Growing Tourism to 2025: Statements

I thank Members of the House for giving me the opportunity to speak about tourism, in particular, the Government's policies to support the continued growth in tourism up to 2025.

When the Government took office in 2011, it identified tourism and hospitality as a key sector in Ireland's overall economic recovery and committed itself to various actions to support the sector, rebuild competitiveness, grow business and increase employment. Reducing VAT on tourism services has enhanced the competitiveness of the sector. This measure has been complemented by a radical change in our approach to visitors from developing markets through, for example, the visa waiver programme, as well as other positive developments in the broader visa regime. The Gathering in 2013 was a highly successful initiative, backed, crucially, not just by the Government but also by communities the length and breadth of Ireland and it delivered a significant increase in overseas visit numbers and revenue. The zero rating of the air travel tax, announced in budget 2014, has also had a welcome impact in terms of additional capacity on many existing routes, as well as the introduction of over 20 new services. In the 2013 budget, we extended the employment and investment incentive scheme to allow the participation of tourism accommodation and also confirmed that hotels and tourism accommodation could be held as rental investment assets as part of real estate investment trusts, REITs. This was extended for another three years in budget 2015.

In order to place the Government's longer term plans in context, I will summarise briefly the current strong performance of tourism and its significant contribution to Ireland's overall economic performance. From a position, in 2010, where the number of overseas visitors had fallen by 16% in two years, we have seen overseas visitor numbers increase every year since 2011. In 2014 we attracted 7.6 million overseas visitors to Ireland and these visitors contributed an estimated €3.5 billion to the economy.

I am pleased to report that the picture for 2015 is very positive. CSO figures released last week show there were just over 3 million visits in the first five months of 2015, an increase of 12.1% compared to the same period in 2014. This represents an additional 329,800 visitors from around the world. This strong performance is all the more impressive as it is distributed over the full range of our source markets.

Visits from mainland Europe grew by 14% for January to May 2015, to almost 1.1 million visits. There were 453,000 visits from North America, an increase of 13.6%, and visits from Great Britain were up by 10.1% to 1.3 million. Visits from the rest of the world, mostly long-haul and developing markets, totalled almost 174,000 for the first five months of 2015, representing an increase of 13% on the same period in 2014. The resurgence in tourism in the past four years does not mean that the Government can divert its attention away from the sector. In fact, it necessitates very close attention by the Government to ensure Ireland's tourism sector can continue to grow in a way that is sustainable from an economic, social and environmental perspective.

I will now turn to the policy framework that has been put in place to ensure tourism remains a central part of Ireland's economic recovery. Last March the Taoiseach and I launched the Government's new tourism policy statement, People, Place and Policy - Growing Tourism to 2025. It provides a framework for the tourism industry to thrive in a changing global tourism marketplace. The three headline targets of the new statement are: revenue from overseas tourism to rise from €3.5 billion in 2014 to €5 billion per year by 2025, net of inflation; 250,000 people to be employed in tourism by 2025, compared with approximately 200,000 at the current time; and ten million overseas visits to Ireland by 2025, compared to 7.6 million in 2014. The increase in overseas visits and, more importantly, the increase in overseas visitor revenue will have a direct impact on tourism employment numbers. Our goal is to create an additional 50,000 jobs in the sector. These are additional jobs that will support families and communities in every part of Ireland.

We have examined Irish tourism through the lens of people and place, and have devised a policy that builds on our innate strengths as a tourism destination while preparing ourselves for the challenges that the future will bring. I would like to bring the Seanad through a few important aspects of the new tourism policy statement. I will first address the people strand of our framework. We are focusing on those who work in the tourism sector and the means by which the quality of the visitor experience can be maximised through interaction with communities generally.

The people who work in tourism are a particularly important asset to Ireland. A chapter of our statement looks closely at the area of skills in the tourism sector. My Department and Fáilte Ireland are working closely with the Department of Education and Skills, SOLAS, and the expert group on future skills needs to ensure the training and skills development measures are in place in order that the tourism industry can effectively meet the needs of visitors into the future. The policy also acknowledges the key role played by a wide range of events in encouraging tourism into Ireland and in enhancing the experience of visitors during their stay.

A new policy objective in this area is that support for events will be weighted towards those that offset the seasonal nature of tourism. The Government will also examine closely the possibility of a repeat of The Gathering and the scope for other themed events and this will be pursued further when drawing up the tourism action plan which will follow the statement. However, we recognise that the many commemorations of critical events in our history in the coming years are not primarily focused on tourism; rather, they are occasions to remember, but on which we will also look to the future with confidence.

The place strand of our framework contains a range of objectives designed to ensure Ireland remains a place that people from other countries aspire to visit and one which provides the highest quality of visitor experience. Creating a desire to experience Ireland as a place and thus inspiring people to visit is at the core of our overseas tourism marketing. The tourism policy endorses, as a policy principle, the brand architecture and consumer segmentation model which has been developed by the tourism agencies and the tourism industry to identify and focus resources on the most promising consumer segments in each of our priority markets. The importance of maintaining and enhancing, through the protection of natural and cultural assets, the quality of place that visitors experience during their stay is clearly set out. Within the wider context of sustainable development, we will seek to balance that with appropriate development to adapt to changing visitor needs. There is a target of supporting capital investment in tourism for the purpose of improving the visitor experience where such investment is necessary but not feasible on a purely commercial basis. The key difference in the new policy is that supports will be weighted towards investment that is complementary to brand propositions such as the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East.

The Wild Atlantic Way has exceeded our expectations in terms of how quickly it has caught the imagination of people in our overseas markets, as well as communities along the route. The main objective of the Wild Atlantic Way project is to motivate more overseas visitors to visit the west, give them reasons to linger longer in terms of tourism experiences and encourage them to engage with the landscape and communities along the route.

Building on the lessons learned during the development of the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's Ancient East is a compelling tourism offering which will give visitors the opportunity to experience 5,000 years of European history in a small, compact area. It has the potential to attract significant additional visitors to these areas and, in so doing, will generate revenue and jobs in many rural communities. Last week, in Waterford, I met representatives of tourism businesses who were excited by the project, gave me feedback on it and are eager for it to get off the ground. I also want to acknowledge the role that counties such as Kilkenny have played in terms of moving forward with initiatives. I recognise the wonderful work Kilkenny has done in embracing the role of festivals and activities in delivering better events and a more authentic experience for domestic consumers and international tourists. I refer to the success of the Kilkenny Roots Festival and the great plans in place for another Kilkenny Arts Festival this summer, which I hope to visit. The manner in which Kilkenny and other counties have embraced such initiatives as Ireland's Ancient East gives me confidence that they will play a greater role in the future in delivering more tourists to the south and east.

Dublin is also the subject of a major brand experience project. The new Grow Dublin Tourism Alliance is, for the first time ever, focusing on a unified branding and marketing proposition for Dublin and is bringing together key stakeholders such as the local authorities, tourism agencies and industry representatives, as well as experts in key sectors such as marketing and communications. The alliance will also be responsible for putting in place a sustainable funding model to support the project. I acknowledge the role and work of Michael Carey and the many other people who voluntarily gave up a large amount of time to be involved in this project. In this sector those who are busy doing lots of other things such as keeping hotels, businesses or services open in recent years are now trying to find ways to make them grow even more quickly. I have frequently asked someone in the sector to give up his or her free time for next to no compensation to help our national pie get bigger and help us to market the country even better.

Every time I have gone to people to ask them to do this work they have agreed. It is to the enormous credit of everybody involved in the sector that they want us to do even better in the future. While everybody involved in the sector competes ferociously against each other, as I expect them to do, they also collaborate in a way which is to their credit.

Having outlined various strands of people and place, I will focus on what brings them all together, which is policy. These are the three Ps: policy, place and people. When we bring place and people together through policy we come up with a proposition which is authentic and with which other countries struggle to compete. There is no point in looking at what other countries do and looking to do the same. There is no point looking at what we did in the past and saying if we keep doing it, we will be successful in future. This does not apply to tourism. It does not apply to many other parts of the economy, but it certainly does not apply to a sector which is so mobile and competitive. By bringing people and place together through the framework of policy we can build on the insights which have motored events such as The Gathering, supported initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way and festivals the length and breadth of the country and come up with ways of doing things better in a more effective way.

I recognise the role of local authorities and communities in making it happen. We are well beyond the days of saying the Department knows best how to market something on the west coast or in the south and east of the country. What the Department knows best is how to create a framework in which other people can collaborate effectively. Agencies such as Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland have world class expertise but it is local authorities and communities which know how the engagement works and happens.

