Tourism Industry: Statements.

I welcome the opportunity to address the current situation in the tourism industry. I also look forward to hearing Senators' contributions as I highly value the role and expertise of this House in economic debate. It is timely to review the tourism industry in its entirety given recent developments in the global economic outlook.

We have been developing our economy under a framework of partnership for many years. This partnership model is also a core tenet of tourism policy. That is why, since taking up my appointment last June, I have had extensive consultations with tourism interest groups and have reviewed developments with staff in my Department and the key tourism State agencies. The Government's general strategy to sustain the medium and long-term growth of the sector is set out in our agreed programme for Government. I will energetically pursue the 20 individual tourism action points set out in that programme.

Tourism is an important and dynamic growth industry worldwide. According to the World Tourism Organisation, there were almost 900 million international tourist arrivals in 2007. The industry has grown by 6.5% per year between 1950 and 2007. Tourism revenue worldwide is valued at €462 billion annually or slightly more than €1.25 billion per day. The industry represents more than a third of the world's exports of services. Most importantly, the industry is expected to continue on its upward growth path, with a predicted 1.6 billion international tourist arrivals worldwide by 2020.

The economic importance of tourism to the State cannot be overstated. Tourism expenditure doubled during the 1990s and some €4.3 billion was invested in tourism capital stock, supported by a significant allocation of EU Structural Funds and Government grants and incentives. The tourism policy review group, of which I will speak later, has rightly concluded that Irish tourism is the most important sector of Irish-owned enterprise since the foundation of the State. The statistics speak for themselves. The tourism and hospitality industry provides direct employment for almost 250,000 workers throughout the State and its effect is seen in virtually every parish. It is probably the largest employer in the State at this stage, just ahead of the construction industry.

In 1990, overseas visitor numbers to Ireland were slightly more than 3 million. This has more than doubled to 8 million visitors in 2007. Revenue earnings from these visitors have also grown steadily. In 1990, foreign visitors spent a little more than €1 billion in the State, and this had grown to almost €5 billion in 2007. Despite our increasing national propensity for foreign travel, domestic tourism has also been buoyant. In 1990, domestic tourism contributed €0.5 billion, increasing to an estimated €1.6 billion in 2007.

In addition, visitor numbers from most of Ireland's key source markets showed good growth levels in 2007 despite the increasingly competitive nature of the industry. Overseas visitor numbers in 2007 grew by 4% to an all time high of more than 8 million and overseas revenue grew by 4.5% to almost €5 billion. Last year was the sixth consecutive year of growth and a record year for tourism in terms of total visitors and earnings. In 2007, Ireland topped the Lonely Planet Blue List survey as the world's friendliest destination. Recent detailed consumer research undertaken by Tourism Ireland endorses the findings of this survey.

Tourism targets for 2008, which were set during the second half of 2007, are to achieve growth in overseas visitor numbers and foreign revenue receipts of 5.2% and 7.7%, respectively. However, financial volatility, adverse exchange rates and weaker economic growth have become features of some of our key source markets in recent months. In these circumstances, the targets may be overly ambitious.

On 8 November 2007, I had the pleasure of meeting my Northern Ireland counterpart, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr. Nigel Dodds, MP, at the first North-South Ministerial Council meeting in tourism sectoral format since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. It was a productive meeting. In the context of a North-South co-operative approach, we approved Tourism Ireland's business plan for 2008 and its corporate plan for the period 2008-2010. These plans set ambitious targets for the continued growth of tourism to the island of Ireland. If achieved, they will result in up to 10.6 million visitors to the island by 2010, with an associated €16 billion in tourism revenues in that three-year period.

I remain optimistic about our future prospects. The tourism industry is a resilient one and is well placed to maintain its strong performance in the medium term. However, recent international instability will pose a major challenge to sustaining overseas growth and, in particular, revenue growth this year. The ability to meet these challenges is reinforced by a clear and dynamic policy framework in support of the industry. That policy approach has been developed and implemented in a close partnership with the sector.

The agreed programme for Government provides for sustained support and investment for the industry in the coming years. This includes investment in product development and innovation, marketing, human resources and training and transport infrastructure. These objectives are reflected in my Department's new Statement of Strategy 2008-10, which is available in the Oireachtas Library.

It worthwhile to refer to several other documents which comprise the framework for the promotion and development of tourism policy. The detailed strategy which drives investment in the industry is set out in the 2003 report of the tourism policy review group, New Horizons for Irish Tourism — An Agenda for Action, as well as the subsequent reports of the tourism action plan implementation group. The New Horizons report set out a strategy for the period 2003-2012, both industry-led and Government-led, for the further sustainable development of tourism. It identified a detailed list of recommendations and actions to be undertaken by the industry and the public sector to give effect to the strategy.

Following the report's publication, the tourism action plan implementation group was appointed to monitor implementation of the recommendations of the report. That group has to date presented three progress reports. I expect its successor group, the tourism strategy implementation group, to produce a fourth and final report in the coming weeks. The report will include an assessment of progress since the publication of the New Horizons report and recommendations for a strategic mid-term review.

The National Development Plan 2007-2013, Transforming Ireland, includes the largest ever Government investment programme for the development of tourism. The programme includes an international marketing sub-programme which provides €335 million to promote the island of Ireland in key international markets. The key objective in the seven-year period will be to increase tourism revenue and visitor yield and to achieve a wider regional and seasonal distribution of business. The investment programme also involves a product development and infrastructure sub-programme which provides €317 million to upgrade and supplement tourism attractions and activities throughout the State and to deliver a national conference centre in Dublin. Also included in the national development plan investment programme is a training and human resource development sub-programme which will invest €148 million in the education and training of the tourism workforce, both domestic and international, as well as sustaining structured educational opportunities in third level colleges and institutes of technology throughout the State. This sub-programme will also provide for the continuation of initiatives aimed at improving management capability and networking in small and medium enterprises, SMEs, and micro-enterprises at regional level.

In addition to direct investment through the tourism development programme, the new national development plan includes a range of complementary programmes that will greatly benefit the future development of tourism. These relate not only to the major planned capital investment in transport, energy and environmental services but also to the proposed investment of more than €900 million in cultural infrastructure and €990 million in sport infrastructure under my Department's Vote. There is great potential to develop synergies within my Department's portfolio. Since becoming Minister, I have actively pursued such an agenda with a view to enhancing our tourism product offering and promoting cultural and sports tourism.

The national development plan also provides for construction of a national conference centre in Dublin. The contract was awarded in April 2007. Construction of the centre is under way and it is on schedule to be operational in 2010. In the meantime, the operators are working closely with Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and the Dublin Convention Bureau to market the venue.

In line with the national development plan, the 2008 budget provided for the largest ever Exchequer allocation for tourism services of €170 million, an increase of 10% on the 2007 outturn. Capital funding of €15.7 million has been provided to support investment in key tourism infrastructure, attractions and visitor activity facilities. The allocation of €83 million to Fáilte Ireland includes funding to secure an Irish stopover in Galway of the Volvo Ocean Race in 2009 and the Solheim Cup in Killeen Castle, County Meath, in 2011. The provision of an extra €5 million for the tourism marketing fund, which represents an increase of 11% on last year's sum, brings the fund to €50 million. This includes funding dedicated to the marketing overseas of the wider Shannon catchment area to meet the challenges posed by the introduction of open skies agreement. Provision has also been made for the renewal of the super regions and the air access marketing initiative. Support is being given to the further development of the Irish tourism brand in 2008, building on the extensive research work done by Tourism Ireland last year.

