I propose to take Questions Nos. 138 and 139 together.
The most up-to-date CSO statistics for 2003 show a 5% increase in the number of overseas visitors to Ireland, representing a continuing recovery in this vital sector of the economy. In numerical terms, visitor numbers have exceeded the previous peak achieved in 2000, with 6.3 million visits recorded. In conjunction with the growth in volume terms, revenue earnings grew by just under 3%, at over €4 billion.
As the Deputy rightly points out, 2003 showed a marginal net outflow of earnings on the tourism and travel account of €58 million. This is hardly surprising as expenditure by Irish tourists on holidays overseas has been on an upward trend as a result of the greater prosperity experienced by Irish people in recent years. This greater prosperity has also provided a major boost to Ireland's domestic tourism market, which remains central to Ireland's continuing tourism success. A separate CSO release — the household travel survey — indicates that more than 5 million domestic trips were taken in the first nine months of last year, representing an increase of 3.4% on the same period in 2002. In expenditure terms, the first nine months of 2003 have also shown very positive results. Between January and September, more than €745 million was spent on domestic trips in comparison with €645 million in the same period in 2002. This represents a substantial increase of 16%, which far outstrips the growth in expenditure by Irish people on foreign holidays, at 5%, last year.
While the two surveys are not directly comparable, they provide a strong indication that the home market remains buoyant and continues to win market share against stiff international competition. In terms of other trends emerging from the CSO figures on international travel, I would make a number of comments. As a tourism destination for overseas visitors, Ireland continues to out-perform many of its nearest competitors.
The Iraq war, the outbreak of SARS and a weak global economy all played a part in suppressing the demand for international tourism last year. Worldwide, the number of tourists fell by 1.2% and Europe's performance was at best flat, according to the World Tourism Organisation. With growth rates of 5% in volume terms, Ireland is clearly increasing its share of a highly competitive marketplace.
It is also apparent that the North American market, particularly the US, has finally turned the corner with numbers beginning to rise again. US visitor numbers to Ireland increased by over 6% in 2003 despite the impact of the war, increased threats of terrorism and SARS. This compares to a 1% increase in the number of Americans visiting Europe generally and a decrease of 8% experienced by Britain.
Continental Europe, a market which has remained stagnant for a number of years, is also looking positive with visitor numbers up in the order of 8%. A 4% growth figure for Britain last year was also a strong endorsement of Ireland's continuing competitive edge in what is Ireland's largest tourism market by far. It is also clear that this performance has been hard won, with enormous pressure being placed on the industry's bottomline. It is also evident that this performance has not been shared equally, either on a regional or a sectoral basis. I am very conscious of growing concerns about the regional distribution of tourism growth in recent years. It should be recognised that all regions and sectors continue to experience growth — the issue relates to the growing disparity in the rate of growth between the regions.
In this context, the development of good access, particularly air access, is key to strengthening the competitive position of the regions. Both tourism agencies recognise this issue and are investing significant time and resources in encouraging improved air links. Already, Knock and Galway airports are reaping the rewards of their efforts to promote direct access to the west, particularly from Britain.
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Tourism Ireland has also taken a strategic decision to target significant promotional resources at family touring holidays, particularly from Britain, which favour the regions. Tourism Ireland is also investing significantly in the US market. The coach tour business will continue to feature strongly in their promotions and they will also be encouraging the growing number of independent travellers from the US to spend longer and travel more extensively on the island of Ireland.
The marketing programmes in train for 2004 will build on the momentum generated in 2003, both on the international and domestic front. They are also being backed by an unprecedented level of Exchequer support for tourism services within my Department, particularly for marketing purposes, totalling well over €110 million.