Last August I attended the Fleadh Cheoil in Sligo with Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú. It was a great success. The expertise that went into making it happen is rooted in the local authority and community of the area. We can bring together the tools and, where needed, the funding to make such a collaboration far greater than the sum of its parts. I saw how that worked when I walked through the city of Sligo and saw how vibrant and animated all the streets and lanes were with music and visitors.

The final aspect of this concerns the direct role of Government policies in supporting this initiative. This is why the 9% VAT rate is so important. It is also why it is conditional on moderating pricing behaviour in the sector. I take this opportunity to reaffirm the message and the deal on this tax rate. I understand the need of the sector to make a living, price up and fund investment in new hotels or in upgrading existing bedrooms and hotels but this must be done in such a way that the sector does not become uncompetitive again. If people act in a way which reflects this, it will be recognised by the Government with regard to the VAT rate in place. Let us recognise our history in this area. Five years ago, two fifths of visitors who made the effort to come to Ireland and spend their money felt it was either poor or very poor value for money. Where are we now? Only 6% of tourists who came to Ireland in 2014 felt it was poor or very poor value for money. We have fought a long hard battle in this regard and it has been very tough for many people involved in the sector. Our policy framework recognises this is something on which we cannot loosen up or slacken our effort.

I recognise the role of cross-Border co-operation for a particular type of tourist who travels a great distance to come to Ireland. It is not of interest to him or her where the Border is or even if there is a Border. They want to experience all Ireland has to offer. We are doing great work in this area. Look at the work done by Tourism Ireland to support the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, all of the fantastic golf facilities in the North of Ireland and all of the other great things this part of the country has to offer. Perhaps the area in which we have demonstrated this the best is working together on events such as the Giro d'Italia. Every time I go to Armagh I still see the Giro d'Italia office. Look at the great work being done by the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive on the joint bid for the Rugby World Cup in 2023, an initiative enthusiastically supported by the Administrations of both jurisdictions.

I have gone into a fair bit of detail in many areas. I hope the House feels it has been worthwhile. The sector really matters to the economy and the Government has given it the recognition it deserves. We went through such dark days in the country in recent years but those days would have been even darker and we would still be in them if it had not been for the contribution made by sectors such as tourism. I look forward to announcing very soon the action plan that will come out of the strategy. I am not interested in having objectives or a strategy gathering dust somewhere. We will turn it into an action plan with dates for the measures we want to take soon and for those we believe will take a little longer. The Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, and I will chair the group. I look forward to returning to the Seanad to update it on progress, to hear the views of House on the policy I have outlined and to get input on how we can do things even better.

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire agus gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis as ucht an méid a dúirt sé anseo inniu agus as ucht an clár don todhchaí a chur sé os ár gcomhair. I welcome the Minister and thank him for the concept and policy he has put before us on tourism in Ireland. We have had a number of debates over the years on tourism and it was always evident each speaker had a particular passion because they all brought with them experience from their own region and community. This fits in with what the Minister said about local authorities and communities leading the way. This is possibly one of the best things that can happen.

When I look back on the past debates, I remember issues being raised about how tourism was changing. We have had a fluctuating history when it comes to tourism. In the early decades of the State we were very much dependent on Irish-Americans coming to Ireland and it was exceptionally good, needless to say. It was bound to become diluted. Subsequently, we were seen as a destination which was different and which people wanted to experience. On top of this, for a small country we have punched above our weight in many areas such as sport, music, art or literature. This is interesting because we are in a way a small population.

The Minister was quite right to refer to the 5,000 years of antiquity and history. This makes us stand out. When it comes to discerning tourists and people who have money to spend, this carries something particular for them. I recall some years ago a survey carried out among tourists to Ireland on what was important to them. Number one at the time was national monuments, which is what we are speaking about in the new concept of Ireland's Ancient East because it is about our heritage which makes us different.

I recall that years ago Ireland had its own entry at a particular World Expo.

I may not have the exact figures, but I believe we spent approximately €130,000 recreating a particular piece of heritage from Ireland. Other countries had huge entries costing millions of euro, but Ireland won the gold medal that year for the replica of Newgrange. We can see immediately why that was the case, because there would have been an explanation of Newgrange. People marvel that our civilisation was capable of designing Newgrange in such a way that when the sun rose on the shortest day of the year, it hit that exact spot. I asked a number of architects recently if they could calculate that today. I am not too sure whether it could be done, but it underlined our ancient civilisation as a progressive people. All of our stories are not sad. There was a great deal to celebrate there also.

What I like about this is that I can identify many of the points that arose here. I always felt that tourism was an industry that distributed the product, and also the profits, throughout the country. One could be living in an area that was not overly accessible and that might not have had a big hotel, but there might be something in the area that was a huge attraction. When I spoke about the fluctuating history of tourism and the changes that have occurred, I thought that was being somewhat sidelined. We saw people come to the cities and to places such as Killarney, and more power to them, but there had been a change over about 15 years whereby we did not see the same numbers travelling through the country as we had previously. Ireland's Ancient East is helping in that regard, similarly to the Wild Atlantic Way, which this year is to be seen at the Irish pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan. That gives us an idea of its importance. We all know how successful it has been. It was always there, but it took somebody to point out what was available in a particular area.

I will go a step further regarding Ireland's Ancient East. I understand that some people who believe they are somewhat outside the loop are anxious to come in. That is progress in itself. Many of the things we want to do not require money. What is required are marketing skills on the part of communities and others. I come from Cashel, a small town of 3,000 people in Tipperary, which might never have been heard of - although we had a few good hurlers in our day - if it were not for the Rock of Cashel. The Rock of Cashel is priceless. It is one of the foremost monuments in Europe, but I believe there is a need to do more to provide infrastructure. We have no hotel that can take a busload of tourists. That tells us something about the infrastructure.

We have no hotel that can cater for a busload of people. A quarter of a million people come to the Rock of Cashel every year, yet there is no hotel in the town that can cater for a busload. The point I would make - I am not suggesting it is not inherent in the plan - is that infrastructure must be part of what we are working on.

Another item in the six points listed in the famous survey that was done is high-class evening entertainment of a high quality. That can be provided regardless of how small an area one is in, even if it is only in a local pub or a community hall. Not every town will have a big theatre, but it is the ambience, friendship and all of that which makes the impact. There is a small pub in Doolin, in County Clare, which people throughout the world seem to know. I remember an uilleann piper coming in from New York on one occasion who said he was going to Doolin - he had heard about Doolin. My point is that we have to provide entertainment and other attractions, even in the smaller areas.

I make a special plea for bed and breakfast premises, because they are vital in areas where there are no hotels. They were exceptionally good in the past but, unfortunately, they are being over-challenged now. The overheads, red tape and so on for bed and breakfast premises must be revisited, because when a person stays in bed and breakfast accommodation in a rural area, they get a feel for the area. I believe they are a dying breed and I ask that we find some way of encouraging bed and breakfast owners to stay in the business.

Ar dtús ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Tourism is a key driver of social and economic development at both national and regional level. It is an industry largely populated by smaller enterprises and is deeply routed in the fabric of economic life in both urban and rural areas. As well as being our largest standing source of services export earnings, it also supports employment across the country for a range of skill levels, often in areas where the scope to develop other industry is constrained. Based on 2014 surveys and research, Fáilte Ireland estimates that overall employment in the tourism and hospitality sector is over 210,000 people.

Tourism is central to the Government's economic recovery programme. It was a great initiative on the part of the Minister to take that on. The programme for Government includes a series of specific actions relating to tourism. Furthermore, a new tourism policy statement, which the Minister mentioned, People, Place and Policy - Growing Tourism to 2025, was launched in Kilkenny by the Taoiseach and the Minister on 23 March. I was happy to be present for that launch in fabulous castle surroundings in the medieval city of Kilkenny, which was a beautiful location. It sets out the Department's roles and priorities in supporting tourism into the future.

Mindful of the operational independence of the tourism agency, a final statement of tourism policy provides appropriate policy direction and support to the tourism agencies. In particular, it will enable them to focus supports based on changing needs, emerging trends, overall tourism prospects and development opportunities.

