to the budget.

Again, the Deputy has presented a figure that is correct but has so done in a distorted manner. Everyone knows that the cost of the Lansdowne Road redevelopment was removed from the budget allocation for 2009, as it was not going to be a repetitive capital cost, and one should be realistic. Moreover, while the Deputy is correct to suggest there have been cuts in some other areas, they have been marginal. The only reduction in the tourism area is being made in respect of administrative costs and the Government and I have been roundly complimented by the tourism industry on maintaining fully the tourism budget. The Deputy is correct to state the tourism industry is one of Ireland's major economic industries. It employs more than 320,000 people and contributes up to €6 billion in revenue to the State at various levels. Therefore, I am acutely aware of the challenges that arise.

The funding increases in recent years to both the Irish Sports Council and the Arts Council have been phenomenal and both organisations accept that. If some retrenchment is taking place at present, so be it. However, we still are up at the record figures that were delivered to both organisations in 2006. While I do not deny that the environment is challenging, more can be achieved for less given the operation of deflation at present. As growth no longer is taking place, much more value can be achieved for the money that is being spent, particularly in respect of marketing budgets and across the spectrum.

My concern is this Department will become the easy target for many of the cuts. While tourism in particular has been mentioned, clearly sport also has a huge input in respect of both job creation and provision and purely at a societal level. My concern is that there has been no movement in respect of initiatives such as the swimming pool programme. I know of areas in my constituency that are crying out for small amounts of support. For instance, although Lourdes Celtic, which is based in Sundrive Park, Dublin 12, has been screaming out for a changing room, no commitment has been given for that small project. My concern is that many other similar small projects will go by the board.

The swimming pool programme has been rolling out at a fast pace right up to the present week, in which a project in Kilkenny will be opened. A total of 55 swimming pools have been approved under the programme, most of which have been built. While I do not have the precise figures to hand, I understand that approximately 12 remain that either are in construction or are finalising planning. The programme is by no means stopped although the Deputy is correct to state that I have not opened another round at present. This is true as I do not have the resources at present to so do. Nevertheless, it is wrong to state that nothing is happening. This programme has been hugely successful and I will continue with that.

On the sports capital side, approximately €800 million has gone into small clubs nationwide in recent years, including sports such as rugby, soccer, Gaelic football, boxing and others, and rightly so. This programme has been highly successful and even last year, I maintained a €50 million package. A programme was announced and delivered on and successful applicants were duly informed. In the past ten years, this programme has had a major impact on local areas. Clearly, as Minister with responsibility for sport, I would like to do more and would like to have more money to spend. At present, however, that simply is not possible. Equally however, I would like to complete the programmes for which I have the resources in place, such as the swimming pool programme, over the next year or two.

Tourism Industry.

Olivia Mitchell


94 Deputy Olivia Mitchell asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if his attention has been drawn to the various problems being experienced by Irish tour operators in the context of the current economic situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2754/09]

I met the Irish Tour Operators Association, ITOA, in early December and therefore am well aware of the operators' concerns. I also remain in contact with other key tourism representative bodies, such as the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation and the Irish Hotels Federation. Tourism, as is the case with other industries, is affected by the global economic situation. In 2008, tourism in Ireland and across the world encountered difficulties arising from the international downturn and pressures on the travel industry, such as fluctuating energy costs. For European destinations, these difficulties were exacerbated by the strength of the euro.

While final Central Statistics Office figures are not available, the most recent figures show a decline of 2.1% in the number of overseas visitors to Ireland in the period up to the end of November. It is expected that for the year as a whole, the decline in numbers will be approximately 3% compared to 2007. Such outcome is a great compliment to all the tourism bodies, which have succeeded in avoiding a far deeper decline. When drawing comparisons with 2007, it is important to remember that the latter was a record year for Irish tourism in terms of overseas visitors and associated revenue. Overseas visitor numbers increased by 33% between 2001 and 2007. Although we undoubtedly are facing into a difficult period ahead, I believe the strategic approach taken to tourism development in recent years by both the public and private sectors has given the industry the capacity to deal with the cyclical external challenges and to sustain its performance in coming years.

The Government continues to review and renew the strategic framework for tourism development in response to the changing environment. This is the reason I established last December the tourism renewal group under the chairmanship of Mr. Maurice Pratt. That group is examining the current tourism policy and programme priorities. It will focus on the challenges facing the industry and will set out a framework for action to ensure that tourism continues to be a major industry for Ireland. The group is to complete its work in the mid-half of 2009.

In the meantime, an extensive range of marketing, product development, training and business supports are being initiated by the tourism State agencies under the tourism services budget of the Department. These supports are being modified to help the tourism industry deal with current problems. In this regard, I am aware that Fáilte Ireland has had meetings with the ITOA to discuss the difficulties its members are experiencing in the current economic climate. Through these meetings, actions have been identified to support Irish tour operators across a broad spectrum of activity, from product development to greater promotion in key markets. A follow up meeting between Fáilte Ireland and Irish tour operators is to be held shortly with a view to furthering a number of identified actions.

