I propose to take QuestionsNos. 109, 111, 113 and 116 together.
I am aware of the survey and comments referred to in the Deputies' questions. Since my appointment as Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism in June 2002, I have spoken of my concern regarding the increasing levels of dissatisfaction evident in visitor attitude surveys about the value for money offered by the overall tourism experience in Ireland. I welcomed the fact, therefore, that one of the strongest messages from the tourism policy review group was that restoring competitiveness is the major challenge facing the tourism sector and that the industry itself must offer better value to its customers if it is to maximise the opportunities for future growth.
Ireland has never been marketed as a low cost destination but, during the years of significant growth in the 1990s, it was competitive and was seen to be offering holidaymakers value for money. It has long been the case that inexpensive holidays have been available in other European destinations at certain times of the year. This may always be the case but the simple fact is that it is not comparing like with like.
Competitiveness is not exclusively about pricing. Competitiveness must be a function of the overall Irish tourism experience for customers relative to other competing locations, beginning with their initial inquiries about visiting Ireland through to their travelling here, where they go when they arrive, where they stay, who they meet, what they do, what they see, and their perceptions about price and quality.
In Chapter 4 of its report, the review group assessed tourism in Ireland today and confirmed that there is no immediate, single or easy solution to addressing concerns about competitiveness. The group listed some ten specific actions that require responses from both the private and public sectors including proposals on taking responsibility for restoring competitiveness, inflation, benchmarking, customer relationship management, management capability, high standards for competitive advantage and training.
None of the ten listed actions is directed to me, or my Department. However, as I see it, my role is to ensure that a coherent action plan is implemented quickly and effectively. To this end, I have established the high level implementation group to advise and assist in driving forward and monitoring the recommended actions set out in the report.
The first report of the implementation group is due in six months time and we will have to await that report before we can assess the impact of the action plan on competitiveness and value for money. In the meantime, I am pleased to acknowledge certain developments in recent months that should result in tangible benefits for the tourism sector and make a difference to competitiveness and value for money such as minimal increases in the budget in indirect taxation and excise duties on products that are part and parcel of the tourism experience; the Fáilte Ireland initiative, in co-operation with the industry, to address the high cost of insurance for the sector and the accelerated implementation of the Government's own insurance reform package which is bringing tangible benefits in the form of reduced premiums; the fall in the cost of accommodation as reported by the CSO earlier this month; the significant drop in annual inflation, at 1.8% in January, which is a significant drop from the 3.5% in July 2003 when the review group was finalising its report, and much more in line with average EU rates.