The Minister quoted some of the figures on visitor numbers. The number of visitors to Ireland last year was up 8.9% compared to the previous year, with 7.6 million overseas visits to Ireland last year. The number of visitors from mainland Europe was up 7.1% compared to the previous year. The number of visitors from Great Britain was up by 8% compared to 2013, when there were 3.163 million visitors. The number of visits from North America was up 14.7% compared to the previous year, and for other long-haul markets there was an 8.7% increase in visitor numbers last year compared to the previous year. There was an 8.8% increase in revenue from overseas visitors compared to 2013. In actual terms, expenditure from overseas visitors for the year was €3.548 billion, excluding air and sea carrier receipts. Trips to Ireland for the five-month period from January this year are up 12.1%. We thought we would never succeed in topping the figure for the year of The Gathering, but it is up 12.1% compared to the corresponding period in 2014. The number of visits from mainland Europe is up 14% compared to the same five months in 2014 and the number of visits from Great Britain in those five months is up 10.1%.

The number of visits from North America is up by 13.6% and we have had a total of 453,000 visitors from North America in the first five months of this year. Therefore, we must applaud everyone concerned.

In other long-haul markets which were mentioned by the Minister there was a 16.3% increase in visitor numbers in the first five months of this year. For the first three months of 2015, the total expenditure by overseas visitors in Ireland, excluding fares, was €590 million which is an increase of 10.5% on the first three months of last year.

Fáilte Ireland's business sentiment index is positive, with seven out of ten tourism operators surveyed at the end of 2014 anticipating increased business this year. They have exceeded the figures already this year.

Fáilte Ireland has estimated that employment in tourism could increase by another 8,000 jobs during this year. Measures such as the retention of a lower rate of VAT, as mentioned by the Minister, the reduction of the air travel tax down to zero, as well as increased air access to Ireland and a greater focus on newer markets such as China and India through the introduction of the British-Irish visa scheme - the latter was a wonderful idea - should ensure Irish tourism will continue to grow.

The approved tourism business plan for 2015 targets growth in visitor numbers to Ireland of 6%. We achieved that target in the first five months of this year. Tourism Ireland is working hard to maintain momentum and hopes 2015 will be the best year ever for Irish tourism.

Tourism Ireland which is working closely with Fáilte Ireland has placed a major focus on highlighting the Wild Atlantic Way this year. I acknowledge the Wild Atlantic Way initiative by the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, who hails from the wild west. Both men have played their part in this wonderful achievement.

In the coming years Tourism Ireland will work closely with colleagues in Fáilte Ireland and the tourism industry to promote the new tourism proposition of Ireland's Ancient East, as mentioned by my colleague, Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, in all of the priority markets overseas. I have a copy of the brochure and it shows that the region concerned extends from medieval Waterford to the Battle of the Boyne site. The Minister should consider including the small county of Louth in the project. I advocate that the project be joined with the Newry and Mourne region and extended up the east coast of Ireland. Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú mentioned discerning visitors. I can assure everyone that County Louth has history and folklore and numerous places connected to St. Patrick. The region also includes a medieval town, a Viking village in Annagasson, Ferdia's ford in Ardee and places associated with Cúchulainn. County Louth is known as the land of legends. All of these places must be featured on the brochure for the Ancient East initiative.

I acknowledge the voluntary contribution made to tourism throughout the country. It has been made by local authorities, particularly by people participating in the Tidy Towns competition. Visitors like to see towns looking well. I acknowledge the part played by volunteers the length and breadth of Ireland to bring tourists to their little towns or villages. People have done such work on a yearly basis in the past 50 or 60 years.

I welcome the Minister and I am glad I was present to hear his speech because he said a number of things with which I agree. Looking at tourism through the lens of policy, people and place is wise. He also spoke about frameworks that his Department and the Government agencies were good at. I want to talk to him about the subject because there are areas that can be improved on. That is the broad outline of where I wish to go.

The policy of 9% VAT was very wise. I supported it when I was on the Government side of the House and I still support it. I will slightly deviate by saying the policy of 9% VAT has helped tourism and has increased the potential of distributing wealth around the country through tourism but it should now be extended to businesses in rural areas. I refer to businesses located on a high street which pay rent and rates compared with online businesses which do not. These businesses give life to rural areas. I am talking about independent retailers which badly need oxygen. I have often thought that we should do something similar for independent retailers. A reduction in VAT would really help them.

I wish to touch on the following topics: the greenway, Thoor Ballylee, Cashel House Hotel and rates. This morning the Minister and I spoke about the greenway. I appreciate he has opened up the consultation process to include farmers from Athlone to Ballinasloe to Galway city. A greenway is a great distributor of wealth for tourism but putting it through productive farmland will not work. There is a way to achieve a greenway for Galway and to meet farmers' needs and that is to use the old N6 route, to make it safe and to use the coastline, all of which are all in public ownership; therefore, the Minister will have no argument in that regard. I know he has reached the same understanding, namely, that we have to make the initiative work. I also know he wants the optimal use made of the money the Government invests in the greenway. I ask him, therefore, to consider seriously using the old N6 route for the greenway.

I am the chair of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society. Thoor Ballylee was Yeats's former home in south Galway and located near Gort. We opened the home to mark the anniversary of his birth on 13 June and between 700 and 800 people attended. The Minister may not know that the venue has been closed by Fáilte Ireland since 2009 due to flooding. Fáilte Ireland does not want the property anymore. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, gave me a licence for Thoor Ballylee last September in order that we could fund-raise and it was brilliant.

What is the name of the project?

It is Thoor Ballylee and refers to Yeats's tower. The long and the short of it is that the project represents our built and literary heritages. The project has been a draw for people. Since we opened the project three weeks ago - it is run by a voluntary committee without help from the State - we have taken revenue of between €1,500 and €2,000 a week in visitor fees. We have done incredible PR around the world on the project and we have capitalised on the Yeats 2015 initiative. The voluntary committee is working to make the project sustainable for the OPW to take it over in time. Thoor Ballylee must be declared a national monument and Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú referred to Cashel. Unfortunately, there has not been a willingness in this regard from the Minister responsible for heritage, which is a shame because Thoor Ballylee is a jewel in the crown. Earlier the Minister spoke about place. I can assure him that Thoor Ballylee is a gem, particularly when one looks at the number of visitors from at home and abroad who visit because anything to do with Yeats is such a draw.

I refer to the Cashel House Hotel, which is an historic house located in Connemara. It is the only employer in the area with about 30 staff. De Gaulle visited the house in 1967 and now the hotel has the De Gaulle gardens, seat and bedroom. French tourists visiting the region do not know where the house is because the signage, the finger sign, has been taken by the NRA and Galway County Council. I got a special dispensation for it but these are frameworks with which the Minister should work. He should work with the NRA and the councils to ensure tourism is not hurt by rules like those that apply to signage. Imagine removing the signage and leaving people not knowing where to go.

Rates are another issue I wish to raise. The rates for this historic house are in the region of €30,000 a year.

The woman who owns it is a widow and, I would guess, in her early 70s. She told me she has to take in €160,000 in turnover before she makes one cent. In fact, she has invested her pension into keeping the house open. What is particularly frustrating is that she is the only employer in the area.

There is a multiplicity of benefits to examining what can be done to support rural tourism. Rates, as I said, must be addressed, particularly how they are applied in rural areas. The Wild Atlantic Way was a brilliant idea and has proven a great draw for tourists. However, we have a situation where Irish Water made a decision to lay new pipes in Oranmore during the summer season. We have had several weeks of negotiations to prevent the village from being ripped up at the busiest time of the year. There is a lack of joined-up thinking on the part of local authorities, Irish Water and rates departments when it comes to tourism. These frameworks must be reviewed.

The Minister is only too aware of the potential. We have a fantastic country which people love to visit. The Minister touched on something very important when he referred to value for money. We can continue to offer tourists value for money if the employers and businesspeople who effectively run the tourism business are not cut off at the knees by silly decisions such as the one to which I referred in respect of signage. The issues with rates are, as I have outlined, a significant inhibiting factor. I thank the Minister for listening and hope he will take on board some of what I have said.

I welcome the Minister. Since the dip in tourism figures in 2010, we have seen the huge success of The Gathering which continues to have a ripple effect. For example, an event along the same lines is taking place in my own village this weekend, with 50 family members, 25 of them from America, coming together. Overseas visitor numbers are up 10.3% compared with the first six months of 2013. The number of trips to Ireland increased by 12.3% in quarter two, April to June, last year compared with the previous year. This is all excellent news for everybody involved in the tourism sector and reflects the great work being done by the Government. The figures for North American tourists are increasing year on year, as are those for mainland Europe and Britain. I am confident we will see those trends continue in 2015.

