I am delighted to see that there has been a substantial increase in tourism over recent years. In 2015, 29.8 million passengers passed through Irish airports. Of these, more than 24 million or 83.8% of the total passed through Dublin. Cork handled 6.9% and Shannon 5.6% while the remaining airports were responsible for only 3.7%. Passenger numbers to Cork continue to fall annually. The Shannon Airport Authority has worked very hard to increase throughput of 1.68 million in 2015 but this is far from the 2.95 million it handled in 2008. This is neither desirable nor sustainable and is certainly very far from the kind of regional development we need.
In 2015, the number of overseas visitors reached 8 million, an increase of more than 14% on the previous year and in February and March 2016, there was a 16% increase on the corresponding period last year. In 2015, tourists spent €4.1 billion with the airlines and ferry companies earned €1.3 billion, a huge boost to the national economy. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport believes that the tourism industry is directly responsible for providing 205,000 jobs in Ireland, with the accommodation and food sector providing 137,000 of these. The challenge we face is to manage and grow this very valuable resource. Dublin Airport is operating at or beyond full capacity while the regional airports are capable of handling much greater numbers than they do now. The chairman of the International Airlines Group, IAG, Willie Walsh, has aired his concerns about bottlenecks in Dublin. He believes this could have a negative impact on future expansion by IAG at the airport.
I am aware of the Dublin Airport Authority plan to invest €320 million in constructing a second runway, but it will not be operational until 2020 at the earliest. Difficulties with the transport infrastructure between the airport and the city centre still need to be addressed.
Dublin hotels had a room occupancy rate of 82% in 2015 - much higher than the rest of the country. In Limerick, which has the lowest average room rate in the country, the occupancy rate was 68.3%. We all know how difficult it can be to get hotel accommodation in Dublin for most of the year. In addition, average room rates in the capital have increased from €77 in 2010 to €111 in 2015, and the rate has subsequently increased further. We could face cost and capacity issues going forward unless more tourism activity is redirected towards the regions.
Apart from Dublin, Shannon is the only airport that has direct flights from the United States, a growing market. It provides excellent facilities and ease of access to Limerick city, and is strategically located on the Wild Atlantic Way. Surely it makes sense to assist the airport authority in marketing it as an alternative to Dublin. The airports in Kerry, Knock and Donegal can be promoted as gateways to the Wild Atlantic Way from Britain and Europe, while Cork and Waterford, as well as Dublin, provide easy access to Ireland's Ancient East - indeed, Cork would serve both attractions. There are excellent accommodation and catering facilities available in all of those locations.
I maintain that there is an opportunity to greatly increase tourism visitor numbers by highlighting and promoting the use of regional airports to access the numerous attractions around the country. We should strive to develop this very valuable resource, not at the expense of Dublin, but to the benefit of the regions. I request the Minister to favourably consider the points I have made and look forward to hearing his response.