Currently, the Heritage Services Division of the Office of Public Works - which comprises the National Monuments Service and Historic Properties Service units - is responsible for managing the Heritage Estate portfolio which falls within the OPW's remit. In total, this represents in excess of approx 800 separate properties, a significant number of which are managed by the Office and presented to the public as sites of general visitor interest, whether arising from their singular scenic, historic, archaeological architectural, geological or other qualities.
A relatively small number of heritage sites (70 no.) are presented by the OPW with full Visitor and Guide facilities. The attendance at these sites in 2012 was approx 3.8 million visitors and the visitor income derived was in excess of €7m. This is clearly a very substantial undertaking which is happening in virtually all parts of the State and, though only approx one third of these sites are open on a year round basis, it can clearly be seen that the extent to which the State's tourism offering is underpinned by these attractions is already quite significant.
Some of these attractions are among the most iconic of Ireland's historic places and are renowned both nationally and internationally as premier visitor destinations. Sites such as Dún Aonghusa on the Aran Islands, Kilkenny Castle, Kilmainham Gaol and many others attract significant numbers of visitors and are well known as premier places to visit. Two heritage sites, Newgrange and Skellig Michael, possess World Heritage Site status from UNESCO and are particularly prized by visitors. Other locations within the portfolio are however less well known and do not attract a similar volume of numbers. In many of these cases, the sites in question have many undeniably fine qualities which I feel would make them ideal candidates for development and greater exposure to an increasing number of visitors.
It is clear that Ireland's heritage plays a significant role in relation to both foreign and domestic tourism. This is spelled out most explicitly recently in the report produced by the Heritage Council last year entitled The Economic Value of Ireland's Historic Environment. The portfolio managed by the OPW clearly has a major role to play in relation to this aspect of the tourism economy and a number of proposals are under way within my Department to maximise the impact made by these properties in terms of supporting the visitor offering. These proposals include:
a targeted approach to a site publicity campaign that makes potential visitors more aware of the sites available to visitors and encourages greater footfall to these locations;
greater engagement by local organisations and groups in the running of heritage sites through the "Friends of Irish Heritage" programme, leading to better integration with local communities, a broader sense that the visitor is engaging with real Irish people and extended opening arrangements during the Winter months when the sites might otherwise be closed;
a continuing focus on excellent product standards including the quality and range of publications, Guided tours and the overall visitor experience;
greater engagement with modern media including Apps information Website and Social Media etc in order to better publicise the various sites and encourage more visits.