We have a great deal to offer in this country from a tourism perspective. If we had good weather, it would be the best place in the world in which to holiday. It is the only thing we cannot guarantee, so it would be great if the Minister could do something about the weather. Other speakers referred to the various aspects of our tourism product, including the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way initiative and the similarly successful greenway route from Westport to Achill. We have fantastic lakes and rivers, cycle routes and walkways, as well as wonderful attractions such as the Cliffs of Moher, Croagh Patrick and Achill Island, the latter being a beautiful place with lovely people and one of my own favourite places in the world. It is a vital part of our tourism package that we have the friendliest people in the world, as reflected in the feedback from visitors. Tourists like to encounter friendly staff in pubs, clubs, hotels and restaurants.

The Government's new tourism policy, People, Place and Policy, seeks to grow tourism in the next ten years with a view to generating an annual revenue of €5 billion from 10 million visitors in 2025. This expansion would see employment in the sector rising to 250,000, an increase of 50,000 over the current level. The Government has given an undertaking to retain the VAT rate at 9%, something which has proven very successful, so long as we remain competitive. Staying competitive is crucial to the further success of our tourism industry.

Anybody working or living in Dublin city can see it is full of tourists all year round. The same is true of Galway city. All across the country, small towns and villages are hosting events to attract tourists, which involves a great effort on the part of large numbers of volunteers. I take the opportunity to compliment Jim O'Sullivan who is trying to develop a Beara-Breifne greenway based on an old Famine walk from the Beara Peninsula up to Leitrim village. He is working with a colleague and friend of mine, Jimmy Coogan, on that project, but they have, unfortunately, encountered some problems. Farmers are largely co-operating but where they do not, the initiative is running into problems. Perhaps the Minister might consider offering some type of incentive to farmers who do not want people crossing their land.

My own county of Roscommon has a great deal to offer but is one of those counties that tends to be forgotten. Marketing of the region by Fáilte Ireland focuses mainly on places like Wesptort and Galway, with counties such as Roscommon losing out despite the attractions it has to offer. We have Lough Key Forest Park, for instance, and many beautiful lakes and rivers. We have the heritage capital of Ireland, as far I am concerned, in Rathcroghan Visitor Centre, with all its ring forts. We also have Clonalis House and the Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park. The list of attractions is endless. In common with other counties, we also have traditional song and dance to offer. Unfortunately, Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, who is a great champion of Irish music, is not in the Chamber. Tourists love to hear the Irish singing and to see Irish dancing. Simple things like that mean a great deal to visitors.

In the village in which I grew up, Ballintubber, there is an old castle which was never developed in any way. This coming weekend, however, 50 American student archaeologists are arriving to stay in the village for six months or more while they investigate what is hidden under the ground at the castle site. That is a fantastic opportunity for a village with two pubs, one church and a post office. Greater investment in heritage might well yield a huge benefit for the Government by way of an increase in tourism revenues.

I am delighted to welcome the Minister back to the Seanad. He was always an energetic and competent speaker as a Member of this House. It is a pity he was demoted to the Lower House; we would have preferred to keep him here.

Perhaps the Minister might come back to us some day.

Senator Feargal Quinn has said a terrible thing.

The Minister is giving us an opportunity today to influence the Government's new tourism action plan. The policy document has been immensely interesting to read, especially for somebody like me who grew up in the tourist business. My father opened Red Island Holiday Camp in Skerries in 1947, just after the war. My family was in the business at a time when tourism was not a big thing and there was, in particular, no enthusiasm for the types of holidaymakers we were accommodating. The tourist board at the time was focused on promoting hunting, fishing and golfing, and encouraging the types of tourists who came to us was not really supported. My father decided to operate on the boomerang principle, which was based on getting the customer to come back. That principle offers an amazingly powerful tool. We should focus on encouraging everybody in the tourism business in Ireland to remember that their main job is not to get as much money as they can out of tourists but to give those tourists the type of experience that will see them returning on a regular basis. In fairness, that is already happening to a large extent.

I welcome the Government report which contains a number of very good measures to grow the industry. The maintenance of the 9% VAT rate will depend on the sector ensuring it remains cost-competitive. I really hope that crucial measure is maintained. It would be much more useful if the Government would give a commitment to retaining the rate until at least a certain date, say the end of 2016, to provide more stability for businesses.

I hope the Member will take on board the suggestions offered by Senators today for growing the tourism industry. I will now outline the proposals I have for meeting that objective.

I note that there is only one mention of the Schengen regime in the report, while there are only three mentions of China in it. The report states:

Given that the UK is likely to remain outside the Schengen area, it is unrealistic to consider that Ireland would become a member of Schengen as that would require the re-introduction of border controls between [here and Northern Ireland]. Therefore, the goal is to continue to work to maximise the efficiencies that can be gained in the processing of visas for visitors for whom a visa is required to enter Ireland and the UK.

That is the elephant in the room. We all know that Chinese visitors are the fastest growing market - we heard it mentioned today - and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. There is a fascinating estimate that more than 100 million Chinese tourists will spend nearly $200 billion this year around the world - far more than Americans and Germans. We are suffering massively because of the Schengen agreement: the United Kingdom gets only one ninth of the number of Chinese tourists that France gets. We need to have a debate on the Schengen agreement. We are missing out on hundreds of millions of euros and thousands of jobs in the tourist sector because of the Schengen agreement. We can do something in this area. I am not quite sure where one would start, but it is necessary to do so.

We should also be considering what the Italians have done in the past few years. The Italian foreign ministry opened up several mobile offices in China which were able to issue visas. Therefore, visas were issued not only at the Italian embassy in Beijing and its consulate in Shanghai but throughout China. Thanks to this strategy, the number of tourists from China to Italy grew by 100% in the summer of 2011. Can we follow this example and enable such tourists to come here? I would like to see if the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could open up mobile visa offices in select locations in China. For a small investment, the reward from countries such as China could be significant. We should examine the idea.

Another great idea is from the United States which interviews Chinese visa applicants online and allows them to pick up their visas at any of 900 bank branches rather than at a US embassy. That is a great idea to make it easier for tourists to visit which we should consider implementing. Thanks to that scheme, the United States saw a 22% increase in Chinese visitors last year. Perhaps such a provision should have been included in section 5.2 of the report. I would like to see the Government examine the potential for such a scheme to be implemented here.

I note that section 1 of the report is the only part that makes reference to support for the Irish language and the Gaeltacht. There is a lot more to be done here. In particular, the Irish language means that towns and cities here can be different from towns in the United Kingdom or America. If we can encourage use of the Irish language, it will enable us to differentiate our towns in order that visitors coming here do not feel they are coming to the United Kingdom.

Rural tourism is another area. I had the opportunity, when I was 19 years of age, to be involved in an organisation called Comhar Taisteal. Comhar Taisteal was a travel co-operative. At the time, it made a deal with CIE that families could travel to west Cork and stay on farms. We made all those arrangements. I went down to west Cork and arranged a lot of that. The idea was that for a small sum they could travel there and be looked after by the farmers. City dwellers had a chance to stay on farms and experience part of the rural tradition. There is an opportunity to do something similar. This idea is also from Italy, where the concept is known as agriturismo and has worked very well. It is the basic idea of a small farm offering accommodation and a unique experience to a tourist. It could be a small cheese-making farm with a few beds, and tourists are willing to pay a premium for the experience. What they have found in Italy is that this sort of rural tourism it is extremely lucrative. Such tourists are willing to pay three to four times more for this sort of unique and authentic experience. Imagine the potential for rural areas in Ireland. I note that Senator Healy Eames spoke about what could be done in rural areas. These agriturismo farms get support at both national and EU levels. We should be examining this model here, and perhaps the agriturismo idea from Italy might fit in well. There are so many farms here that could offer the authentic Irish farm experience and a bed where tourists can experience something different, and even help out on the farm. We all did so, certainly in my day. We did not go away to hotels on holidays; instead, we went to our cousins down the country, and it was a real experience. We could almost do the same again. If it is done successfully in one part of the country, it could provide a national model. We do not have anything similar to the Italian agriturismo here, and the Government should look closely at it, as it attracts exactly the sort of high-margin tourists that the Minister wants to attract. On another similar note, the agriturismo model in Italy has been found to fuel exports of high-margin agrifood products. I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on this idea and some of the others.

I note that Doolin was mentioned by Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú. In Doolin there are two competing ferries going out to the Aran Islands. One of the companies involved has now come to Dún Laoghaire and Howth and runs one of its Doolin boats from Dún Laoghaire to Howth twice a day. The idea is wonderful. I note the number of people coming to Howth to do this. One goes out to Howth and gets on the boat to Dún Laoghaire and included in the fare, at a cost of €1, is the return trip by DART, in order that if one has come to Howth one can end up back in Howth and the fare is reasonable. This is the sort of initiative that is taking place. That one came from Doolin, but the model is now capable of being transferred right around the country.

