I propose to take Questions Nos. 164 and 169 together.
While promotion of Ireland as a tourist designation is primarily a matter for Tourism Ireland and the development of tourism is the responsibility of Ireland’s National Tourism Development Authority, Fáilte Ireland, I am committed to availing of every possible opportunity to project a positive global image for Ireland. To this aim I recently met with Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland to enhance co-operation between my Department and both tourism bodies in promoting heritage and tourism.
I am particularly conscious of this in the context of 2013 being the year of The Gathering initiative. My Department is actively engaged in a wide range of activities to this end, both in co-operation with bodies such as Fáilte Ireland and the Office of Public Works, and in promoting its own initiatives such as our ‘Places to See’ and ‘Monuments to Visit’ websites, which provide directions to lesser known heritage sites and details of what the visitor can expect to find on arrival. Capital funding is provided by my Department to support the Office of Public Works’ conservation programme for the State's heritage portfolio, many properties from which attract high levels of visitors to Ireland.
The unique qualities of Ireland’s national heritage play a significant role in enhancing and projecting Ireland’s image abroad, and in supporting economic renewal through cultural and heritage tourism and in downstream opportunities, such as in the retail, catering and accommodation sectors. For example, I understand from Fáilte Ireland that some 3.5 million overseas visitors engaged in cultural activities while in Ireland in 2011. Over 2.5 million tourists visited historic houses or castles, while 2 million visited our archaeological monuments, with over 3.7 million visitors to heritage sites where the Office of Public Works provides a guide service.
My Department’s network of National Parks and Nature Reserves are also a major part of Ireland’s tourism attractions. It is my intention to encourage and facilitate, to the greatest extent possible, public access and appropriate visitor use in these parks and reserves. Such access and use must, of course, be consistent with the ethos of the parks as natural places of peace and tranquillity set in scenic landscapes, as well as being compatible with the conservation and biodiversity considerations that are of necessity associated with the management of heritage properties.
Despite current economic challenges, it is my intention to invest in visitor facilities in the parks and nature reserves to maximise their sustainable use and enjoyment. To this end, and building on previous investment in this area, my Department is working on proposals to further develop visitor facilities, such as walking and cycling routes, enhanced signage and interpretation.
As regards visitor centres, in the last couple of years my Department opened modern visitor focussed centres at Ballycroy National Park, Co. Mayo, Clara Bog Nature Reserve, Co. Offaly, and a visitor information point for the Burren National Park in Corofin, Co. Clare.
I anticipate that the redevelopment of Killarney House in Killarney National Park will be a major tourism asset in years to come. The House, once complete, will serve as the main visitor and interpretative centre for the National Park, highlighting the beauty and interpreting the richness and significance of the Park’s landscapes, habitats, flora and fauna, as well as telling the story of man’s interaction with the Park over the centuries. It is also intended that some of the formal rooms will be restored to their former glory. This is a major project for my Department and involves collaboration with OPW as project managers and Fáilte Ireland which has committed funding of €5.2 million towards the project, under its Tourism Investment Programme.
In addition, my Department provides core funding for several heritage organisations such as the Heritage Council, which supports a range of initiatives including National Heritage Week, and the Irish Architectural Foundation, which runs the successful Open House event each year.
This year, in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland, my Department is also initiating a pilot programme, the Historic Towns Initiative, in Youghal, Westport and Listowel with the Heritage Council and the local authorities in each town. 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.
These are just a sample of the overall range of initiatives and programmes my Department is helping to promote, support or guide as a means of preserving the quality and diversity of our heritage, which in turn, is basis for positively promoting that heritage abroad.