As I mentioned earlier, the tourism industry has a role in virtually every parish in Ireland. I am conscious of the positive role it can play in promoting balanced regional development. As I have said, the tourism development programme, which is being pursued under the national development plan, provides for Exchequer investment in tourism of €800 million over the life of the plan.

One of the fundamental objectives of the programme is the stimulation of regional development. It will be supported by the recent establishment of five regional tourism development boards, one each in the south east, the south west, the west, the midlands-east and the north west. Shannon Development has created a separate regional board to reflect these structures. Dublin Tourism has also been reconstituted. Detailed development plans for each tourism region have been produced and published. The Shannon plan will be available in May. The plans serve as an important framework and resource for the various spending agencies in optimising the tourism benefits of investment under the national development plan, thereby adding to the local social and economic impact of such expenditure.

The ambitions of the regional boards will be supported by Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland. The two agencies have been resourced to work in partnership with the industry and the regions to face up to the challenges the year will present. It is important for the industry to do what it can to sustain our competitiveness and offer good value for money in the marketplace to entice potential visitors.

Tourism Ireland will continue to deliver world-class marketing programmes in 2008 to ensure the island of Ireland stands out competitively in key markets, notwithstanding the challenges facing the industry. Co-operative marketing opportunities will be offered to industry partners to allow them to work with Tourism Ireland overseas. This is important if we are to help convert consumer interest to action — to close the sale, so to speak. There will also be an emphasis on innovative product offerings and competitive pricing. Our core target markets will remain Great Britain, mainland Europe and North America, although new and developing markets will present significant opportunities in the longer term. Fáilte Ireland will continue to support capital investment and innovation, raise quality standards and support the development of businesses through e-business support and network-based learning. It will continue to provide its excellent training programmes, which concentrate on block release, and new models of training, which allow for accelerated progress to final assessment and accreditation. Fáilte Ireland will also focus on delivering the new regional tourism development strategies. It will continue to promote home holidays through innovative marketing programmes in consultation with the industry.

I have set out my assessment of our recent tourism performance, outlined my views on the 2008 season and indicated the broad policy objectives which guide my work as Minister in line with the Government's agreed programme and the national development plan. I intend to continue to consult widely with the industry, the tourism agencies and other experts to guide that work. While I accept the industry is facing genuine difficulties with this year being especially challenging, I believe it has the resilience and the potential to overcome the current obstacles and maintain sustained growth in the medium term. Tourism is a sector of enormous economic importance and with a wide regional impact. As Minister, I will do my utmost to support and develop it.

I look forward to hearing the views of Senators about the many challenges faced by the tourism sector. I know from previous debates that the Members of this House are well informed about the industry. It is important to develop an all-island tourism product, which is not something we had an opportunity to do in the past when two approaches were taken on this island. We need to maintain competitiveness in this area. The input of non-nationals living in Ireland, which is a new factor in this regard, should be maximised. Approximately 30% of those who work in the tourism sector in this country are non-nationals. We should give more attention to the development of tourism in the various regions. We have to look again at the synergy involved in tourism. We need to pull together the artistic and sporting environments, for example, under the big tent of tourism. We have to develop 21st century products which feed into the world of tourism. I thank the House.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Brennan, to the House. I acknowledge the help he has given me in the many Ministries he has held since I became a Member of this House. In particular, I thank him for the assistance he provided when he was in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. As the Minister said, we face many challenges in 2008. Tourism is one of the sectors of the economy that has grown consistently and thrived on the basis of this country's worldwide reputation. I do not doubt that 2007 was a record year for tourism in this country. Approximately 9.1 million people visited this country last year, bringing an estimated €4.6 billion to the economy.

The tourism industry faces one of its most challenging years as a result of a number of issues which have arisen. I refer to the weakening of sterling and the US dollar against the euro, for example, and the slowdown in the growth in the Irish economy. Those operating in the tourism sector have been affected by the continuous increase in the cost of doing business in Ireland. The tourism industry employs more than 150,000 people and benefits every parish in this country. The Government needs to put in place a strategy to ensure such levels of employment can be sustained.

The Minister alluded to the fact that the situation in the west has been further complicated by the termination of the air service between Shannon and Heathrow airports and the challenges posed by the open skies agreement between the EU and the US in respect of transatlantic flights. I ask the Minister to ensure the amount of money provided to market the Irish tourism sector overseas is augmented by a special fund to support initiatives in the US dollar and sterling areas. Such funding would be available to airlines, sea carriers and accommodation providers that take currency risks by making tourism packages available in sterling or US dollar prices. I accept that some carriers and accommodation providers have been proactive in offering attractive prices to people in overseas markets. However, other product providers, such as signature golf courses, etc. should be conscious of the difficulties created by the strong euro, especially in the US. They should accommodate people in relation to green fees, for example. As this country's signature golf courses fly the flag of quality and add to Ireland's attractiveness as a destination, I suggest that they should be considered for qualification under the business expansion schemes.

It is clear that 2008 will be a most difficult year. All sectors of the tourism industry should be encouraged to be creative and to take some risks to ensure the industry will benefit immediately from any upturn in the economies of our main markets, particularly Britain and the US. Given that tourism contributes €2.8 billion to the Exchequer it would not be unreasonable to suggest that an additional €5 million be made available for specific marketing activities to attempt to counteract the weaknesses in the US dollar and sterling.

Tourism, and in particular the hospitality sector, is a major employer throughout the country. The hospitality sector has an extremely high cost base and the cost of labour now exceeds 40% of turnover. Continuing increases in local authority rates and charges are a major burden for hotels and guesthouses. The Commission on Taxation should consider in depth how the inequitable system of local authority rates can be replaced with a more equitable system of local taxation.

Overseas employees make up 30% of employment in the hotel sector. They make an enormous contribution to Irish hospitality. Fáilte Ireland in conjunction with the industry should put in place an effective customer relation training programme to ensure employees who come in contact with members of the public are aware of local attractions and can communicate to customers the areas of interest in the locality which would make their stay more enjoyable.

Marketing and promotion should be constant and not confined to the periods during which it has traditionally taken place. All marketing resources should be channelled into maintaining and improving the quality of the product we have. The expansion in the number of flights was discussed and it is great to see so many air routes. We have seen an explosion in the number of air routes during recent years. This has changed travel patterns and cities and regions with airports have benefited. It is suggested that they are beneficial to people described as cash rich and time poor.

We must also make reference to carriers by sea. After duty free was abolished, car ferry companies experienced grave difficulties. However, they are fighting back and their marketing theme is that they are low-cost carriers. This is being pushed hard and is effective. It is proved that people bringing their cars stay longer and are more valuable from a tourism point of view. This area should be vigorously marketed.