I am delighted that the Minister has come to the House today and given us an opportunity to debate and influence policy in the future.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss his policy and allow us to share our ideas and debate our vision for tourism in this country up to 2025. It is important, as this is a huge area, that we all are here today and that we listen and give it our all, because it is our children and grandchildren who will profit, with the nation.

It is a huge area, as I have said. I will focus on heritage, which I understand is not the Minister's area, although it should be. Since I came to the Seanad, I have wondered whether the Minister gets frustrated sometimes that we operate here in individual silos. I would like if all of the areas that touch on tourism were under one strong ministry. For example, we have, in the brilliant young Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris; the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, three excellent human beings, but I would like to see the OPW, arts, heritage, tourism and any matters to do with the environment that would affect forestry or tourism all under one portfolio such as that of Deputy Paschal Donohoe who could work on the whole area. If we are to reach these goals, such a development would be powerful in Government policy and around the Cabinet table in the future.

Today, we are at 9.6 million visitors and we want to get to 10 million. I would even like to get beyond that. We are at a turnover of €1.4 billion and we want to get to €5 billion. I would like to get beyond that, because I am the greatest raving fan of Ireland in the world. We have one of the greatest brands in the world. I know for certain that we have some great competition. For example, there is England, across the water, with its National Trust. In driving around England, one sees that they look after their pubs, villages and old buildings. As the Minister will hear from my little speech, I do not believe we are there.

Senator Feargal Quinn has a brilliant idea about China and I saw the Minister writing it down. It is similar to the pre-clearance facility which allows Irish people to clear immigration control when travelling to the United States. I now see so many Europeans coming in through Dublin. I note that one must get a special visa and when one visits Paris, it is overrun by the Chinese. London and England are only getting a tiny number. The Chinese have money to spend. Let us act and get them.

Let us put the equivalent of IDA Ireland offices into China to make it easy for the Chinese to visit this country and spend their much needed money.

The areas that make this country an attractive destination include our natural scenery, walled towns, culture, heritage, folklore, landscapes, ocean, islands, rivers, canals, lakes, food, archeology, architecture and the outcome of our same-sex marriage referendum. Three gay friends of mine, one from New Zealand and two from the United States, are coming here next year to get married. I am thinking that perhaps I should start a business. I am being a little light-hearted, but this is an opportunity.

This is a beautiful country to visit. My friends from New Zealand want to get married on the River Nore in Kilkenny.

To touch on some of the negatives, one is the overarching Government policy. We need co-operation among Departments, a realigning of ministries and to pull it all together in order that we can be powerful when it comes to this area. I also mention the EPA and note that Senator Denis Landy is present. The EPA upsets me greatly with respect to tourism. There is a blanket immunity around the EPA and I cannot get into that issue now, but the Minister and I know that factories and businesses which affect our environment have been allowed into the country. Tourists would not come to this country if they knew about the likes Aughinish in Limerick or what is going on in Portlaoise. We must lift the blanket immunity around the EPA and recognise that with respect to every decision of IDA Ireland on foreign direct investment, the granting of licences by the EPA affects our future in terms of attracting visitors and our tourism.

I heard the Minister mention a great man, Michael Carey. The Minister said, "The key difference in the new policy is that its supports will be weighted towards investment that is complimentary to the brand proposition such as the Wild Atlantic way." I welcome that vision. I am mindful of Michael Carey who gives so freely of his time and he has done an amazing job with Bord Bia. One of Bord Bia's initiatives was Food Works, where Teagasc, Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia, on foot of co-operation among Departments, came together and went all over Ireland advertising our products. Those involved found brilliant young entrepreneurs and some fantastic businesses have come together as a result and will realise valuable exports. Will the Minister talk to Michael Carey and the other brilliant entrepreneurs he mentioned to examine if we could develop a tourism works initiative and get tourism entrepreneurs to come together with either marketing or tourism initiatives whereby we could achieve in the tourism area what Bord Bia has done in its Food Works initiative? It would involve attracting young people with ideas and fast-tracking and upscaling their ideas to make them a reality.

I will move on to the heritage sector and want the Minister to convey my comments to the Government as I appreciate this sector does not come within his remit. On 5 June in Kilkenny, the chief executive officer of the Heritage Council of Ireland launched the 20-year celebration of the Heritage Council. Our heritage attracts 90% of tourists. The chief executive officer stated, "Levels of public interest in, and engagement with, natural and built heritage have increased significantly over the past 15 years". He also stated, "the fact that the council has a fund of just €547,000 to disburse [nationally means] ... that only a third of the 612 applications, from community groups all over the country, could receive any [investment]...". We use to give €20 million to Heritage Council and now we give it only €7 million. We all know for certain that heritage is one of the main reasons people visit this country. England is our next door neighbour and we know what a fantastic job the National Trust does. The Minister, together with his Cabinet colleagues must, as a matter of urgency, put together a meaningful budget and by that I mean adding two zeros to the current allocation of €7 million. We all talk about The Gathering and what a great success it was. Why could 2016 not be the start of a five-year period in Ireland called the "restoration period" and why could a meaningful budget not be put in place to restore our heritage sites? Many of us went to the briefing in Buswells and some super young people are working in the heritage sector. One young man has been working in Kilkenny and Youghal, but there are many other towns. What about Athy and Carrick-on-Suir? To take the example of Athy, the Shackleton Museum is a project we are trying to get up and running there. The museum exhibitions span the Gordon Bennett route, the First World War and the Shackleton heritage. Shackleton is a world brand. That museum has managed to get Ulf Bakke in Norway to agree to sell, at a nominal price, Shackleton's cabin that he slept in on his ship. Its budget from the Heritage Council is €42,000. The museum curator, Margaret Walsh, works tirelessly; it is now June and she works for nothing for the rest of the year. We could all tell the Minister stories. We need co-operation; we need to get everybody together and to provide a meaningful budget for this sector.

With respect to Fáilte Ireland's website, one would wonder if there are cities in Ireland other than Dublin. We have the Wild Atlantic Way, the Ancient East heritage which is wonderful and Dublin, but what about Waterford, Galway, Cork, Limerick and, as this is one island, Belfast? We need to get all their names up there. We need to set up the portals and promote festivals and sports events. I could go on because I have many ideas to put to the Minister about adventure tourism, business tourism and educational tourism, touching on what Senator Feargal Quinn said, and agritourism and we can steal ideas in these areas from around the world. We have one of the greatest brands in Ireland but rather than I boring the Minister saying we need to gather ourselves together, what we need is to get one strong pillar in the Government to get our act together and ensure the area is properly funded as opposed to the joke in terms of current funding. I was the first person to bring up Russborough House and the Beit Foundation paintings.

The Senator is two minutes over her allotted time and many other Senators wish to contribute.

When I was in America I read an article in The New York Times stating we were selling the paintings. We must not let our heritage escape this country. I thank the Acting Chairman for her latitude and apologise as I went on for far too long.

I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his continuing success in his portfolio. For decades tourism has been a crucial element in our economic and social development, both nationally and regionally, and above any other industry it has very far-reaching effects on society, as it benefits so many who are involved in it. Therefore, it must be a top priority for the Government at all times.

Like many other visitor destinations, the tourism industry suffered a severe blow during the global recession. The past few years, however, have seen the industry vigorously bounce back with figures continuing to grow exponentially year on year. Undoubtedly, as alluded to by other Senators, The Gathering initiative in 2013 was the ideal catalyst to stimulate the revival of the industry. However, credit must be given to further Government initiatives, as other Senators mentioned, such as retaining the 9% VAT rate, for which I strongly campaigned, and the Wild Atlantic Way and other initiatives which Senators mentioned. These have greatly helped to build on this success to help further grow visitor figures by 8.9% in 2014. New initiatives such as Ancient East should be commended, as should the Tourism Policy Statement, People, Place and Policy - Growing Tourism to 2025.

