Other Questions.

Sports Funding.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

81 Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his views on the Gaelic players grant scheme and on whether it is appropriate that ring-fenced funding was available in 2008, yet in 2009 he is not supporting this programme with ring-fenced funding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16355/09]

I refer the Deputy to Priority Question No. 79 which I have answered earlier today.

I wish to raise a number of points on this issue. The Minister's predecessor, the late Mr. Séamus Brennan, stated that the issue has been debated and discussed for several years and that as the Minister with responsibility for sport, he took the view that it was important to end the continuing uncertainty and to bring finality to the matter. Everyone was pleased there was what we believed to be finality at the time. Subsequently money was ring-fenced within the Irish Sports Council for this grant in 2008 in the amount of €3.5 million. That provided the council with dedicated extra funding which has not been provided this year. Last year, the Irish Sports Council had a dedicated fund for the GPA which has been effectively dispensed with this year. What is it supposed to do in terms of providing funding? Why is the funding not ring-fenced again this year as it was in the previous year?

The funding was not specifically ring-fenced. An extra allocation was made if I recall correctly, although I was not responsible for the matter at the time. I am being perfectly frank with the Deputy. We are in very different and difficult circumstances and while I would be very pleased to allocate €3.5 million for the GAA players and would have no difficulty with that, the difficulty is that the budget, as with all other budgets, has been reduced and people are trying to find a balance in respect of where the resources should be allocated.

There are sporting areas in which we could improve. We are aware of these and are trying to support very small organisations on relatively small budgets. However, those budgets make a substantial difference in getting some of the raw athletes up to elite level. Cutting such budgets would not contribute much to the €3.5 million required. One must consider the bigger picture which I suggested in response to Deputy O'Mahony's question. I am not saying these players are not deserving of it, but others could and should step up to the plate. I do not believe the entire responsibility should be on the taxpayer. Unfortunately, we are in very different economic circumstances and I simply do not have the resources which were available in the past, nor does any other Minister.

The GPA has been in touch with all of us. It makes the point that it would agree to take a proportionate cut similar to any other organisation and it has no difficulty with that. Does the Minister not believe it is somewhat unfair that last year it had money guaranteed and now it would appear the players are in total limbo again and there is no commitment from anyone that they will be given the money? They need clarity on the matter soon.

I hope clarity may be brought to the matter as soon as possible. I am simply setting out the parameters and a decision must be made within those parameters. I accept that people do not wish to be in limbo. Grants were paid out at the very end of the season last year. I am unsure of Deputy O'Mahony's view generally speaking rather than on the politics of the issue. He is at the coal face as a practitioner. This is a difficult issue with which to deal.

The principle of the grants should be maintained. As Deputy Upton stated, whatever percentage cut comes with other areas should be applied. My understanding was that it was not ring-fenced but that there was an instruction from the Minister's predecessor, Mr. Brennan, to find the money within the budget. The reason I put the question today is to urge the Minister to do the same within the current budget.

Perhaps I am not putting it across very well, but the point is there are myriad non-governmental bodies and national sporting bodies which receive small grants which barely keep such organisations going. Such bodies are nonetheless important to try to sustain a given sport. There simply is no room to take money out of such allocations and one would not find €3.5 million in any case. If one examines the difference in the size of the Irish Sports Council grant from last year, some obvious conclusions may be drawn. We either stop funding many small sports altogether to maintain what everyone on the Opposition seeks or we do not. This is the challenge we now face. The State and the taxpayer has rightly provided substantial resources for capital projects which are now generating substantial returns. This will continue for the other bodies when the Lansdowne Road project is completed. Where does the responsibility for player welfare lie? In some respects the national body, the GAA, would say it is directly responsible for player welfare, but it cannot be both.

There was a protracted and difficult process before a resolution was reached but we arrived at a resolution. The Irish Sports Council did not ask to be the agency to deliver the money. It did not volunteer to do so, but that role was foisted upon it. In 2007, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism stated that an amount of €3.5 million would be provided in 2008 to fund such schemes. We simply cannot turn back the clock now, leave the players high and dry, say it is over and that they may go and sing for their supper because the money is no longer there.

I would apply that to a range of areas in many different Departments; it is not exclusive to my Department. I understand the bona fides of the point made by the Deputy, but the reality of Government is that one must make choices which are sometimes very difficult. We are also criticised for not reducing public expenditure substantially. One cannot have it both ways. It is either one or the other and one tries to find a balance. I realise it is a luxury of Opposition to suggest that we should maintain it but I am setting out what the parameters are in an honest way. Hopefully, we will come to a conclusion and that is the reason the Irish Sports Council is there.

Tourism Industry.

