I am glad to have the opportunity on behalf of Fianna Fáil to speak on the tourism industry and on the necessity to continue to invest in it. Ireland's tourism industry has grown significantly in the past few years and it is anticipated that it will continue to grow into the next century. It contributes approximately £3 billion annually to the economy and employs over 100,000 people. Tourism is a highly labour-intensive industry and as such can have an important impact on our unemployment figures and on employment opportunities in remote regional areas. It is important to expand and develop the tourism business and to maintain and enhance the high standards which have been a feature of the industry's success.
Ireland has always had a positive image as a tourist destination. It is a challenge for us to maintain that image, especially in view of major environmental issues, such as pollution. It is a cause of serious concern that, at a time when we would like to promote Ireland as a destination for angling tourism, some of our unique angling resources and fisheries, such as the trout fishery in the Corrib, are threatened with pollution to the extent that this year's large scale angling competitions are at risk. It is not only necessary to continue to invest in tourism and tourist related businesses, but is vitally important that investment, particularly through Cohesion and Structural Funds, is provided to deal with environmental problems which are preventing the development of areas such as Lough Derg, the Corrib and Lough Mask.
The £650 million investment in tourism under the operational programme and the £370 million in grant aid means that Ireland is in a good position to expand its tourism business. Tourism can make a bigger contribution to the economy and to the creation of employment in the future so it is necessary to take every step to ensure that we do not neglect to deal with some of the major problems faced by the tourism industry.
The AD Little report, which was commissioned by Deputy McCreevy before he left the Department of Tourism and Trade, outlines the changes necessary in Bord Fáilte if it wants to meet future challenges, many of which have already been implemented. Bord Fáilte has been reorganised over the past year. I want to put on record our appreciation of Mr. Padraig Ó hUiginn, the retired Chairman of Bord Fáilte, for the work he did in Bord Fáilte and in the Department of the Taoiseach where he planned the structural and operational programmes for the development of the tourism business. I also express our best wishes to Mr. Mark Mortell, the newly appointed Chairman of Bord Fáilte, and to the board who have a daunting task ahead of them if they want to develop the tourism industry to its full potential.
Almost five million people visited Ireland last year, which is an increase of approximately 10 per cent. There has been a 12 per cent or 13 per cent increase in the North American and United Kingdom markets — the UK market will continue to be the most significant market for the Irish tourism industry. However, visitor numbers from the European market were up only 7 per cent last year, which is below the national average and below the American and UK figures. Bord Fáilte must address this problem in co-operation with the tour operators. Bord Fáilte's decision to appoint an international marketing director with an impressive record in international marketing is a progressive step and one which deserves our full support.
While developments in the tourism industry have been dramatic, there are mounting concerns about the failure to spread the visitor numbers evenly throughout the regions. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, will be aware that last summer there was criticism that the number of people who visited Dublin and the east coast did not move to the west or south. Not only was there criticism in Cork, Galway and Limerick, but also in the north-west where some of the more successful hotels found it difficult to fill their bed complements.
It is important to underline for the Minister, the Government and Bord Fáilte that new initiatives are necessary if the benefits of the numbers visiting us and of the transfer is to be spread evenly. Western tourism should not decline further because those regions, particularly the resort areas, have always been the backbone of the Irish tourism business. They are the most scenic areas, they offer huge opportunities for leisure and recreation and they allow the visitor to have an enjoyable stay in a relaxed atmosphere away from city life. It would be unwise if the bulk of new activity was concentrated in Dublin and the east coast to the detriment of smaller towns and provincial regions as it would prevent the spread of resources into areas which need it most. We are concerned at the trend which is beginning to develop and call on the Government, Bord Fáilte and the other State agencies to find ways to redress it. Last year this was a cause of concern for many hoteliers, not least the big hotels outside Dublin which had many beds available while the market in this city was saturated.
I have no objection to the huge number of hotel developments taking place in Dublin and it looks like these will continue. Some are taking advantage of the benefits available in urban renewal and special incentive areas. However, we should highlight the necessity to counterbalance this trend by making it attractive for small hoteliers in western provincial towns to benefit from the spin-off in the tourism business. The grant schemes for refurbishment and additional accommodation in small provincial hotels were welcome but perhaps the Minister and Bord Fáilte would indicate how they will redress the imbalance and support, by way of incentive, people in the regional areas so that they can play a greater part and get more benefit from the current expansion of our tourism business. There has been trenchant criticism of the inability of smaller operators to get funding and resources and of the delay in the payment of European funding.
I compliment Bord Fáilte and Shannon Free Airport Development Company for their work in the mid-west region which has enhanced the tourism product by developing new amenities, such as the adventure centre in Kilrush, "Water World" in Tralee, Lahinch and Kilkee, and the new product lines such as conference centres. I also compliment both the current and the previous Government for taking the initiative to give tax breaks in resource areas. These have transformed towns like Kilkee and Lahinch whose tourism development had stagnated in the last few years. The huge investment since the renewal scheme was put in place is an example of what incentives and special encouragement can do to bring investment into areas and to make the tourism business work more satisfactorily.
I urge the Minister to press ahead vigorously with the enhancement of the tourism product. Far greater attention is required in areas such as the environment, heritage areas and the roads network. The tourism business can play a far more important role in the overall national economic drive in the future and we will be forthcoming with any support which will ensure that.