I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to appear before it to speak about the tourism activities of Shannon Development. I am here today with my colleagues John King, tourism director, and Pat Daly, tourism marketing manager.
Shannon Development was set up by the Government in 1959 to promote Shannon International Airport. Over the years, our brief has grown and we are now Ireland's only dedicated regional economic development company. Our mandate is to develop the economy of the Shannon region, which encompasses Clare, Limerick, north Tipperary, south Offaly and north Kerry. These areas together have a population of more than 450,000 people. For clarification, north Kerry is not part of the Shannon region for tourism purposes. Our primary focus is on driving regional economic development in the Shannon region at the centre of a dynamic west of Ireland. We achieve this by ensuring that the more developed areas of the region reach their full potential, addressing the needs of the less developed parts of the region, creating demand for the Shannon International Airport gateway and delivering on a new vision for tourism in the Shannon region. That vision can be encapsulated in the phrase, "Delivering a better future for the Shannon region".
The world economy is changing from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. This is because computers and the Internet have changed the way people work. Most employees today work with their heads rather than their hands. To compete in this knowledge age, we need to focus on such things as infrastructure, education, training and broadband Internet connectivity. Shannon Development is working to deliver in these areas in all parts of the Shannon region. This progress will encourage companies to locate here and create jobs.
The Shannon Development property portfolio is a key driver of economic development in the region, providing property-based solutions for foreign and Irish businesses. Shannon Development uses its property portfolio as a developmental and promotional vehicle to support its regional economic development activities. Our properties are located at numerous sites throughout the Shannon region, which are specifically planned and zoned for industry, enterprise and tourism. These sites are serviced by high-capacity utilities, including water and power, with advanced telecommunications technologies also available. Key sites near large population centres such as Shannon, Limerick and Ennis offer easy access to national primary routes as well as air and rail links. We also have space available in small county towns and rural villages, offering an attractive quality of life, in more compact business and enterprise centres suitable for start-up enterprises and small businesses. Prime industry and enterprise locations include the Shannon Free Zone; the National Technology Park in Limerick and other business parks such as Raheen Business Park, with similar parks in north Kerry, Clare, north Tipperary and south Offaly; and key tourism assets such as Bunratty Castle and Folk Park and King John's Castle in Limerick.
As the regional tourism authority for the Shannon region, Shannon Development has an overall mandate which includes tourism development. Our aim is to ensure that the Shannon region is regarded as a high-quality tourism destination within Ireland and that we maximise tourism numbers and revenue for the region. Maximising traffic and sustaining services through Shannon Airport is a key objective. The company's role in tourism marketing is complementary to the international destination marketing role of Tourism Ireland. Shannon Development implements a number of direct campaigns at operator level that builds on the work of Tourism Ireland. In the domestic market, Shannon Development is responsible for one of the seven tourism regions. The company implements its tourism strategy as part of an integrated regional economic development approach. The tourism team is a full directorate in Shannon Development, with staff and budgets allocated to marketing, enterprise support and product development. An independent regional tourism board under the chairmanship of Michael Houlihan provides strategic guidance and leadership for regional tourism development. A three-year tourism strategy for 2008 to 2010, which has been circulated, was prepared with widespread input from the tourism industry and is now being implemented.
Our tourism marketing campaigns are promoting the region at home and overseas as a leisure and business destination. We shape our campaigns to meet current trends such as the short break phenomenon and sustainable tourism. We are increasing the use of Internet services and e-marketing to promote the region. We are also concentrating on areas and products that can be promoted outside of peak season. A key area is our work with airlines, airline vacation companies and international tour operators to maximise the visitor traffic in and out of Shannon Airport, thereby generating bed nights in the Shannon region. In delivering the tourism marketing role, we work closely with Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland, Shannon Airport and the other regional tourism authorities on super-regional initiatives in particular, as well as the tourism and travel industry.
We manage a network of eight tourist information offices and 16 information points in the Shannon region, which provide information, reservations, advice and guidance to more than 350,000 visitors each year. Shannon Development is working on a range of new tourism concepts and projects across the region. These include: walking, cycling and water-based trails; Limerick riverside city; Lough Derg and River Shannon developments; the mid-Shannon tax corridor scheme; and rural tourism opportunities, including the Burren and other county areas. We also work closely with Fáilte Ireland and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism in implementing the tourism development agenda as part of the national development plan.
Shannon Heritage, a wholly owned subsidiary of Shannon Development, endeavours to preserve the region's culture and heritage, traditions and customs, castles and places of history for future generations to enjoy. Our attractions introduce visitors to the magic and mystery of the prehistoric, Celtic, Viking, Anglo-Norman and native Irish communities, thereby covering a period from 5,000 years ago to the present. The Shannon Heritage portfolio has developed from a single product in 1963, the medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle, to a total of eight daytime visitor experiences and five evening entertainments. All the expertise gained over the years is being brought to bear to ensure that all our visitors have a fun, value-for-money experience. To date, almost 4.5 million people have enjoyed visits to Shannon Heritage's unique venues, such as Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, King John's Castle, Craggaunowen and others.
The tourism industry is experiencing a downturn in business in 2008 in line with most consumer sectors in the economy. The forecast by Tourism Ireland is that overall, international visitors will be down this year by 3%. Along the west coast, the impact is likely to be even greater and a reduction of 10% in international visitor numbers is possible. Despite this, the results from the Shannon Development tourism programmes for 2008 are very encouraging. Programmes and projects directly invested in, and promoted by, the company generated 234,000 passengers through Shannon Airport, leading to 426,000 bed nights in the region. This will generate a €43 million return to the regional economy this year, which represents 12% of the overall market and a tenfold return on investment. The short-term outlook for tourism is for a difficult 2009 and the company is committed to continuing its investment in marketing and product development to win business for the region and to be well positioned to take advantage of the economic upturn, when it arrives.
I thank members of the joint committee for the opportunity to make this statement and my colleagues and I will be happy to answer any queries they may have regarding our tourism activities.