We have difficulties with competitiveness. Recently, Dublin was ranked the most expensive of 71 global cities by Swiss banking giant, UBS. In a survey carried out this year, Dublin moved from being the 13th most expensive city surveyed to being ranked fourth, just ahead of Zurich. This should set alarm bells ringing. The most recent CSO figures show an annual rate of inflation of 5%, rising to 9.3% in food and alcoholic beverages. This is another problem we face and it must be tackled.

With regard to transport, we have a deficit which must be addressed if we are to attract tourists. Traffic gridlock is the norm in our cities but also in regional and rural areas. Cars play an essential role in getting around. To date, Transport 21 has failed to deliver adequate rail links, bus services and transport services in regional areas in particular. This is vital in areas surrounding regional airports. The economic and tourism development plan for the Shannon region, which was published recently, contains minimal funding commitments to enhance transport links in the region. At a time when competition for airline passengers is fierce we must ensure local infrastructure is of world-class standard.

As I am discussing transport and travelling, anybody who took part in the Seanad election can testify that we still have major problems with regard to signage throughout the country. It is often mentioned in the context of tourism. I hope it is addressed. We have been assured it will be but it must be given a great deal of consideration.

Aside from the clear obstacles which the tourism industry must overcome, issues such as changing consumer behaviour must also be taken into consideration. Tourists are taking shorter and more frequent breaks, often opting for urban holidays rather than rural trips. The increasing importance of environmental issues must also be considered.

Another problem to be addressed is the fact that we are missing out on the key area of business tourism. The delay in delivering a national conference centre in Dublin means we are missing out on an estimated €25 million to €50 million a year. It is estimated that 870 conferences take place in Europe each year and the global conference market is estimated to be worth more than €40 billion. A national conference centre is required without further delay. I could say a great deal more but I will conclude my remarks. I welcome the Minister's comments to be made at the conclusion of the debate.

I welcome the Minister on his first visit as Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism. We have all had the privilege of dealing with him as a Minister. The Minister and I arrived to this House together on our first day as Members of the Oireachtas. We will not say how long ago it was.

The progress overall in the Irish tourism industry has been phenomenal during the past ten or 15 years. Prior to this, 15 or 20 years ago, Irish tourism consisted of a few English anglers and many first and second generation Americans coming to find their roots. This was the basis of our tourism.

At present, our tourism is probably more broadly based than tourism in any other country in the world. The Mediterranean countries sell sun tourism and nothing else. Irish tourism sells a number of products, some of them unique. We sell heritage products and other specialist products such as cruising. We have also moved into adventure holidays. These are areas mainly used by people with considerable disposable income. Most of the people going on sun holidays are on extremely low, tight budgets and are not in a position to make the enormous contribution to the economy made by many tourists coming here.

Proof of this is the development throughout the country during the past ten or 15 years of restaurants which are of the highest quality. They have helped to make a contribution not only towards providing jobs but also encouraging people to come to Ireland. The quality of the food in these restaurants, and of Irish food in general, is first class and cannot be surpassed.

We have also seen a major increase in the number of hotel beds available, particularly in Dublin city. We now have multiples of what was available ten years ago. Many of them are small hotels which provide a level of service one would not get in some of the five star hotels around the world. They provide excellent quality and value and should be supported. Many of them have been supported by means of tax breaks and other incentives and they have delivered to the State in terms of VAT and other revenues and in the number of jobs they have provided.

I refer to the first major tourism initiative in a long time. The Shannon-Erne waterway was opened in the early 1990s and at the time people said it would be a white elephant and it was given all the usual tags associated with such projects. However, it has proved to be an enormous success not only in building links North and South of the Border but because the number of boats using the waterway has increased each year. People might not be aware of this but there were 1,000 extra cruisers or boats on our waterways last year. The main problem will be finding accommodation for them in the off season. The people who avail of this tourism product have large disposable incomes. They spend money in the towns and villages in which they moor at night and make an enormous contribution to their economies.

I also compliment the Governments, North and South, on their decision in regard to the Ulster Canal. It will mean we will have a joined up waterway which is very important for the future development of our cruiser industry.

The Minister mentioned the national conference centre and it is imperative that it progresses. Like the outgoing Taoiseach, I regret we do not have a national stadium because if we had one, it would become another major tourist attraction. Senator Jerry Buttimer would probably prefer if it were located in Cork but we cannot have everything. It is a long way for me to travel to Cork. Dublin is at least more accessible.

The national conference centre will bring much business to Dublin and will result in maximum use of hotel beds. At present there is very high occupancy from Friday to Sunday but we need to increase occupancy from Sunday to Thursday. Much conference business is early to mid-week so the national conference centre will be of enormous benefit to this city.

We talk about access to this country for tourists. As far as tourism is concerned, the biggest thing to happen was low air fares. Lower air fares have made a greater contribution to people coming here than anything else. Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Aer Arann offer flights at a price which is very attractive to tourists to come here for short breaks. Much of our tourism business is short breaks. The world has changed so much that people no longer go on holidays for two to three weeks. The number of Irish people spending a lot of money on weekend breaks is increasing. That is very important when we look at our overall tourism product. I compliment Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Aer Arann on what they have done.

However, all this has not come about by accident. Tax breaks and grant incentives were put in place over the years which encouraged people to invest in tourism. Perhaps we should continue them but focus them on specific developments which would become national and international attractions rather than on some of the smaller projects, although I am not saying they should not be funded.

The best tourism marketing was done last year when the international rally came to the north west. Every hotel bed within a 50-mile radius of Sligo town was occupied for four or five days. People only began to realise what was available. The international groups were so impressed that they have decided to come in January 2009 for another round of the international rally, which is important. We should put in place a national rally team which would market our tourism industry around the world. We have put money into other projects but we should consider putting together a national rally team to sell Ireland everywhere a round of the international rally is held. I ask the Minister to consider that, although I compliment him and North West Tourism on the funding provided so far.

We do not get enough international publicity for many of the products we have to sell. Tourism will become more important because other sectors of our economy are finding it tough. International exchange rates are beginning to affect our tourism business. The strength of the eurovis-à-vis the US dollar and sterling is starting to cause problems for tourism operators. I hope we will be able to meet some of the shortfall in terms of the spending capability. I do not believe the State can make it up and tourism operators will be forced to become more competitive to stay in the market.

The outlook is very good. The increase in the number of visitors and in the amount of money they spend has been phenomenal. However, we must maintain the standard of the products we provide to tourists.

There is a regional imbalance in that the majority of tourists end up south of the line from Dublin to Galway. That is something we need to rectify. There is a historic reason for that but it no longer exists. The fact we will now promote tourism on an all-Ireland basis will make an enormous contribution. We should sell an all-island product rather than a North-South or an east-west one.

I have a couple of minor criticisms. Some heritage sites are not being promoted, although I do not wish to see them promoted to such an extent that they will be vandalised. Most heritage sites have reasonably good facilities but the smaller ones, which in some cases are more attractive to people going on heritage holidays than the larger ones, should be marketed on a county or a regional basis.