Taking all this into account, however, I believe more could be done to further grow the tourism industry. We should make it our priority to capitalise on our recent success and aim to be a destination of the first choice for high quality, value for money and memorable visitor experience. Global level tourism is changing and, as such, we must strive to stay ahead of the game. Destinations are reinventing themselves, moving upmarket and offering memorable holiday experiences. Consumers are moving from having one holiday to several shorter city breaks and many are sourced over the Internet. There is increased demand for breaks linked to health, meaning there is more demand for activity or adventure breaks, as Senator Mary Ann O'Brien mentioned, and spa breaks. There is also far more demand for environmental, historical and cultural experiences within a unique and authentic experience. According to research conducted recently in Scotland, for many visitors, especially from North America, the authentic experience matters more than the destination. Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned the agriturismo product in Italy. We have so many things that could be promoted in this way and they are hugely authentic and add to people's experience. People already want to come to Ireland as a destination. That we can back-up the authentic experience in this country is something on which we should capitalise. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien mentioned heritage and I agree wholeheartedly with her comments on that matter.

As such, we must strive to increase the cultural experience.

We should be shouting from the rooftops that Newgrange is older than both the pyramids and Stonehenge, for example. Meanwhile, lest we forget, our natural larder is one of Ireland's distinctive assets, providing a range of high quality products such as whiskey, salmon and other seafood, all of which can add to our visitor offerings. Our eating out experience needs to meet visitor expectations, whether it is fine dining, family meals at visitor attractions or food on the go for mountain bikers. We need to do much more to consistently reflect the quality and authenticity of our food and drink experience within tourism.

On the subject of sports tourism, I am aware that Fáilte Ireland has an overall strategy to attract sports enthusiasts and this includes events such as the Giro d'Italia, American football games and the bid for the Rugby World Cup. A separate national golf tourism strategy similar to that of Scotland would be a good idea to attract even higher figures from this lucrative and high spending global market. Scotland currently markets itself as the home of golf and has launched a national golf tourism strategy. It is fair to say, with the unprecedented success of Rory McIlroy and others, that we could equally claim to be the home of golf, and we should look to capitalise on this success. This strategy could work along the lines of a proposition drawing the full golf experience together under a single global brand aimed at capitalising on the existing and potential demand for golf in Ireland. Moreover, we need to boost our marketing capabilities in adventure tourism, particularly in international markets, alongside further investments in product development, skills and training.

Marine tourism is another area in which more could be done. Steps could be taken to help this sector grow through enhanced leadership and collaboration, with a focus on product development and active targeting of the valuable European market. We should also review the burden of potential Government legislation with regard to the tourism industry. Reviewing legislative or regulatory burdens on tourism businesses would assist more entrepreneurial activity in the area, and consultation with the industry on proposed legislation is vital in this respect. One example of European legislation that will come into effect - an agreement has been reached this week - relates to roaming charges for mobile phones. That will have a major effect on business but a massively positive effect on tourism. It shows how legislation can lead to an increase in tourism.

We also need to increase our attractiveness to long-haul visitors such as those from China. Senator Feargal Quinn has already spoken about this and I agree with his comments on visas and the Schengen issue. I note that a campaign by VisitBritain to promote its tourism potential in China has proved extremely successful. In China, it is popular to give names to favourite celebrities, places and foods that describe what people think of them. As part of its Great Names for Great Britain campaign, carried out on social media last year, 101 of Britain's most loved attractions, as well as a range of lesser-known places, were renamed in Mandarin. People made suggestions through a micro-site on social media with the aim of getting others to travel to Britain. Examples of the names included the Highland games being renamed as "strong-man skirt party". The Mandarin names have promoted engagement between the British and Chinese populations and encouraged much more tourism. Our different boards are very good at trying to come up with novel ideas, but we can learn from other countries too.

I welcome the Minister. The tourism sector has been one of the successful elements of the Government's term in office.

I know it is a shock that I have said something positive.

The Senator might be expelled next.

Tourism supports local economies and businesses and I will give credit where it is due. With initiatives such as The Gathering and the Wild Atlantic Way and a series of effective and imaginative ad campaigns, tourism numbers have seen a steady increase in the past few years. I will not go into the figures as they have been gone over already. That should be welcomed and I recognise that progress.

Increased numbers of people visiting Ireland will lead to sustained improvements year on year and that will improve the hospitality industry and local economies, while improving our standing right across the world as a country that is rich in culture and heritage. I will refer to the development by local authorities of comprehensive tourism strategies, as well as their maintenance of attractions and amenities. In the document People, Place and Policy: Growing Tourism to 2025, the role of local authorities is referenced quite heavily in respect of tourism promotion and that is correct. Included in section 4 are four recommendations about the role of local authorities and I am particularly interested in recommendations 4.1.1 and 4.1.2, which provide that local authorities will be encouraged to support communities in tourism development and co-operate with neighbouring authorities as appropriate to maximise tourism opportunities for regions as a whole. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Fáilte Ireland will encourage the sharing of expertise between communities that have been successful in building the tourism capacity of localities and those at an earlier stage of development. How will local authorities be encouraged to do this? Is there a forum where this can happen and will it be facilitated? Will it be left to the initiative of local authorities? How will the sharing of expertise in the Department and Fáilte Ireland come about?

The report also mentions that the Department is participating in the interdepartmental group tasked with implementing the recommendations of the report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, Energising Ireland's Rural Economy. Will the Minister update us on that in his summary? As other Senators have mentioned, the role of tourism in the rejuvenation of rural Ireland is important, particularly in the Border area, where I am from. In the past couple of months, for example, my colleague on Cavan County Council, Mr. Noel Connell, had a motion passed on the need to develop and enhance the tourist potential of Lough Sheelin in County Cavan. Part of that proposal was a need for a roadmap to provide a framework to which all stakeholders could commit for both marketing and development of the area. Any proposal or plan along these lines should be developed by a broad-based strategy group, including a number of stakeholders such as Fáilte Ireland and a broad range of local authorities, taking in Cavan, Meath, Westmeath and other counties, as well as Waterways Ireland, the Leader programme, Inland Fisheries Ireland and representatives from the local tourism trade. It was argued that the plan should involve marketing and capital elements in order to develop the tourism infrastructure of Lough Sheelin, including walking, cycling, heritage, culture and other offerings. It is also important that there be extensive stakeholder consultation at community and business levels. Like my colleagues on Cavan County Council who passed the motion, I believe the development of such a plan would help to develop the destination, brand and experience of Lough Sheelin, building on great natural assets in a similar manner to other investments and key attractions such as Lough Derg and the Wild Atlantic Way, while supporting a sustainable regional tourism economy.

With issues such as these in particular, the work is bigger than one or two individuals or even the local authority. When such potential exists for a new holistic development plan for tourism - benefiting east Cavan in this case - what is the best way to get started? How can the people, communities, representatives, authorities, businesses and tourism bodies come together to make that vision a reality? How can the Department help in that regard? I hope some signposts will be included in the tourism action plan.

I was struck by something when Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned the Schengen issue and the Minister referenced cross-Border co-operation in his speech. What, if any, consideration has been given by the Department, and Tourism Ireland in particular, to the British referendum that may happen in 2017? If Britain leaves the European Union, it will have serious repercussions for the Border, as there may be passport and border controls, as well as restrictions on free movement. This will undoubtedly have an impact on tourism in the Border region, in particular. Will any consideration be given to this? Will there be any reference to it in the three-year tourism action plan?

I welcome the Minister. Many of the issues I wished to mention have already been dealt with by several Senators and I will not go over them again. It is welcome that the tourism sector is growing steadily. In County Kerry, particularly in Killarney, last year was the best tourist season in a decade; that has been said quite openly. That was down to a number of factors, particularly the introduction and retention of the 9% VAT rate. It has definitely been a major advantage. Some people fear this saving is not being passed on to consumers, but it is. My daughter is getting married in August and when she went to a hotel nearly a year and a half ago, she was given a price for the reception.

The price they gave her was based on a 9% VAT rate; if the rate went up, the price would increase. She is now benefiting from the lower rate; therefore, it is being passed on to the consumer, which is very important. However, it must also be passed on to the workers in the sector; they must benefit from this as well. We do not want anyone getting rich on the backs of workers - that is the last thing we want. The lower rate has been a fantastic saving grace for the tourism industry and I hope it will be kept in place.

Another issue is the public service obligation, PSO, for the regional airports. I thank the Minister for keeping this because it is vital, not just for the connection between Dublin and Kerry but for transfers, as someone flying into Dublin may transfer down to the regions or to Kerry if the flight is available. Had it not been for the PSO, it is highly unlikely this could have been retained as it would not be affordable for people. I am very grateful to the Minister for keeping it and hope it will continue, although that is another day's argument.

