The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that there was a reduction of 4.3% in the number of overseas visitors to Ireland for the first two months of 2009 compared with the corresponding period of 2008. Overseas visitor numbers for 2008 as a whole were down by 2.2% on the numbers experienced in 2007.
While any reduction in the numbers of overseas visitors is disappointing, the figures must be seen in context. Ireland enjoyed a number of years of successive growth in visitor numbers reaching a record level of just more than 8 million visitors in 2007. Tourism worldwide saw a significant downturn in the second half of 2008 due to the global economic slowdown and loss of consumer confidence. Great Britain was especially affected by this slowdown with the euro to Sterling exchange rate making it very challenging to attract visitors to euro zone destinations.
There is general consensus that 2009 will also be a very difficult one for tourism globally. Nevertheless, the most pessimistic targets set by Tourism Ireland mean that we will still welcome more than 7 million overseas visitors in 2009 with a highly significant benefit to the Irish economy. The industry and the tourism agencies are fighting hard for every bit of tourism business to maximise our share in the months ahead.
In addition to attractive air and sea access fares, there is very good value for money available in tourist accommodation and restaurants at present and bed capacity has increased very significantly in recent years. While our businesses are responding positively to current challenges, it is just as important that the strategic framework for tourism development responds to the changing environment. On 2 December last, I announced the establishment of the Tourism Renewal Group. This high-level group has been tasked with reviewing and, where appropriate, renewing the current tourism strategy, to ensure that the strategy is focused for the short term and, looking further ahead, that the tourist industry is well placed to benefit from the upturn when it comes. I have asked the Tourism Renewal Group to report by the middle of 2009 with recommendations in the form of a framework for action for the period to 2013. I am advised that the Tourism Renewal Group is following an agreed work programme to meet this challenging timetable, commencing with an assessment of the current position and broadly-based consultations, including face-to-face meetings and consideration of written submissions. I understand that the group has held four meetings to date in addition to two full days of consultation meetings with key actors in the tourism and related sectors.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The importance of the tourism sector is recognised and reflected in the Government's policy document, Building Ireland's Smart Economy: A Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal, which makes specific reference to the work of the tourism renewal group and the potential of the tourism sector. It also highlights a range of other areas where there are synergies between tourism and the Government's vision for sustainable economic renewal, including the development of cultural tourism and improving trade, investment and tourism links with new and developing markets.
To assist the tourism sector through this current difficult period an extensive range of marketing, product development, training and business supports are being rolled out by the tourism State agencies under the tourism services budget of the Department. For example, the tourism marketing fund for this year will amount to over €47 million.
In addition, a programme of enterprise support is being delivered which includes helping businesses achieve savings in their cost base. Fáilte Ireland is also working closely with tourism enterprises and the Environmental Protection Agency on initiatives such as the green hospitality award, which aims to reduce energy, waste and water costs for hotel operators. I am satisfied that the initiatives being taken in these areas together with the funding provided to Fáilte Ireland and the other tourism agencies in 2009 are adequate to allow the agencies to fulfil their mandates.
Furthermore, 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 by my Department and the tourism agencies through engagement with the relevant Departments and agencies on their policies and programmes.
I am confident that the tourism sector here has the capacity to manage the current cyclical slowdown and that the mid-term review will help the sector to manage the challenges now facing the industry so that it will return to sustainable growth in the medium term.