I propose to take Questions Nos. 660 to 662, inclusive, together.
As one of the most open economies in the world, transport services to and from the country for both people and goods are of vital importance. In that regard I am happy to say that Ireland is very well served by both air and sea links. As the Deputy will be aware, this was a particularly important year for Irish tourism with The Gathering Ireland 2013 still underway. Improved value for money across all sectors, better air access and The Gathering have all combined to give us an excellent year for inbound tourism. Latest figures published by the CSO show a 6.5% rise in overseas visits to Ireland for the first eight months of 2013
In terms of air transport there is a competitive market for air services in and out of the country. Ireland benefits from a wide range of air connections, both short and long haul. In addition to the two main Irish airlines, Ryanair and Aer Lingus, the country is also served by the big three European network carriers, all four of the big US international airlines, both Emirates and Etihad from the UAE and many other smaller airlines. New routes are being announced on a regular basis by both Irish and international airlines. Passengers also benefit from the EU passenger rights legislation, which is currently in the process of being updated and improved.
In terms of economic benefits the aviation sector contributes approximately €4.1 billion to Ireland's GDP and supports over 26,000 jobs. Despite the challenges of recent years the industry continues to perform strongly but it is important that there is a clear policy framework in place to facilitate its continued development and optimise the contribution the sector can make to the economy. To that end aviation policy review is currently underway with a view to the publication of a new aviation policy next year.
In relation to sea transport the market offers a diverse range of viable maritime links in and out of the State. 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.
The Irish ferry market is 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. Figures from the Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) for the first quarter of 2013 show that ferry passenger numbers travelling to and from Ireland increased by 4% when compared to the corresponding period last year and tourist car numbers increased by 1%.
Competition in the ferry sector is encouraged and I expect services to develop and expand to meet any increased market demands in the future. In the past, 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.
Ireland is also heavily dependent on ports for trade. Most of Ireland’s merchandise imports and exports of goods are still transported by sea. It is important to ensure that competition in the Irish ports sector is working well because competition drives efficiency and service quality, both of which are key determinants of national competitiveness. The Competition Authority are currently finalising their market study of competition within the ports sector and they estimate that sea-borne freight accounts for 84% of Ireland’s trade in volume and 62% in value terms. Many of Ireland’s major exporting sectors - for example, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and food - are heavily reliant on sea transport. Irish shipping and port activity rose by 11% in the second quarter of 2012, according to the latest figures published by the IMDO.
Additionally our new National Ports Policy, published in March, clearly identifies Ireland’s Ports of National Significance. It is the Government’s expectation that these ports will lead the response of the Irish ports sector to future national port capacity requirements and continue to play an important role in Ireland’s economic recovery.