It seems as though we are having a competition in the House today about the best place in Ireland to go for holidays. We are all promoting our own areas. It would be remiss of me not to mention Killarney as I come from there. Killarney has a fantastic reputation and everybody seems to want to go there or live there, which is why the price of housing and rental accommodation is so high. That did not just happen; we did not all wake up one morning and say "let us all go to Killarney". It happened by hard work and local initiatives to always keep something in place to entice people to come to the town.

Next Saturday morning we have the Ring of Kerry charity cycle when 12,000 people will get on their bikes and cycle the Ring of Kerry. It is massive. We are selling a huge number of bed nights, not only for the cyclists but also for those who come with them. Huge crowds will be coming to Kerry and particularly to Killarney next weekend. These things are put in place by people with initiative and a bit of forward thinking.

I congratulate the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, on the money for the greenways. Cycling has become a huge thing in County Kerry, which is probably a knock-on effect from the Ring of Kerry cycle. It is huge all over Ireland; it is the new golf. The greenways are fantastic and I cannot wait to have our's up and running. There have been cycling lanes put in all through the towns. They are vital because cycling is so dangerous on some of the roads. The bike lanes are a huge draw for people who want to do a cycling holiday.

I applaud the Wild Atlantic Way. It is fantastic, as was The Gathering, which was really successful. That is still going on because people are still gathering and coming for different things like school, family and work reunions. It is all bed nights incoming to the area. People are having food and drinks and it is great.

Most Senators will know that Killarney National Park was named by The Irish Times as the best day out in Ireland. Of course it is the best day out. It is natural and wonderful. Although it costs money to keep everything looking so good, we have the lakes and mountains which are natural and there for us, thanks be to God. In Killarney we are very short on industrial jobs. We rely on tourism and have enhanced and developed it. So much can be done, including sailing, boating, fishing, hiking, kayaking and horse riding and it is being done. The people are working.

I pay tribute to Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland and the local development partnerships and councils, particularly Killarney town council, although it is gone now. They put huge work into promoting Killarney and its surrounding areas. The tidy towns committee volunteers work so hard. Every day and night they are cleaning up the streets and keeping Killarney looking good. People can take things into their own hands and promote their own areas. It encourages visitors to come once a place gets a reputation.

People think it is all about drinking in Ireland, but it is not. Last weekend my daughter who is getting married had her hen party in a place called Terryglass in----

On the River Shannon.

It was an absolutely tiny little place but, my God, it was rocking.

That is in County Tipperary.

Senator Marie Moloney is over time.

There were two little pubs in it. We had a fantastic time. We never went near a bar the first night. The second day we went out on Lough Derg sailing. We came back and had a meal in Terryglass. The place was buzzing and it is only a tiny area. People can do a lot for themselves and use their initiative and the natural resources that are available to them. Tourism is something we could speak about forever because there is so much that can be done. I thank the Minister and hope he keeps up the good work.

I welcome the Minister. I am delighted to speak on how we can grow tourism and will focus on one particular area which builds on what Senator Mary Ann O'Brien has said about heritage. Related to heritage is our genealogical trail and how people access genealogical records.

In the late 1990s in Ireland, there were about 5,000 active genealogy enthusiasts. We reckon there are at least 100,000 today - it is an area of growth. People in the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, are tracing their family histories. It is an important area for tourism because people tend to trace their family histories where they live at first, and then want to go and visit the sites where their ancestors were. They want to stand on the land and be there. I cannot explain why. Two years ago, I went to a small town in Wisconsin and got to meet all the locals because three generations of my family left from a rural farm in County Clare and arrived at a remote place in Watertown, Wisconsin. I wanted to find out why they would go there and experience that sense of belonging.

When the 1901 and 1911 censuses went online - they are available on open access through the Irish National Archives, which is amazing - the genealogy service, ancestry.com, saw a 47% increase in interest in Irish records. Approximately 39% of that company's base is in the United States, with 48% in the United Kingdom. It has an amazing 2.7 million subscribers. Other similar services include Findmypast, and Eneclann, which sites provide access to the different records.

We need to make sure we have the records available so we can bring people to Ireland. It was in the programme for Government to make the 1927 census available online. I believe the Central Statistics Office is blocking that, to put it bluntly, which is a shame as many people cannot access their records without that starting point, for example if their parents have died and they did not grow up with a lot of family history.

We also have an opportunity to create a genealogical hub in Dublin. Although we are competing against Scotland, Germany and Poland, Dublin is well placed for such a hub. Ancestry.com has set up its international headquarters here, as have Findmypast and Eneclann. The main players are based here in Dublin but they will move if we are not seen to take an interest. They have tried to engage with the Government but are finding it difficult. I have tried to set up meetings on their behalf, which often get cancelled at the last minute.

When we are considering how to grow tourism, I appeal to the Minister to tap into this growing market. People want it; about five magazines come out every month on the topic. People have stories about going to visit their ancestors in Ireland and how much it meant to them. That tourism driving factor should not be underestimated. It is more than just keen amateurs. There are genealogical societies all over the USA. When I went to Wisconsin they knew nothing about The Gathering because we never thought to send that type of information to genealogical societies whose members might come back here for a reunion.

Why not have a year of restoration or reunion where people could come back to be part of that ancestry and their family? I am happy to share with the Minister of State the work I have done in the area to determine what more can be done.

There are also exciting developments in the area of DNA which ensure that those who claim Irish heritage can turn that into a reality. We have to realise that there are 34.5 million Americans, some 11% of the population, who claim Irish heritage and we would have direct access to them if we tapped into genealogical roots. Such an approach would spread tourists across Ireland because people came from the west coast of Ireland during different periods. I found out through genealogy that many women left the west coast of Ireland in pre-Famine times because they would only have a future by going to America. We often think people starting leaving during the Famine. I want to make a plea to the Minister that we exploit the potential of genealogy and ensure we get access to records.

Cuirim fíor fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. Tá sé ag obair go dian agus tá obair iontach á déanamh aige.

As someone who is originally from Connemara, the beautiful thing about being in the Seanad is that I do not have a constituency. Dublin has many visitors. In the Fáilte Ireland survey it was stated that a lack of capacity remains in Dublin city centre, resulting in large groups being turned away, something of which planners in Dublin city must take account. In previous years, I witnessed hotel closures in Tallaght. We should strive to drive more of the tourism out of the city and into urban and suburban areas such as south west Dublin and Tallaght where there is beautiful scenery such as the Dublin mountains.

Walkways are not used enough. Tourism Ireland is now playing a blinder in trying to get people to use the Dublin walking way and visit the Dublin mountains. Many tourists come to Dublin and go on bus tours. There is a lovely bus tour around the Dublin mountains and the south west. I am from the most scenic part of Ireland, but those from Kerry might disagree.

I pay particular attention to sustainable tourism and responsible planning which we have to take into account in terms of our beautiful scenic areas. We only have one sustainable environment and we must protect it and make optimal use of our environmental resources. Sustainable Tourism Ireland has a brief, in terms of helping to conserve our natural heritage and biodiversity. Hotels should be encouraged to reduce, reuse and recycle, install solar panels, recycle water and use energy efficiently because we are at a crisis point. We have to ensure our energy consumption, water usage and conservation are monitored. The chemicals used in the industry must be addressed. One could say that we cannot insist on everything being friendly to biodiversity, but it should be encouraged.

Unnecessary night-time lighting is spoiling the country. In recent years planning permission has been granted for small developments in country areas for which night-time lighting must be provided. One would think one was in an urban area.

Tell that to the people living there.

We should strive for quality as well as quantity because if one measures length of stay and the number of visitors, one gets a different picture. The length of stay involved often means more money is spent in an area. It is a yardstick I do not often see used in reports, but it is relevant. The quality of service is important in terms of repeat visitors and that is why we have to ensure that, regardless of who is working in a hotel or other industry, we still convey our Irish welcome and the céad míle fáilte, regardless of from where the staff come. That is what 75% of respondents in the Fáilte Ireland survey referred to in terms of their experience and expectations.

I will not dwell on VAT. Many speakers have said it played a major part in the industry and for that I congratulate the Government. There is a good level of optimism in the tourism industry. It is enjoying a strong year and a good year is forecast for next year. The sense of the domestic economy improving came across loud and clear in the survey that was done, something which was mentioned by more than one respondent. They referred to a sense of stability being beneficial to the industry. Every person in Ireland must consider what a sense of instability can do to a countr, because it is clear from the survey that people now feel, given that the economy is improving, that the sense of stability is improving.

I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I know how important North-South co-operation is in terms of tourism.

I wish to share time with Senator James Heffernan, with the approval of the House-----

There is a new party forming.

