Ireland is well serviced in terms of ferry connectivity as the market offers a diverse range of viable maritime links in and out of the State. This is vital to facilitate trade and tourism. There are currently six shipping lines providing passenger services, with approximately 500 sailings weekly between Ireland and Britain and continental Europe, depending on the time of year. All ferry companies servicing these routes are commercial companies and, as such, their services are market driven.
Competition in the sector is encouraged and I expect services to develop and expand to meet any increased market demands in the future. In the past, ferry operators have responded to market developments and increased capacity, when required. My Department through its agency, the IMDO, works closely with all existing operators and continues to promote Ireland as a location for new services.
The Irish ferry market is also a very important element of the Irish tourism transport network. While the vast majority of our overseas visitors arrive in Ireland by air, research has shown that visitors coming to Ireland by car are very important to our tourism industry as they tend to stay longer, they tend to tour around more (with consequential benefits for regional tourism) and they tend to spend more than those arriving by air. Accordingly, the state tourism agencies have continually targeted this segment.
As the Deputy will be aware, this is a particularly important year for Irish tourism with The Gathering Ireland 2013 now underway and over 3,000 individual gatherings confirmed on the Gathering website. The overall target is to attract at least 325,000 extra overseas visits to Ireland in 2013. Tourism Ireland continues to mount a major consumer campaign to promote The Gathering to people overseas that feel linked by family, friends or otherwise with Ireland. In this regard the agency is undertaking cooperative activity with the major airlines and ferry operators to highlight the value fares that are on offer. This activity will continue through 2013.