I take great pleasure in contributing to the debate. I come from a constituency that has been very much reliant on agriculture and tourism. The agriculture sector went through a difficult period but it has recovered. We are competing with other interests in the context of tourism. I grew up in Boyle, a small town, and 25 years ago, we had a thriving tourism industry based around Lough Key forest park and fishing. Every town and village along the River Shannon was visited annually by English fishermen who fished for trout, bream and pike. They were very much part of the community as they stayed in local pubs, bed and breakfast accommodation or hotels. Every night they joined the locals for a few drinks and there was great interaction between everybody with conversations concentrating on fishing and football and so on.
My constituency stretches from Roscommon town to the Border and, at the time, the English fishermen never allowed the Troubles in Northern Ireland to get in the way of travelling here. Every year they visited the area and they would come into my shop in the morning to buy newspapers and cigarettes but, unfortunately, we priced ourselves out of the market and a major issue emerged in regard to coarse fishing as the fish seemed to disappear. I have raised this question over the years and no matter what anybody says, the same volume of fish is not in our rivers as before. English fishermen now visit Holland and Denmark to fish large ponds. We lost sight of the fundamentals of a tourism industry, as we priced ourselves out of this revenue stream. The same happened with boating on the River Shannon. Tourists would visit every year from Germany and Austria to hire boats from Guinness cruisers and Carrickcraft. At the time it was expensive to do so but it was within their budget. We again priced ourselves out of that. Many of the boats that serviced the canal between Ballyconnell and Ballinamore have been transferred by major companies to France because we priced ourselves out of the market.
Lough Rynn Castle Hotel and Kilronan Castle Hotel and Spa opened in the area in recent years but we need more quality accommodation at budget prices. I was involved in the Lough Key forest park action group many years ago. In the 1980s, the park attracted 200,000 visitors annually and it was a major part of the local economy but it was allowed to deteriorate. In recent years, many initiatives have been undertaken with more than €10 million spent. However, if we had relied on the local authorities, Bord Fáilte and Coillte to think outside the box, nothing would have been done. The European Regional Development Fund provided 80% funding for tourism facilities but the park was owned by Coillte and it could not draw down the funding because it was a semi-State body. The local authority did not have access to the park and, therefore, I suggested that the council should take over part of the park in partnership with Coillte before applying to Brussels for the €8 million required to upgrade it. The officials who should have been running our business did not think that this was on. The local authority then went into partnership with Coillte. We now have control of the park following the investment of €10 million and it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. It is wiping its face but, more important, it is providing the foundation for tourism infrastructure in the west and we need more rooms to live off it.
I thank the Minister of State for his generosity in providing money for cycle and pedestrian paths between the park and Boyle town. Cycle paths and walking routes are the way forward. For example, if one takes a trip to Holland, one can stay in a town, cycle 50 or 60 miles the following day at a leisurely pace and then stop off for dinner before staying somewhere else. That is the way forward in this country, particularly in the midlands, and it would be beneficial to create these routes near rivers. Funding was also secured for a cycle path beside the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal. These were welcome developments and they have provided a new tourism product. Many people are also driving to the new cycle path between Westport and Mulranny in County Mayo. It is 30 km long and it is a great way to spend a day.
The OPW is in receipt of significant funding. If its officials had been thinking outside the box over the years, they would never have allowed Lough Key Forest and Activity Park to be put in the hands of a semi-State body such as Coillte. They should have recognised this as a major jewel in the crown in the context of our national parks and they should have taken control of it. The reason for this is the OPW had a set budget, which it spent on the same projects, and officials did not bother thinking outside the box. They do a great deal of good work but they have access to significant resources, which could be redistributed in consultation with voluntary organisations. King House, the home of the Connaught Rangers, is located in Boyle. During the Great War, many young men left the west to fight for freedom. They had been forgotten about but King House has been converted into a museum to honour the rangers. The house has a significant and varied past in the context of the Easter Rising and the Great War and that has been recognised. Roscommon County Council, in particular, has invested significantly in this attraction and it is trying to maintain funding. However, we need to think outside the box regarding how these sites are developed and operated. An organisation similar to the National Trust could be established through which local volunteers could use the available resources because they know what is needed locally and many of them want to be part of the provision of tourism facilities in their communities. The OPW and other bodies could work together to ensure resources are better used while involving the community because the goodwill is there.
Agricultural tourism is becoming more important. During the Celtic tiger era, the generation of income in the agriculture industry was forgotten about. We decided we would have an economy based on international finance but effectively what we were doing was selling houses to one another, and we know where that got us. We are now back to thinking straight and I am pleased that agriculture, and agri-tourism, is doing well but we must put greater emphasis on tourism because 200,000 earn their living from the industry. With a little work we can increase that figure enormously. Incentives such as the reduction in the airport travel tax are welcome as is the reduction in VAT from 13.5% to9%, which will encourage people to go out and buy a cup of coffee. Many restaurant and coffee shop owners have telephoned me to say that VAT reduction gave them the incentive to hire extra staff.
We must develop centres of excellence. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has generously given a huge grant to Lough Rynn for a rowing centre, for which I thank him. This is an ideal lake as it is located in the centre of the country and is easily accessible from both Belfast and Dublin. That is the type of development we need. It has the facilities in place with the hotel beside it. That is an exciting development and is a way of looking at a different aspect of tourism.
There is another opportunity I have been examining for our own forest park. There are many thermal spas in Europe. For those Members who do not know what they are it is where the warm water comes up from the ground. They are in Budapest and elsewhere. Geothermal drilling is done three or four km into the ground to reach the water and it provides electricity for the national grid. We could examine providing water for an outdoor thermal spa, even in Dublin. We could do something in St. Stephen's Green or the Phoenix Park. The water is below ground. The project may cost hundreds of thousands or millions of euro but it would be another aspect of tourism to consider. When one travels to Budapest in the middle of winter one wonders whether to go for a pint or to the cinema but another option is to sit outdoors in one of these thermal spas and be warm.
This is something that could attract people to this country and it would also provide electricity for the national grid. I am aware that one company with whom I have had discussions is drilling in Newcastle, in south Dublin. We would be providing electricity for the grid and it is something we should examine. I am aware the Minister is open to suggestions and that he will consider this aspect. He might also ensure it would go into Lough Key Forest Park, which is in the exciting Carrick-on-Shannon, Boyle, Drumshanbo and River Shannon tourism region. Our transport, car hire, food and accommodation costs have come down and we must keep our eye on the ball as regards tourism.
We must get more flights into Knock Airport which has an excellent management team. If the same management team was in charge of the Dublin Airport Authority we would not have the same problems and the white elephants we have now. That team is in charge of an airport in an area that otherwise would not have an airport. The members of the team have shown great professionalism and ingenuity in ensuring that more flights come into the country, although more flights are leaving the country as well.
A great deal has been done to promote surfing in this country. Every time I travel home from Dublin cars with surf boards on them pass me travelling back from the west or the north west. What has happened in that regard is phenomenal. Surfing championships were held recently in Bundoran and people came from all over the world to attend them. Who would have thought that would happen here? When we thought of surfing many years ago we thought of countries like Hawaii or elsewhere but they are surfing on the west coast of Ireland in their wetsuits, and they have all the rain gear also. I am sure the Minister has done his own surfing off the west coast as well.