I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the House on his first official engagement here. Before I speak on the specific topic, I want to publicly put on the record of the House my praise for the Minister of State for the bravery he has displayed in recent weeks in highlighting his battle with literacy and the challenges it poses in his life. His actions have spoken louder than any words, which is why I believe he will inspire many people to put their hands up for help. Now that it has put the issue on the agenda I would be happy to work with the Minister of State in progressing it in any way. As Nelson Mandela said, the brave man is not the one who has no fears, he is the one who triumphs over his fears. I say "Well done" to the Minister of State.
I am very glad it is the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, taking this Commencement matter today. He is from a neighbouring county of mine. It is a subject of which he has spoken in favour before and he will be making proposals which will come before the Cabinet on this very issue. I agree entirely with the Minister of State when he says the long-term benefits of opening all Office of Public Works sites freely to children will be huge.
There has been much talk recently about how we need to move our education system away from the reliance on memory and recitation and focus more on learning through experience. Visits to various sites steeped in history will not only inspire creativity but also create lifelong memories. Paris is one city that can be looked to when examining such a plan. Anyone who has visited Paris is aware it is an expensive city. However, if one is under-26 and a citizen of the European Union, one is entitled to free entry into some of the finest and most popular museums and monuments of the city such as the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Panthéon, which ordinarily cost €12, €9.50 and €9, respectively, to enter. They are some of the most well-known tourist attractions in the world so it would save a young visitor a very incentivising €30.
We have some fantastic sites here in Ireland which are spread all over the country and draw many visitors every year. The opening of heritage sites managed by the OPW for free on the first Wednesday of every month for the duration of their seasons has proved very popular. The number of visitors to OPW heritage sites rose to 6.6 million last year, which was a significant increase on the previous year. The most popular site in 2016 was the National Botanic Gardens where over 583,000 visited, up more than 30,000 from 2015. The number of visitors to Castletown House and parklands in County Kildare nearly doubled last year with 547,000 visiting the 18th-century mansion and its surrounding gardens, which was up from 297,000 in 2015.
Kilkenny Castle has also seen record-breaking numbers come through its gates with 384,000 visitors to the castle and its grounds. The completion of the new visitors' centre in the old Kilmainham courthouse saw the number of visitors to Kilmainham Gaol rise by 64,000 to 390,000 in 2016. While these numbers are testament to the great work of the 1916 commemoration committees, figures show that the numbers were rising before 2016 as a reflection of the increasing popularity of our heritage product nationally and internationally. All across Ireland, visitor numbers are up. Areas outside the big cities have seen a huge rise in the number of visitors, for which we can thank the OPW sites.
As we all know, the greatest threat to Ireland currently is Brexit. Its effects have already been felt on the island with the numbers arriving from the UK falling by almost 11%. The post-Brexit fall in sterling has made it more expensive to travel. Coupled with the sheer uncertainty of the negotiations, this is forcing the British people to think twice about visiting their nearest neighbours. If we want the number of visitors to these sites to continue to rise and not to decline, opening them up freely for entry by children is the smart option. According to a response to a parliamentary question submitted by my party colleague, Deputy John McGuinness, the then-Minister of State, Deputy Canny, stated that the popularity of OPW sites was a key driver in terms of the economic benefit being generated for the tourism sector and that receipts in this area had increased year on year to over €11 million in 2016. With this in mind, I beseech the Minister of State not to rest until he has carried out his plans to open all OPW sites to children free of charge.