In conclusion, I wish to stress that while I am under no illusion about the scale of the difficulties we face, I am confident that the tourism sector here has the capacity to manage the current cyclical slowdown. Renewing our strategy will help the sector to manage the current challenges and to return to sustainable growth in the medium term.

I thank the Minister for his reply and accept, as does the Minister, the challenges faced by the industry. However, I wish to discuss and bring to the Minister's attention a number of self-imposed challenges that are coming to my desk in increasing numbers from a variety of sources within the industry. One pertains to the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the difficulty of access to heritage sites and facilities it operates nationwide on our behalf. While I am a great admirer of the OPW's work, it must recognise that it also must do its patriotic duty by ensuring that such facilities are available to visitors when they come here. Apparently, the OPW intends to cut back on the opening times of such sites, even though tours already have been booked into Ireland to attend such facilities and now will arrive in a month in which the facilities are closed. This is not the way in which one should treat visitors. I have received endless examples in this regard. For instance, people tried to make a booking for Kilmainham Gaol in December for a tour in January, only to be told the diary for January was not yet available. Thereafter, when they tried to book in January, no opening was available. This is not the way in which one attempts to do business during a recession. One may as well close up and tell visitors not to bother coming. In addition, a location such as Glenveagh National Park does not yet know its opening times for 2009, even though tour operators already have booked tours into that area. This is no way in which to do business.

I wish to refer briefly to two other problems. The first concerns VAT, to which, as the Ministers is aware, tour operators will become subject next year. Unfortunately however, tours already have been booked and priced at a rate that did not take this into account. The operators seek a derogation for another year in order that they at least can factor in the price increase into their prices for that year. The Minister is aware that this constitutes a 2% increase in their prices, which they are unable to bear.

My last point is important because it pertains to a self-imposed barrier to visitors coming to Ireland. I refer to a go-slow at passport control at Dublin Airport, which I do not believe has garnered publicity. While I have not experienced it personally, I have received reports to the effect that in some cases, two to three-hour delays have been experienced in something akin to a blue flu that is taking place there. If this is happening, it constitutes a self-imposed barrier. People who are caught up in such situations will not return and will tell their friends not to come to a country that treats its visitors in such a fashion.

If issues as Deputy Mitchell highlighted arise — I do not have specific evidence of that but I will take what she states in good faith — they are very unhelpful and unacceptable practices.

On the other side of that coin, the number of visitors who went to the cultural institutions last year, many of which are managed by the OPW, for the first time went over 3 million. It is a very successful part of our tourism product.

Negotiations that preceded last year resulted in an extension to opening hours and more weekend opening, which must be the case. It is a seven-day business and, if you like, a seven night business in many of the locations around the country. I am told that this year that will be even further extended to facilitate tourists which is something we need to do.

The fact that 3 million tourists are now going through the cultural institutions puts cultural tourism as a central plank of the tourism product. I am trying to achieve more harmony for the tourism bodies, supported by them, between all the cultural side of what would be traditionally known as tourism issues and tourism facilities. We can make progress. The industry is keen on that.

I am not aware of a passport issue at present in Dublin Airport. It certainly has not been brought to my attention. I certainly would not want that to be the case because the first place where many tourists interact with and get their first sense of Ireland is when they come in to our major airport in the capital, and it can set the tone for their view of the country and how they might enjoy their holiday time here. I will ensure that the issues the Deputy highlighted have been resolved or, if they have not, that they should be resolved immediately.

National Aquatic Centre.

Mary Upton


95 Deputy Mary Upton asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism the expected level of public funding to the National Aquatic Centre in 2009; if more than €1.6 million in a subsidy will be required to sustain the centre in 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2480/09]

The National Aquatic Centre, NAC, is operated by NSCDA (Operations) Limited, a subsidiary company of the National Sports Campus Development Authority. All day-to-day operations of the NAC are a matter for the authority and the operations company.

Following the restoration of the NAC to the then Campus and Stadium Ireland Development Limited, on 1 December 2006, an extensive capital programme was undertaken to restore the centre to its original condition. Much effort has gone into rebuilding its reputation and increasing its customer base and, in that context, an initial subsidy of €1.8 million was required in its first full year of operation. In 2008 a more positive picture of operational needs emerged and I have been encouraged by the significant increase in both visitor numbers and income which is being achieved to date. In more specific terms, while in 2007 there were 576,000 visitors, in 2008 there were over 700,000 visitors. Notwithstanding the marked improvement in the level of activity and income at the NAC during 2008, there has still been a requirement of a subsidy of just over €1 million last year. This is a substantial reduction from €1.8 million in 2007.

In parallel with overseeing the ongoing operation, the authority undertook an international benchmarking exercise comparing the performance of the NAC against other equivalent facilities throughout Europe. This work was recently completed and has been evaluated both by the authority and by my officials. The clear message is that all publicly accessible 50 metre indoor pools receive direct or indirect subsidies from Governments, local authorities, sports councils, universities and/or other like facilities. Clearly, therefore, the performance of the NAC is not dissimilar to other like facilities.

