Tourism policy is primarily the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. However, I can assure the Deputy that I fully recognise that Ireland's rich heritage has a key role to play in national economic recovery particularly through tourism.
My Department is currently promoting the role which Ireland's heritage has to play in making our country an attractive destination for sustainable tourism and inward investment, both in terms of the operation of Ireland's national parks and nature reserves, and in terms of our unique built heritage, which distinguishes us and which makes Ireland an attractive tourist location for both visitors and Irish people themselves. Cultural and heritage tourism is one of the most important elements of Ireland's tourism product, and heritage properties, including those in State care, are an important element of that attraction.
My Department provides some limited funding under a number of headings for investment in the built and natural heritage, and also supports the Heritage Council and the Irish Heritage Trust in their work in the heritage area. However, the scope to provide additional funding for the protection, conservation and development of the State's built heritage is constrained by the current national economic difficulties and the significant reduction in the public finances. My Department is, therefore, focusing on working creatively across Government and with partner bodies, such as the Heritage Council, the Irish Heritage Trust, Fáilte Ireland, the LEADER Programme and other heritage interests, in seeking to ensure that resources are directed towards the heritage sector. My Department will also continue to provide funding for the protection, conservation and development of our built and natural heritage, in so far as resources allow.
My Department is developing various initiatives which contribute to the protection and appropriate re-use of our built heritage and aim to deal with on-going challenges facing our architectural heritage, such as the adaptive re-use for historic properties and a forward plan-led approach to cultural heritage and urban design in our towns and cities. This will also assist in maintaining specialist jobs in the wider heritage sector and, in particular, in the repair and maintenance industry, which ultimately reflect in Ireland's overall tourism product.
My Department is also currently engaged in developing a specific heritage-led Historic Towns Initiative in collaboration with Fáilte Ireland and the Heritage Council. My primary objective with this initiative is to ensure that the participating towns have access to and an understanding of appropriate guidance to assist them in best conserving their heritage assets and, in so doing, underpin the sustainability of their community and local economy. It is my hope that meeting these goals will also, by extension, significantly enhance the visitor experience in these towns, thus helping to maximise the potential positive contribution of tourism to each of these towns and their respective hinterlands. I expect that the initiative, once fully developed by the end of 2012, will be piloted in 2013.