A considerable sum of money is being provided in the national development plan. However, the majority of the money must go into product development and promotion. Without that, we will not go anywhere. We must continue to promote the fact this is a green, clean island with fresh air. Perhaps there is a little too much water and rain at times but people do not come to Ireland for a sun holiday but for a holiday which is different. The Minister outlined how Ireland is classed as a friendly destination. We must maintain the standards, initiatives and incentives. If we do so, we will have a very bright future in tourism. We have put in place the infrastructure required to deliver sustainable jobs. It is important we have sustainable tourism and that people do not take one look at us and decide not to come back.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I wish him and his officials, whom I know, well. When it comes to speaking about tourism, I am effectively an insider trader in that I left Fáilte Ireland to become a Senator. I worked in tourism for more than nine years with Bord Fáilte and Fáilte Ireland. From that point of view, my comments are based on my beliefs as regards where tourism needs to go and the areas that need to be addressed. I do so based on the knowledge I gained during those years and from a perspective which may be a little different from others.

I am the Labour Party spokesperson on tourism and from a policy point of view I am supportive of anything the Minister may do based on comments made here today. The Minister will not be challenged by me for making difficult choices and putting in place policies that will assist in the promotion of tourism in the future. It is worth noting that tourism is an important part of our economy. I will not list all the relevant figures as the Minister has already done so. Tourism hits the tentacles of all-Ireland in cultural, regional and integration terms in respect of services and the employment of 250,000 people. It also assists people from a cultural point of view to adopt to a more modern Ireland and Europe, which is important. Tourism is a €6 billion industry which provides huge economic benefits for Ireland. It is important to point this out.

However, it is an industry which faces many challenges that need to be addressed. While there was an increase in visitor numbers to Ireland last year there was no actual increase in international revenue, which is a concern. It is a greater concern now given the position of the US dollar. An opening exists for us to enter the eastern European market which has experienced huge progress during the past number of years.

Senator Ellis referred to short breaks. Short breaks is the way to go; they are what is pushing the market along. More investment in this area is necessary particularly in respect of the eastern European market. The most important aspect of Irish tourism is ensuring the Irish experience is maintained. It is as simple as that. It is the core defining factor and we must do all we can to protect it. Competitiveness is a key issue from a value for money point of view. Some 34% of people surveyed by Fáilte Ireland were not happy with our services, an increase of 10% during the past couple of years. We all know what is happening. How we address the issue is the problem.

I believe the Minister should encourage the relevant agencies to work with marketing groups, in particular, the Irish Hotels Federation, to ensure they do not view as negative having to sell their perishable goods at a reduced rate before they go out of date. They should consider this a positive step. I have been told they would rather offer bed nights for free than drop their prices. They could learn a little from the airline industry. There is value to be had in hotels. However, the sector as a whole needs to be looked at. A little bit of encouragement in this regard would not go astray.

A key issue in respect of tourism is that of regionalism. The regions are not getting the bang for their buck from tourism; it is as simple as that. Dublin Tourism's share of the market increased by 32% from 1990 to 2008. The agency is doing a good job and fair play to it. However, Shannon and the mid-west region lost 7% of its share during the same period. That is a significant issue. The east coast and midlands area had no growth last year in terms of visitor numbers to the region and the mid-west region was down 5% in this regard. Issues in regard to Shannon aside, this is significant.

We have a hole in the doughnut effect in respect of tourism, namely, the southwest does well, as does the eastern corridor of Dublin, the southeast and Galway but, the middle of Ireland, the spine of the country, is not getting its bang for its buck. We need policies that will encourage more people to visit that region.

On the question of productivity and product marketing, I am fully supportive of incentive schemes such as the Shannon corridor scheme, be they tax orientated or otherwise, that would promote the mobilisation and marketing of products that will encourage tourists to visit the spine of Ireland. It is important the Minister does this.

People need to realise that domestic tourism is far more important to the middle of Ireland than is international tourism. Some 70% of people who visit counties Offaly, Tipperary and so on are domestic tourists. We need policies that will support this trend. Mr. John Concannon is doing a fine job. I appreciate what he is doing in terms of spreading marketing value over the whole year. Also, I admire his campaign which seeks to show people the difference between travelling abroad and holidaying in Ireland. I believe we need to make short breaks longer by extending them by one day either side. This will help to create more share for the region.

I am interested to hear the Minister's views in regard to the role of organisations. There has been considerable change in organisational roles in respect of tourism in Ireland. We now have Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. At a number of conferences I attended I heard the joke about the two Irishmen who went into a room to set up a tourism agency and came out having set up three agencies. We were supposed to create an all-Ireland tourism agency. We now have three agencies. I ask that the Minister examine this issue while accepting it will have to be considered in co-operation with our colleagues in Northern Ireland. It is necessary that we have only one tourism agency.

There is an overlap between Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland in terms of central services and marketing. For instance, Fáilte Ireland is responsible for marketing golf in America while Tourism Ireland is responsible for implementing it. Also, marketing Ireland in America is the responsibility of Tourism Ireland. That does not make sense. The chief executive of Tourism Ireland agrees with me in this regard. This issue needs to be addressed quickly. There are overlaps in other areas also when it comes to issues such as event management and so on. I do not believe this is acceptable in this day and age.

Dublin Tourism should come under the umbrella of Fáilte Ireland. I never understood how the campaign to keep it separate was successful. I understand Dublin is a destination in its own right but I do not believe it should be dealt with by a separate agency. I accept Dublin Tourism is doing an excellent job for Dublin. However, it has a larger remit given Dublin is the main gateway to Ireland. There is no way we will increase tourism levels in the east coast and regions to the required levels if Dublin Tourism does not facilitate people spending an extra night in the midlands rather than in Dublin. This is not happening and will not happen unless the structure is changed. I say that with regret because I admire what Dublin Tourism does for Dublin. However, it must change if tourism in the rest of Ireland is to be successful.

Shannon Development is effectively the mid-west tourism agency in all but name. I can understand the need for an interim measure and accept Shannon Development has a property portfolio. Will a change be made in this area in the future? It has two boards which is confusing. I ask the Minister to examine this. Fáilte Ireland has three offices in Dublin, one of which has been vacant for a year. I do not know how much rent is paid for it but is it necessary to maintain it? What is it being used for? That is a concern.

There are many other issues I wish to draw to the Minister's attention and perhaps as spokesperson I will get the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss these on another occasion. I will, however, touch on two or three. The agencies concerned cannot do the amount of work they wish to simply because tourism touches so many different departments. I welcome what the tourism review has done and I encourage the Minister to keep it going. Often executives cannot achieve what they wish because there is not enough cohesion between Government agencies and Departments. Blockage of communication in this area should be prevented.

I encourage the Minister to maintain funding for secondary events throughout the country because they have a considerable impact. The deregulation of self-catering was a mistake. The decision was not favoured by executives and it will have an impact in rural Ireland where the accommodation bank has been cut by three-quarters in some areas. If one goes to the Discover Ireland website, despite whatever anybody claims, one will not always be able to get the accommodation one wants in rural areas. That is a negative and retrograde step which I hope the Minister can rectify.