Accordingly, and based on the National Aquatic Centre projections for trading in 2009, a subsidy in the order of €1 million will be needed by the authority for this purpose, out of its provision for 2009, in respect of this year's trading. I have indicated to the authority the priority which I attach to increasing the income at the National Aquatic Centre and I have confidence the Authority will continue to work to this as a priority.

My understanding of this from the beginning was that the NAC should be self-financing and that that would happen in the short term rather than the long term. The NAC has cost €70 million in its construction and €1.8 million in 2007, and the Minister tells me now that it cost just over €1 million in 2008. I must defer to Deputy Mitchell for information that she had earlier which would suggest that €1.6 million was the figure required for 2008.

I have just given the up-to-date figure, which is just over €1 million.

It is not €1.6 million.

It is just over €1 million.

I welcome the increase in the numbers of visitors and usage.

On a point of order, I understand there is a rates bill of €500,000 that must be paid.

This is a priority question. That is not a point of order.

Based on the information Deputy Mitchell had, is that rates bill included in the figure the Minister has given me?

I cannot say. However, I presume not because it would not be a function of my Department to pay rates.

In effect then the cost will be €1.6 million.

If the Deputy wants to know the position which I have given her, last year the subsidy directly from my Department to the National Aquatic Centre was just over €1 million and this year it will be €1 million.

Can we expect that the €600,000 which would appear to be due in rates will come from the Exchequer somewhere along the way?

I cannot tell. I do not deal with rates and do not know from where that figure arises.

Can I point out it is a significant amount of money that the taxpayer is——

Maybe the local authority could play its part and make the NAC rates-free. It has the power to do so.

And every other swimming pool in the country.

Yes, fine——

I thank the Minister.

——if it is a problem.

Sports Capital Programme.

John O'Mahony


96 Deputy John O’Mahony asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism the amount of funding available in 2009 for the sports capital programme under national lottery funding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2774/09]

Under the sports capital programme, which is administered by my Department, funding is allocated towards the provision of sports facilities at national, regional and local levels. It is the primary vehicle for promoting the development of sports and recreational facilities in Ireland. The programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland with improved facilities in virtually every village, town and city. The facilities funded range from new equipment for the smallest clubs, to regional multi-sport centres and national centres of sporting excellence.

It has operated on an annual basis and is part funded from national lottery funds. Over 7,400 projects providing a range of essential sports facilities have benefited from sports capital funding since 1998 bringing the total allocation in that time to over €725 million. In 2008 over €50 million was allocated towards 685 separate sports facility and equipment projects. These grants continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring the provision of modern high-quality facilities around Ireland that attract more people to participate in sporting activities.

In the 2009 Estimates, €56 million has been provided in my Department's vote to cover payments to be made from the C1 subhead out of which grants are paid for the provision of sports and recreation facilities.

Has that €56 million been allocated for new applications in 2009?

This is what I really want to know. Is there any funding for sports capital grant applications during 2009?

Not at this stage, no.

The Minister mentioned in answer to an earlier question that one can do more for less money. I agree that the €725 million allocated up and down the country has been a wonderful encouragement and help to sporting organisations to provide facilities for young people.

While I accept we are all in a tight budgetary situation, there should be some allocation for 2009. Does the Minister agree there is evidence in other countries going through downturns that it is a help to increase funding in such circumstances because the part played by sport helps lift the gloom? While I could accept that there would be a reduction in funding, to think there is no funding at all in 2009 for these sports organisations up and down the country is nothing short of a disgrace.

It will be an interesting exercise to see how much of the €56 million that I have allocated will be drawn down this year. As the Deputy will be aware, every €1 the State gives triggers approximately €2 locally. All clubs have loans secured by the banks involved in their applications. There is evidence of clubs having difficulties in being able to underwrite their commitments and I am interested to see what exactly will come in this year. Time will tell on that one.

I agree that the more we can put capital projects, especially small ones, into smaller areas around the country, the more beneficial the effect. There is no question about that.

However, it is time to pause and look strategically at the programme. To be quite honest about it, there have been ten years of constant non-stop investment in facilities all over the country. A more strategic approach is needed to ensure there is a good balance of facilities in all of the regions around the country, and I am engaged in that process at present.

I assure the Minister that it has been a successful and wonderful scheme and there is no need to slow it down. He stated that some clubs and organisations will not be able to draw down the money because of whatever difficulties they may have. If there is a saving in this regard, will the Minister consider taking new applications? If no funding for 2009 will be available, will the Minister assure the House that funding will be restored in 2010?

When I answered the question, I stated that I do not have any funding for 2009 at the moment. Obviously, I am anxious to facilitate investment in as many parts of the country as I can, particularly in sports facilities, but I also see the economic benefit for small areas where better value for money may currently be achieved.

The number of approved projects is substantial, some 635 last year and a further number of projects that have not yet drawn down their funding. They are awaiting their final invoices so that they may draw down funding. I will wait to determine how the situation evolves. If I have given the impression that many of the projects are in serious difficulty, I want to correct myself. However, it is more difficult to put localised funding together than in previous years. I do not want to place the projects under extra stress to deliver in their areas.

What about 2010?

Of course I want to do the sports capital programme.