I propose to take Questions Nos. 229, 230, 232 and 234 together.
I am in regular contact with stakeholders in the tourism sector and in recent weeks I have addressed the Irish Hotels Federation, the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
Last year's Jobs Initiative and the Government's Action Plan for Jobs 2013 recognise the vital contribution of tourism to employment, economic activity and foreign revenue earnings. The VAT reduction on a range of tourism services from 13.5% to 9% enhances the competitiveness of our tourism product. The Visa Waiver Scheme is encouraging visitors from emerging markets to add Ireland to a trip to the UK and the halving of employers' PRSI for those on modest wages will significantly reduce the cost of employing people.
During discussions with operators, many identified an urgent requirement for certainty regarding the extension of the lower VAT rate into 2013. Following discussions with the Minister for Finance, the lower rate of VAT will be maintained during 2013. This will allow businesses, tour operators and customers to plan for the 2013 season. In addition, "The Gathering 2013" will take place next year — a major tourism initiative with the target of bringing an extra 325,000 visitors here.
2011 saw a welcome recovery in overseas visitor numbers with year-on-year growth of 6%. According to preliminary results from the Fáilte Ireland Hotel Survey, for the first nine months of 2011, hotel room occupancy rates improved compared to 2009 and 2010, up to 61% from 58%. Furthermore, according to Hotels.com, Ireland continues to have the most competitively priced hotel beds in Western Europe.
While there was a marginal decrease in overseas visits in the first three months of this year, I understand that industry and trade partners are positive about prospects for the year, with reports of advance bookings and inquiries being up on this time last year. Industry representative groups are hopeful we can achieve our target of a 4.5% increase in visitor numbers for the year.