I agree with Senator Ellis regarding the area of heritage. Formerly we had policies or strategies that were successful in the areas of events and sports. Although Rally Ireland was excellent I am not sure that we get the bang for buck for the golf events that are brought into the country.

Rally Ireland is a fantastic event. If that money were pushed towards heritage, which is a product in itself and forms part of the broader Ireland experience, it would be more worthwhile. If the Minister is considering issues from a budgetary point of view, I would encourage him to go in that rather than any other direction.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I congratulate him on his achievements in this brief in the ten months since the Cabinet was established. He has brought with him the experience of his previous briefs, which number four or five, and has achieved much in each of the respective areas, arts, sports and tourism. The statements he made today doubtless outline the need to re-examine the dangers that accompany the requirement for a proper policy in tourism, particularly because of international economic adjustment, the appreciation of the euro against the dollar and sterling, and the need to have a tourism product that represents true value for money.

The elements of a tourism policy are simple. We want to bring more people into the country and to encourage more Irish people to take their holidays within Ireland. While we were going through a period of affluence, tourism was not perhaps as successful as we might have wished. The most recent statistics, for February, admittedly not high tourist season in this country, show 70,000 more trips out of the country than came in. Because we do not have a weather-related tourist industry we should strive to have an all-year-round tourist product. We should aim to attract more people to the country and to enjoy what it has to offer at all times of the year. The challenge for the Minister is to achieve that.

The marketing of tourism on an all-island basis is welcome and we will reap rewards for it. With regard to a consumer driven marketing drive, we may need to go further in the brand identification of particular tourist establishments. In the past Bord Fáilte had its shamrock as did bed and breakfasts. There is concern and ongoing debate about value for money as it applies to various destinations and, in this country in particular, to hotels. Now that the euro will make it more expensive for people coming into the country perhaps we should initiate something similar to the old shamrock scheme whereby particular establishments are clearly identified as offering the best value for money.

There are other ways for hotels and tourist establishments to identify themselves as being consumer oriented. I took part in a conference yesterday organised by the Green Fáilte group, an organisation that gives accreditation to hotels for their environmental practice. This might be for their waste and energy management, and for offering a service to customers that highlights environmentally friendly practice at the best possible level. Under this scheme accreditation has been given to dozens of hotels across the country, mainly in the Cork area because that is where the scheme originated. It has the potential to acquire international recognition for the type of quality tourist product we can offer. It signifies that our hotels and tourist establishments are striving to achieve different standards that will appeal to a certain type of consumer. The whole idea of green tourism has gone beyond the notion of the backpacker and the €5 a day spending allowance, especially when we include what is called third age tourism, aimed at people who are retiring earlier and who want to travel. In this regard, we could offer a tourist product that we probably are not yet exploiting to the greatest possible extent.

Senator Kelly mentioned areas in the country that appear to benefit most from tourism and he noted the south west in particular. An argument can be made that even in those areas to which high numbers of tourists are attracted, within those areas dispersement does not take place. Cork, in particular, has to strive very hard to keep people within the city area. We seem to have a short hand when it comes to tourism. Tourists are encouraged to think of Blarney Castle and Killarney and are not being offered all that is on offer within particular regions. That is also true of the spine of Ireland, the midlands region. We must be more open in making those areas attractive. Cork city works particularly hard to maintain its status as a festival city. There is not a month during which there is not a dedicated festival in the city and most of them are very successful. It hosts the film, folk, choral — which is on next week — and the midsummer festivals. This is something other regions might try to emulate.

The tourist industry has had the benefit of employing many non-nationals in recent years. That has been to the advantage of the industry because the levels of helpfulness and courtesy shown by many non-nationals are raising standards in the industry that might have been somewhat neglected. Despite our reputation for being a friendly nation, in some of our tourist establishments those levels of courtesy have not always been what they should. That has improved in recent years. There are difficulties, however. Language skills must be worked upon and if the tourist industry employs more such persons it must ensure that communications skills are improved, to accompany the diligence and the courtesy. There have been some minor problems in this area. The Department and tourism agencies should address this.

As we are in a period of economic adjustment, emphasis must be placed on realising the potential of tourism as an economic constant. If it is properly supported and reaches its potential, it can help us over this period of economic adjustment in a way that reliance on the construction industry would not because it is subject to fluctuations. If we had an all-year-round tourism industry that would attract large numbers of people to the country, much of the uncertainty that exists now might disappear. We need to reach that level and are making moves to do that. The marketing of the island on an all-island basis is a move in that direction. However, even the Minister would accept that there is a journey ahead and, while realising the potential of the Irish tourism industry, I am sure he would accept it needs a great deal more effort to get to where we want it.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. This debate is important and timely given that we are about to head into the peak summer season of Irish and international tourism. Senator Boyle spoke about the pillars of tourism. If we think about it, it is about bringing in people, encouraging them to stay, having an enjoyable experience and, hopefully, having people come back while, at the same time, giving them value for money.

I commend the Minister on the work that has been done. I note from his speech that we topped the Lonely Planet list as the world's friendliest destination. I wonder about that at times. In fairness to the people involved in the tourism industry at whatever level, they are committed to selling and promoting Ireland. Those of who us who have done the Seanad tour, having encountered every county in this country, know that one will see great local tourist attractions and the beauty of Ireland. We have stayed at many hotels and bed and breakfast establishments and appreciate and understand the importance of tourism in each area.

It is important we continue to market in a strategic manner. Senator Kelly rightly pointed out that there has been no increase in international revenue, which is a source of concern. We have seen a decade of growth. Senator Boyle referred to the fact that we are heading into a different economic period. The importance of the Irish welcome, the céad míle fáilte, should not be lost and hidden. I may be wrong and am open to correction but I do not share the view that the new migrant workers have added to the Irish experience in many cases. Sometimes I think we need to have a real cultural experience and inculcate in our new workers a sense of what it means to be Irish.

I am also concerned that we are pricing ourselves out of the market. An article in one of the Sunday newspapers addressed the different price structures of bed and breakfast establishments, evening meals, having a few pints and playing a round of golf in different countries. We were ranked way behind Thailand in terms of prices. We can blame outside market forces such as the pound versus the dollar, the slowing down of the economy or the costs of various things. However, we must put things in context. People now have only a small amount of resources that they use to go on holidays or short breaks. I would like to hear a definitive answer regarding the pricing of Ireland as a holiday destination.

We did not get value for money from our investment in the Ryder Cup, which was a wonderful occasion. This was perhaps partly due to the fact it was on pay per view television. I wonder why we did not get that. That was a wonderful event and I commend the Minister and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism on the role they played in the promotion of the Ryder Cup. Why did we not get value for money as a consequence of it?

The rally in Sligo should be used as a model and promoted throughout the rest of the country. The former circuit of Ireland car rally brought people to places all over Ireland. I remember as a young fellow heading to Killarney or parts of north Cork when Billy Coleman was there. I am sure Senator MacSharry will refer to it in his remarks. The importance of that rally and rallying should be a vehicle we can use again to promote Ireland.