-----and his former colleagues. He wishes to raise the issue of connectivity, on which I share his views. I will let him lecture the Minister on the importance of the Cork-Limerick motorway.

I welcome the Minister to the House in which he commenced his political career. It is interesting to note that at the time of the deepest recession in the history of the country and very depressing economic statistics, the two industries which kept our country alive were agriculture and tourism. One is the natural industry of the soil, based on the skills of the people of the isle. Tourism is successful not simply because of the scenery and sights but also because of the innate friendliness of the Irish people. Those two natural, home-grown industries thrived and kept the country alive economically when high-tech and so-called modern industries were fading and long may they thrive.

I want to reflect briefly on what previous speakers said, in particular Senators Darragh O'Brien and Jillian van Turnhout who referred to heritage tourism. It is something on which we need to concentrate. The Minister is a great reader of Oireachtas debates. We had a fascinating debate here on the teaching of history a fortnight ago and some of us reflected on the fact that if history disappears as a core subject a lot of local history, knowledge and a sense of place, which is important from a tourism perspective, will be threatened. There is a large capacity for heritage tourism in every town across the country and I ask the Minister to try to concentrate on that as part of his wider portfolio.

I refer to sports tourism. Mention was made of golf. Sport is part of the Minister's role and our national game, the GAA, and the horseracing industry can play a significant role in tourism.

I thank Senator Paul Bradford for sharing time.

As the Minister knows, I am from County Limerick and the city has had a very successful year being the capital of culture. It got off to a shaky start, but things were ironed out. I ask the Department to support the 2020 bid for the European capital of culture. People in Limerick often feel forgotten about when it comes to the Government. The fact that the city and the estuary are not part of the Wild Atlantic Way stuck in many people's craws.

Limerick is seen as the forgotten county. Connectivity is vital for the region, as Senator Marie Moloney will agree. Travelling from Dublin to Killarney can be a mission in terms of passing through Limerick. I am not sure whether there is a proposal on the desk of the Minister because I have been in contact with people in Hungary who seem to have a solution for the N20 that could be delivered before a general election.

I would like to know if that is something the Department is considering because all the major arterial roads that come into the country from Waterford, Tipperary, Kerry and Cork are second class. They are not up to the same standard as services to Waterford, Kilkenny, Dublin, Galway or the other cities. That is something that must be developed. In my area we are trying hard to develop tourism. There is the Ballyhoura Fáilte in my own area and there are hostels and self-catering cottages in Ballyorgan. We have one of the finest bike trails in Europe. We have Glenosheen and the walled town of Kilmallock, Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, de Valera's Bruree and Adare, of course, which is the jewel in Limerick's tourist crown. We need to attract people to the regions. The issues of connectivity and the road network are vital if we are to further develop tourism in the area. I would like the Minister to go some way towards addressing that issue. I thank the Acting Chairman for her indulgence.

I call the Minister to reply.

Are we finishing the debate now?

According to the Order of Business, I am to call the Minister at 2.50 p.m.

Do we return to the debate then?

I will hand my presentation to the Minister some time.

We have legislation at 3 p.m. and I must go according to the rules of the House.

I am happy to give the Senator a minute or two, but I must go at 3 p.m.

I appreciate the Minister giving me time. I will refer very briefly to something dear to his heart and at which he spends every Saturday morning he can; the GAA. I made a presentation to the Minister on 22 October 2014 on the development of a tourism product incorporating the GAA story from its foundation in 1884 to the present day and to market it on a worldwide basis. There are over 100,000 members of the GAA and 400 clubs outside the country. There is a market for a GAA product to bring tourists to the country to show them where the GAA was founded and where it is growing strongly. At the time, the Minister said he was looking at the third leg of a three-legged stool. It appears that has turned out to be the ancient east heritage, but there is also room for the product I am talking about. I have private operators on board and have been working on it since last September. I ask the Minister to support the proposal and thank him again for allowing me in.

I have a quick point for the Minister.

The Senator was not here for his slot.

I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to respond to the points different colleagues have made. I acknowledge the contributions made by everybody. I heard Senators Labhras Ó Murchú, Terry Brennan, Fidelma Healy Eames, John Kelly, Feargal Quinn, Mary Ann O'Brien, Catherine Noone, Marie Moloney, Kathryn Reilly, Jillian van Turnhout, Cáit Keane and Mark Daly at the end and listened to what they all had to say. It is very difficult in the short amount of time available to respond to all of the detailed points which have been made. I will therefore focus on three overall themes most commonly raised by Senators.

First, I focus on a point that was touched on by different Senators who referred to the importance of a particular county and the need to support it. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien made the case for different counties to be supported on the Fáilte Ireland website or in Tourism Ireland work. I take a very different view. When people talk about the Wild Atlantic Way, it is a regional proposition. Even when we talk about Dublin, we are not talking about particular parts of Dublin. When we talk about Ireland's Ancient East, we are not talking about Waterford, Kilkenny or, for that matter, County Louth. It will always be about a regional proposition. The real insight that has emerged from the work Tourism Ireland has done and which has underpinned the success of The Gathering and the Wild Atlantic Way is that while the benefit may be felt within counties and even within particular communities within counties, what is of greatest appeal to potential tourists is a proposition that straddles many different parts of the country. As such, we need to move away from how we have supported individual counties in the past to supporting propositions or concept from which lots of counties can win. I take the example of County Kerry as the success of Killarney has been touched on. When we talk about the Wild Atlantic Way, we do not reference County Kerry specifically within it or Cork, Sligo or the other counties that are part of it. What we do is to reference and support the Wild Atlantic Way.

We must move to a way of talking about tourism in Ireland that is below the Ireland level but ahead of the county level. In that spot and the way in which we pull things together is the future of where we should go. That leads to a point Senator Kathryn Reilly put to me. I answer her question specifically as it was the main detailed question put to me as to how we can pull all of that together at county level. The way that can be done is through the local enterprise offices that individual local authorities are now establishing. Memoranda of understanding have now been drawn up between local enterprise offices and Fáilte Ireland. While that might sound a little abstract, I am confident it is working because when I go to different local authorities in my work within the Department, I am struck by the fact that nearly every one has a director of services who has responsibility for tourism. Local authorities have strategies or plans they are launching for tourism. They are taking on far greater strategic importance and being given time than would have been the case five to ten years ago. That is the way we will access the necessary community support. The interest and financial support will be sourced from the local authorities in relation to where it is needed. Senator Catherine Noone made the point about destinations reinventing themselves. The way that is happening is by communities within destinations and local authorities working together. That is the area we need to support very actively in the years to come.

I touch on a common theme in many of the contributions - heritage. Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú introduced the theme when he touched on the importance of antiquities and different Senators raised with me in different ways how we approach the issue. I support the role of heritage in relation to how we support the development of Irish tourism, but I make three different points. First, the approach to Ireland's ancient east will offer a framework in which we can support heritage development from a tourism point of view. Second, however, we must move away from thinking that if we are doing heritage in one part of the country, that is all we are doing there. There are lots of areas in which we will look to better support a heritage proposition and the way in which we will do it is through Fáilte Ireland seeking to work with the OPW or the Heritage Council to develop attractions and sites which are already there. For example, we can better support them through Ireland's ancient east concept. That is not to say other things going on within the same county will not receive support such as festivals or outdoor and adventure tourism amenities. All those things can happen alongside each other.

We will seek to realise this later this year with a view to having something that will work in 2016 and 2017.

A number of Senators asked whether heritage should not be part of the tourism industry. While that decision is well above my pay grade, I take a contrary view on this matter. As eager as I am to support heritage ideas with a view to developing tourism, we must be careful to ensure certain aspects of our heritage are not viewed through the lens of monetisation. If heritage were to become part of the tourism product, some of the things we are doing in this area would not meet the criteria I have set for Fáilte Ireland. For this reason, I believe that much of what is being done in the area of heritage should continue to be kept separate from the work of my Department. We are hoping to complement heritage activities through initiatives such as Ireland's Ancient East which encompasses many, if not all, of the different heritage sites that we are trying to better support.

Many Senators referred to issues in their respective counties. I will try to respond to them if I have another opportunity to come to the House. For now, I will finish where I started by stating that The Gathering, the Wild Atlantic Way and the success of different parts of Dublin lead me to believe that we should be working together in a space between the county level and below the national level. Subsidiarity is a concept I will borrow from another area of politics. The success being achieved in tourism by certain areas of the country is a glowing example of economic and policy subsidiarity.