David Stanton

Question:

82 Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his recent policy and initiatives to stimulate tourism nationally; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16514/09]

John Perry

Question:

88 Deputy John Perry asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his views on whether the most recent tourism figures indicate a continuation in the downward trend in overseas visitors here, particularly from Britain; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16495/09]

Tom Hayes

Question:

94 Deputy Tom Hayes asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his views on whether Fáilte Ireland will find it difficult to fulfil its purpose in view of the current economic situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16511/09]

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

102 Deputy Jim O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his views on the opinion that a focused emphasis on tourism could have a positive impact on tackling economic problems; and his proposals in this regard to encourage same. [16243/09]

Willie Penrose

Question:

108 Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism the progress on the Mid Term Review on the New Horizons in Irish Tourism; when this review will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16359/09]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

324 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he proposes to take specific steps to support the tourism industry in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16785/09]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

325 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he intends to introduce policy changes with the objective of assisting the tourism sector in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16786/09]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

326 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he will introduce specific incentives to assist the tourism sector in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16787/09]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

327 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he intends to take special initiatives to facilitate cost cutting in the tourism sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16788/09]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 82, 88, 94, 102, 108 and 324 to 327, inclusive, together.

I may ask any question I wish.

I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will permit it.

We will run out of time if the question is not answered.

I will go through the answer because it is substantial given the magnitude and importance of the question.

I am sure it is.

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.

Is it true that the Tourism Ireland revised forecasts, to which the Minister referred in his reply, are quite bleak in that they indicate a worst-case scenario of a fall of 15% in revenue and 9% in visitor numbers? Will the Minister agree that this is a time for an imaginative and innovative response to this issue? Will he further agree that we need something urgently, that waiting for the middle of this year for a report before doing anything is a case of too little, too late? Has he any proposals now, as the season is about to start?

I agree with the Deputy that any actions now to solve the problem this year would be very late. All the decisions with regard to this year have already been taken. There has been significant reorientation within the budgets for marketing expenditure, focusing on the different markets and the type of holidays being promoted. The Deputy is probably familiar with the new campaign on television, being broadcast throughout the world, which shows why people should visit Ireland. We have maintained the full tourism marketing spend and there is a significant focus on the UK market because it is likely many UK residents will holiday within the UK and it is hoped they will also come on holiday to Ireland this year. There has also been specific targeting within the US market. The renewal group is studying the strategy for the period up to 2013. Mr. Maurice Pratt is the chair of this group and I commend him on the amount of time he has given to it. He has impressed me greatly because of his commitment of his personal time and effort from which we will all benefit.

The Deputy is correct in that one could not expect a change this year. They have presented a picture of the worst-case scenario which is the figure of 9% and based on significant research carried out in recent times in other markets. The problem is that the other markets are experiencing the same sort of economic situations, in some cases even worse economic situations. We are trying to maximise the number of tourists coming to Ireland. I have said it will be more than 7 million visitors as this was the record only three or four years ago. If we can maintain it over that figure, we will certainly be in a position to win the battle as regards tourism spend in Europe this year.

The Minister has correctly stated that access fares have been coming down in many cases. However, overall access ability, the capacity to access Ireland, has decreased. There has been a significant diversion of flights out of Ireland in particular. This morning, Aer Lingus announced it will be cancelling its Airbus orders which means there will not be growth in the long haul trips to America, upon which so much hope had been placed, for the foreseeable future and we all know how long it takes to deliver an order for a long haul Airbus.

Shannon Airport will have the advantage of providing pre-clearance facilities for US entry, unlike any other city in Europe. Is there anybody out there promoting this advantage to other carriers? If our carriers are not going to be bringing people to America in the numbers we had hoped, then we have to hope that other carriers will land in Shannon and avail of that facility and perhaps bring visitors to Ireland in both directions. Is this the responsibility of the Minister and, if not, whose responsibility is it? It is a once-off opportunity.

One of the big complaints still being made relates to the cost of eating out and other cost factors in Ireland. These are having a negative impact on people. What initiatives are in place to ensure those costs are reduced and to encourage more tourists, local and international?

Will the ban on recruitment in the public service have implications for the hiring by the Office of Public Works of seasonal staff to man OPW facilities around the country?

In reply to Deputy Mitchell, as a matter of interest I met with Continental Airlines representatives when I was in Houston which is its main hub. This was one of the reasons for my visit to America for the St. Patrick's day festivities. The airline is very robust in its attitude to Ireland. It is confident about the current number of its flights and sees great potential for expansion. It is very aware of the Shannon pre-clearance proposals and the facilities at Dublin and these are regarded as a great boost to the use of Shannon Airport. I confirm that the airlines are acutely aware of this proposal. It is under the remit of the Minister for Transport but the process is now being finalised with the US State Department and discussions are ongoing. These facilities are staffed from the US as opposed to this country.

In reply to Deputy Upton, there has been a natural and substantial decline in costs which is having a positive effect and there has been significant discounting in the tourism sector, both in hotel accommodation and in restaurants. I know that in Dublin the level of discounting has been up to about 20% which is rebalancing the competitiveness of Ireland. One of the benefits of the current economic scenario is that our tourism sector is becoming more competitive when compared with some of our international competitors. This is to our advantage when marketing Irish tourism, within the US and the UK and throughout continental Europe.

On the OPW, it is hoped that issues will be resolved. I understand the point made by Deputy Naughten. It is important to have the maximum number of facilities open for as long as possible over the weekends and at bank holidays. Improvements in opening hours were made last year but there are certain financial constraints which we hope can be overcome.

Written answers follow Adjournment Debate.