Coming from Cork, I believe it is important we acknowledge the role of Cork and Kerry as probably being the tourism capital of the country. This has not come about by chance. Figures reveal that there were 2.4 million visitors to the region last year. The importance of Cork can be seen in the fact that the port of Cork and Cobh have embraced cruise liners with a new footfall of passengers to Cork city and beyond. However, it is important we map Cork and promote it as a tourism region because it is a festival city. There is, as Senator Boyle said, a substantial number of festivals and opportunities for people to come and visit Cork. I ask the Minister to promote Cork in that regard.

The tourism plans for the south west, which were announced recently by the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation, speak about the importance of expanding air access to Cork and Kerry and maintaining sea access to Cork. If I can be a bit parochial, which I do not mind being, a commitment was given by the Minister to make Cork Airport debt free. His successor in the Department of Transport has reneged on that plan. We now have a situation where the airport in Cork is in a bit of a quandary. The airport is important to the region surrounding Cork and for the promotion of tourism. It is disappointing that Cork Airport has been left in the position it is in.

Equally, we now have a situation where there is no sea access given what has happened to the Cork-Swansea ferry. I would like to hear the Minister's response regarding the different negotiations between the stakeholders in respect of the Cork-Swansea ferry. We need to have sustainable growth in the south-west region of the country. To do that, we need to have a vibrant airport and successful sea access between there and Great Britain.

I know the city manager in Cork and commend him and Howard Holdings on their proposal for Cork docklands. Senator Ellis referred to the national conference centre. I want to see a convention centre in Cork. Cork has lost out to Dublin and Killarney in respect of the ability to hold conferences, including business conferences. In fairness to Cork City Council, it has a tourism bureau and a tourism element to its campaign. It has been built upon a very successful experience as European capital of culture. Liz Meaney is a very vibrant arts officer in Cork City Council who is always probing and producing new and innovative ideas such as the Bealtaine festival, which is happening throughout the country, the Cork Midsummer Festival, the Cork Folk Festival; and the very important jazz festival. I noticed that there is a new jazz festival in Ballydehob on the May bank holiday weekend, which adds a different string to the festivals in west Cork.

If we are serious about tourism, I ask the Minister to look at attracting young people to Ireland. Perhaps we could look at the concept of a Eurodisney, such as that which exists in France, or Alton Towers, which exists in England. I believe there is a market for that and we could include it as part of the new tourism strategy by directly involving more young people coming to Ireland by giving them a new experience in the guise of theme parks.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire freisin. Senator Buttimer made a great case for Cork as the tourism capital of Ireland. An important thing to remember is that possibly every parish could make the same claim. That was the point the Minister was making in his address.

I live in Cashel and can look out right across the Rock of Cashel. For me, it symbolises our great heritage and indicates the respect for that heritage in the minds of discerning tourists who come to Ireland. The best way to sell one's country is to bring what one has and others do not have to the attention of people. If one has something that is exclusive, there is a very good possibility that one will be able to compete in what has become a very competitive market in every sense of the word.

It might be no harm to look back on the development of tourism in Ireland. Dr. Brendan O'Regan, who was a great tourist advocate and activist, died recently. I remember meeting him in the context of Shannon development, Bunratty Castle and all the development at that particular time. He had a fantastic vision but was able to put it into action at a time when tourism was not centre stage anywhere in the world. The work done by Bord Fáilte back in those days was exceptional because the same resources did not exist as perhaps exist today. However, it showed great enthusiasm and commitment. Every official of Bord Fáilte one would meet when he or she travelled to one's area would inspire one to reflect on the strength of one's region and what was required to promote it in the marketplace.

Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland are doing an excellent job. The point was made about Tourism Ireland marketing the whole island. I recall meeting people during my visits to America at the height of the Troubles who were not familiar with Ireland or its geography. We might have been in the middle of a big tourism marketing campaign when an incident occurred in the North which derailed that campaign. Many people there did not know the difference between the North and the South. They thought Ireland was a war-torn island. Despite that, Bord Fáilte was able to maintain the vibrancy of our tourism industry.

We are living in a new era now and the whole island is being marketed. It did not make sense to market a part of the island and for the rest of the island not to be part of our focus. When I was in New York in the past three weeks I had a chat with Mr. Joe Byrne in the Tourism Ireland office. I was inspired by his confidence about the industry, even for this year. There is great confidence about it among people there. I can understand the reason for that. The Minister said that the last major global survey places Ireland on top when it comes to friendliness and friendship. I always thought that was our strength. I knew the necessary infrastructure was required but I always believed that the fuel in the engine was our friendliness. When one talks to people who have visited Ireland, they all comment on the friendliness of the Irish people. That is possibly in some ways exclusive to ourselves or if not, it is certainly very much part of what we have to offer. I hope that will never change and I genuinely do not believe it will. It is characteristic of us to want to be with people. Hospitality is inherent in our nature. If that hospitality exists as well as the commercial side of tourism, we will do well.

We get the name sometimes of pricing ourselves out of the market, but people often do not compare like with like. People will sometimes compare the price of a meal in McDonald's in New York with that of one in a five star restaurant in Ireland. If one were to go for a meal to a five star restaurant in America or any other country, one would realise what one would have to pay for it. If there is unnecessary overcharging, it should be examined. However, I would not like there to be a lowering of standards here. Our standards today, be they in hotels, restaurants or pubs, are exceptional. In many ways other countries cannot compare with them.

I have one sad commentary to make about tourist accommodation, namely, the future of bed and breakfast accommodation. They were ideal in the smaller areas where there were no hotels or other such infrastructure. They accommodated people who wished to visit attractions in those areas. Unfortunately, given the increase in bureaucracy, overheads and health and safety issues — I am not saying this in a critical manner — bed and breakfast establishments find it difficult to cope. While I do not have statistics on this, I would be surprised if not more than a third of them have gone out of business in recent years. That is a shame because I believe the wheel will come full circle again. Even the hotels are beginning to compete in price with bed and breakfast establishments, which makes it difficult for those establishments. However, they still offer the attraction of interaction with a community. Some people will still want to visit in Ireland, stay in a bed and breakfast establishment, have time to talk at the breakfast table and visit the local attractions.

If we lose that accommodation infrastructure, namely, if bed and breakfast establishments cease to operate and a good association ceases to represent them, I am certain this type of infrastructure will not be set up in future. When they came into existence initially, it was not only for commercial reasons. There was a sense of hospitality and people who ran them wanted to meet people and give of their time to them.

The owners of bed and breakfast establishments might be assisted in some respects. Would it not be helpful if they could apply for a special licence to enable them to serve a drink in these establishments? I do not know how that might be done. One of the attractions for people is to be able to have a drink when they say in a hotel. If they cannot have one in a bed and breakfast establishment, they will stay elsewhere.

The point was made earlier that tourism is possibly the largest employer in Ireland. I accept that. It is important the industry is spread throughout the country. There has been a greater focus on tourism in Dublin in the past seven to nine years. Perhaps that is due to the tour operators who find it easier to do that. It might also be related to the changing nature of Shannon Airport some years ago. I remember a time when the numbers visiting Shannon, Tipperary and Galway were much greater. Those in the tourism industry or the Department cannot tell visitors where to go but some mechanism might be found to encourage people to visit areas not currently being visited by tourists. Dublin is becoming a little over-organised. The experience of visiting Dublin in the past was that of a friendly, cohesive city that one could easily get around, but that has changed. We need to review that aspect radically.

