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.