I am convinced we can compete with whatever challenges are posed by other destinations in the world. I envisage that China will become a great tourist destination, especially because of the antiquity of its heritage, but we can compete with that. We can talk of our heritage dating back thousands rather than hundreds of years. The discerning tourist will still want to experience that.

I wish the Minister well. In any Ministry he has held, he has been accessible and very much on top of the job, something to which Senator Cummins alluded. I wish him well. I have no doubt in my mind that the mere fact he was here for the full debate and did not have a Minister of State substitute for him after half and hour or an hour into the debate indicates his accessibility. I wish him well and thank him for the encouragement he has given us.

I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well in this job. I hope he will retain his portfolio because I have no doubt he will do a great job in the tourism portfolio, as he has done in the previous portfolios he has held.

There is no doubt, as referred to by previous speakers, that the tourism industry is doing well in Dublin but poorly in the regions. One must ask the reason for that. If one stays in a hotel in Dublin, one need only ask tourists what regions will they visit. They will tell one that they will visit a particular region. If one asks them why they want to go to that region, they will tell one that they read about it in an international guide or that a porter in the hotel told them that this would be a good route to go. The Minister must ensure all the regions have an even share of the industry to enable them all to prosper and so that some do not get preferential treatment or a better write-up than other regions in international magazines. That area should be addressed.

One wonders why tourists travel here. They do not come for the sun because we get more rain than sun. It must be due to our hospitality and our friendliness. Many people left our shores many years ago and often some of their relations or offspring like to come here to where their relatives came from.

There is much we can do to promote tourist activities other than golf, although golf has been good to us. The holding of the Ryder Cup here was probably not as good for tourism as it could have been as the weather on that occasion was pretty poor. We have been pricing ourselves out of the market in recent years. Services in the country have become expensive. As one who is involved in the catering business, I appreciate the difficulties faced by hotel proprietors, owners of bed and breakfast establishments and those in the catering business, providing tourist accommodation or working in the service industry. What with bills for electricity, refuse, water, insurance and wages, it is an expensive market in which to trade and many people are experiencing grave difficulties.

There are one or two activities that are not being exploited at all. Water sports, particularly sea sports, is one such activity. The north Sligo coast is a renowned surfing area which should be further developed. Hill walking and mountaineering are other activities that should be exploited. In that context, I compliment Councillor Paddy McGuinness of Mayo County Council, who has been a great advocate of walking and mountaineering. He has initiated a plan at county council level and the council has put in place funding to designate walking routes within County Mayo. Those routes will be signposted and upgraded, with proper stiles and so forth. He has received excellent co-operation from the county manager, the other councillors and officials. There are a number of recognised and unrecognised routes in County Mayo and I presume it is the same for every other county in the country. Much could be done in this area. The Civil Defence could have an important role in this regard.

If marketed properly, walking, hill walking and mountaineering could lead to a great expansion in the tourist industry. This, coupled with the promotion of water sports, should be given more attention. Golfing has become very expensive in this country. Fishing, and particularly deep-sea fishing, could also be exploited more but additional funding is required. Some of the boats that are being taken out of the fishing fleet could be redeployed for tourism initiatives. Grants could be given to boat owners to provide sea-fishing services for tourists, which has enormous potential.

I feel very sad for the bed and breakfast sector. Bed and breakfast as an accommodation option is fast becoming a thing of the past. Most people stay in hotels now when they go on holidays. This is particularly true of family groups. There has been a massive expansion in the number of hotels in the country in the past few years, through business expansion schemes, grants and tax breaks. We have seen enormous growth in the hotel industry. We now have more hotels in this country, per head of population, than anywhere else in the world which is an excellent sign. I presume hotels engage in a lot of independent marketing, as well as benefitting from that done by Fáilte Ireland. The bed and breakfast sector is under severe pressure and the Department should provide it with every possible assistance.

I urge the Minister to examine the possibility of developing hill walking and water sports as they are areas in which considerable expansion is possible.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is fantastic to see him here and I am particularly pleased he has not nominated a substitute for part of the debate, as so often happens with other Ministers.

I join with others in celebrating the fact we have come so far. As the Minister indicated in his speech, tourist numbers in 1990 were approximately 3 million and grew to 8 million in 2007. Revenue has risen in the same period from €1 billion to €5 billion. Domestic tourism was worth €0.5 billion in 1990 and is now worth €1.6 billion. There is no question that we have come a long way.

As I come from the regions, that is where my focus will lie today. The new regional set-up within Fáilte Ireland is good. I live in the Fáilte Ireland north-west area and it would be remiss of me not to pass on my good wishes to the Chairman of that body, the former Senator, Mr. Paschal Mooney. I wish him and the chairmen of all the various regional tourism authorities success in their endeavours.

Enormous challenges face our tourism industry. Senators have referred to the cost of coming to Ireland. As Seanad finance spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, I ask the Minister to use his good offices at Cabinet to determine if anything can be done to counteract the current situation whereby the cost for an American tourist to come here, because of the current exchange rates, is 100% more than it was a number of years ago. As I said in the House previously, people from Derry who used to go to Letterkenny for a night out are now paying between 10% and 15% more. That is a significant issue which must be taken on board.

I agree with Senator Burke that we must diversify our expectations of what can grow tourism and we must play to our natural strengths. In that context, sports tourism is very important. Senator Burke mentioned water sports. Surfing is one of the fastest growing sports in the world and is growing rapidly in the west. These days one cannot go to places like Easkey, Strandhill, Bundoran or Rossnowlagh without bumping into surfers from New Zealand, Hawaii and other parts of the world. Such activities deserve our attention.

I wish to focus on Rally Ireland, in which I have been involved since it was the embryo of an idea. Obviously, the real heroes are the promoters and the many volunteers who have made it happen. However, on the political front, I would have pursued it from the very beginning. It was an enormous success but, as Senator Kelly said, we may not realise how successful it was. I am not sure we fully acknowledge how big an event it is and how great its contribution. I fear that because it is not the chosen sport of the gin and tonic belt, like golf, tennis and so forth, it is not given the funding or focus it deserves. It merits more attention from officials in Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and other bodies, although some have been excellent and have supported the event. I suggest, however, that we should front-load the event a little more and be more positive about it. We must find ways to increase the State's involvement in promoting Rally Ireland.

To put the event in context, the Cathaoirleach might allow me to mention a few figures. The independent research carried out by the University of Ulster shows that 125,000 people attended Rally Ireland, which is an excellent figure for its first year. We can expect up to 250,000 people to attend in the future. The event was proven to generate between €38 million and €60 million. The total investment from the State was €1.5 million. A grant of €1.5 million was also provided by the Government in Northern Ireland. This is a very positive aspect of the event — it brought the North and the Republic together to bid for a national event which was a tremendous success.

The television coverage exposed the north-west counties of Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and parts of Northern Ireland — the next event plans to take in Mayo and Roscommon — to a potential audience of 816 million. Of the 16 WRC events internationally, the Irish viewership was the greatest. A total of 62 million viewers watched Rally Ireland. To put that figure in context, an estimated 61 million watched the rugby world cup final, while approximately 58 million watched the men's singles final at Wimbledon. I wonder how much those events cost to stage. Rally Ireland cost our Government only €1.5 million.

The Minister knows of the tremendous success of Rally Ireland. On its first attempt, it came second out of 15 events held all over the world — second only to Finland which has been staging such events since the 1950s. So impressed were the WRC adjudicators that they decided we would replace Monte Carlo, the most prestigious of the events, as the launching event of the 2009 rally season. The rally will take place in January and in a region that is difficult to market at any time of the year we can expect to fill every single bed night in Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Cavan and Mayo. These are the facts but there is an attempt by some in certain quarters to devalue, talk down and underestimate the value of the event. I hasten to point out I am not referring to the Minister or to many officials in Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and particularly in Fáilte Ireland north-west. I have spoken to the Minister about my frustrations in this regard and I am seriously concerned that in focusing more on the minutiae of administrative bureaucracy, we are putting at risk the largest sporting event held in the British Isles last year. Because Rally Ireland was held north of a line between Dublin and Galway, as Senator Ellis said, the focus on it was not the same as it would have been if it were held in Clonliffe College or Tullamore, as we embark on a new regime.

The investment in the event and the proven benefits in revenue and tourist numbers should be examined because the figures do not lie. The University of Ulster conducted independent research into the impact of the rally, although officials in Fáilte Ireland were not happy with the figures. They sought a different set of results from the University of Sheffield but its results were also positive. The officials questioned whether the number of people who travelled to Ireland for the event was as high as the University of Ulster found. However, the study proved the event provided value for the taxpayer's money. How could it be anything else when an allocation of €1.5 million returned €50 million and exposure to 816 million people worldwide, which was more than the rugby World Cup final and the Wimbledon men's tennis final?

While many people in the Department, Fáilte Ireland, particularly in the north west, and Tourism Ireland are doing a fantastic job, the Minister must provide leadership. I appeal to him to take an interest in this event to ensure we do not lose the greatest tourism asset that has ever come the way of the north west, apart from its natural attributes. The rally is not weather dependent and it is tailor-made for us.

I thank Senators for this fine debate and for their thoughtfulness. I have taken a careful note of the issues raised as I may be unable to respond to all of them. However, significant themes emerged.

Transport and access to the island is important, as Senator Cummins stated. A successful tourism industry cannot be developed unless safe access to and from the island at a reasonable price is available. That is the case increasingly and the advent of low-cost airlines has made that possible. Many Members will recall paying £200 to travel to London. Everybody sat at the front of the airplane because companies were the only ones buying seats, as the ordinary consumer could not. Those were different days and there has been a sea-change in this regard. The advent of low fares has been a major factor.

Senator Ellis referred to sun holidays and the number of hotel bedrooms available in Ireland. He advocated the development of this aspect of the industry. I agree with him that the product base must be maintained, which means ensuring the number of hotel rooms remains at a sensible level. We do not need to go overboard in this regard.

I thank Senator Kelly for his thoughtful remarks, which I intend to study further, and, in particular, his analysis of the relationship between Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and how that feeds into Dublin Tourism and Shannon Development. It is not a pretty picture and the question is whether the structure is practical and does the job. When one considers the job that must be done, all these organisations hit the spot when the political situation is taken into account. If one were dealing only with commercial considerations, the structure would not be designed this way but when forced in the broader context of the Good Friday Agreement to design a political structure, the current model makes sense because it delivers a structure that otherwise may not be delivered. Any structure is better than none but I intend to keep an eye on this to see if we can make it work better. It works well currently in that Tourism Ireland, in particular, has a mandate to market the island of Ireland and nobody had such a mandate previously. The Northern Ireland Tourism Board and Bord Fáilte did not do this in a formal sense. For the first time since the Agreement was reached, an organisation is in place, which is active in 22 markets with the job of marketing the entire island.

Senator Boyle stated the number of people travelling abroad on holiday is more than the number of tourists coming in, which is a new phenomenon we must address.

Senator Buttimer asked about the revenue generated by the Ryder Cup. According to one consultant, the economic benefit of holding the event amounted to €143 million, which was significant. I thank Senator Ó Murchú for tracing the history of aspects of tourism, which we should all remember.

I also thank Senator MacSharry for his comments about Rally Ireland. I will examine this issue. The rally was a major success and I pay tribute to everybody who took part. The next event also will be a success. It is an all-island production and anything of this nature deserves our full support because it has benefits far beyond the economics involved. I will take a close look at that.

Senator Burke referred to the importance of activity holidays while Senator Coghlan commented on the need for improved competitiveness. He acknowledged that tourism is a competitive business, as we all know. It was not always the case. At one time visitors travelled to Ireland only from St. Patrick's Day onwards. However, we compete with other countries for every passenger to Ireland and must invest in this regard. I confirm that the mid-Shannon tourism infrastructure investment scheme, which the Tánaiste, Deputy Cowen, and I will announce shortly, clears the way for us to put in place the formal commencement of the relevant legislative provision. This is a tax scheme the Minister for Finance announced for eligible developments to improve water sports, training and adventure sport facilities, education, tourism, visitor attractions, etc. in the mid-Shannon region. We will move ahead with that in the near future.

This has been a good debate. I have not gone into every aspect of it but there are a number of clear messages, one of which is that for the first time we must market the island of Ireland as an all-island product. We no longer have the luxury to develop our tourism industry as two separate products. We must understand that competitiveness is what it is about — prices, tax breaks and so on — and be able to compete with and beat other nations in these areas. We must learn also to understand and handle in a caring, sensible way the significant and increasing number of non-nationals working in the industry. We must deal with tourism on a regional basis rather than concentrate on the capital city. The convention centre is coming on and it is important to get it up and running as soon as possible.

We need also to understand the importance of synergy. We must market the whole island of Ireland and win business such as the Ryder Cup, Rally Ireland and other national recreational, film, environmental or sport events that can be run on an all-island basis, thereby bringing revenue to the island. We must continue to develop products on an all-island basis. The River Shannon is a sleeping giant which requires further investment. I hope to ensure it gets that investment and continues to grow as a major product.

The importance of access and low prices is paramount. Access to and from the island must be maintained at a sensible price level. If we follow that overall plan and drive it hard, we will stay close to the top of the world's tourism success league. I thank the Chair and all Senators for their participation in today's discussion.

Senator Ellis mentioned we should consider having a world rally team from Ireland. We do, namely, World Rally Team Ireland, which is competing in Jordan as we speak. It is supported by Fáilte Ireland and Paul O'Toole's Tourism Ireland. The team won the world rookie championship last year and is competing in the world junior event this year, which I predict it will win. However, it will need a greater level of financial support than it is getting this year if it is to continue. This is something we should keep in mind. Investment in the area is well spent considering the number of viewers involved, especially when they can see World Rally Team Ireland participating in these events.

Sitting suspended at 1.25 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.