Speech on The Gathering

The below is the speech I gave to the Seanad on The Gathering and the state of tourism in 2013, while there are many advances being made which are important to the wider economy on the back of Government policies (VAT reduction, driving growth in emerging markets, etc), there are also still opportunities out there which I outline.

“Firstly I would like to welcome the Minister to the House to discuss the Gathering. Like the Minister, I acknowledge that tourism has been an important driver of economic activity for Ireland – and welcome the increase in visitors to the island in both 2011 and 2012. Hopefully the improvement can accelerate in 2013, and I have no doubt that the Gathering can assist with that.

The early signs are positive, with an increase in airplane seats to Ireland from the US, and a 34% increase in seats from Abu Dhabi both coming online by the summer, higher demand is certainly being anticipated by carriers.

As with everything, there are areas for improvement in tourism, and if we look at the figures we can see that the UNWTO estimates that international tourism receipts in Ireland hit $4.64bn in 2011, up from just over $4bn in 2010. It’s a lot of money, a great increase, and a testament to the work of the Department. However, if we do an international comparison to – say Australia – it recorded 5.8 million international visitors in 2011 – fewer than we did – and yet the receipts were $31.4 billion. Seven times more than Ireland. The same is true for Israel, which attracted 2.8 million visitors, yet the tourism receipts were $4.8billion. It’s not all about the money, of course, but it shows that there is a market there in relatively high-value tourism that perhaps could be improved upon in the coming years.

The Gathering itself marks an important year for the tourism industry, and one which presents great scope for our entrepreneurs and those with the gift of the gab to get people to come home to Ireland or indeed come and see it for the first time.

There are already numerous examples of ‘good practice’ when it comes to The Gathering, and to find that all we need to do is take out a map and look around the country: for Cork Rebel Week, they are working on reuniting the ‘lee-aspora’, we have the Ginger Gathering taking place in Dublin and on Lower James St, in Claremorris where I’m from, they are reuniting residents past and present in a small Gathering.

The business world also has a vital role to play in The Gathering. Yesterday, for instance, Guinness launched its ‘ambassador’ programme for The Gathering, which allows native Dubs to get a Guinness Ambassador card, giving them free access to the Storehouse while giving their ‘Gather-ees’ 10% off. It’s a nice idea, and one around which smaller Gatherings might be framed. It would be great if, wherever possible, other businesses got on board in such a way.

Indeed, business will also play another important role for The Gathering, insofar as enticing their annual conferences and summits to Ireland: I know there are several bidding processes currently underway and, if they were to be successful, it would be a significant shot in the arm for inbound tourism numbers, which would be great. Indeed, the notion of The Gathering itself gives the Irish bidders the ability to frame a narrative of why 2013 in particular would be a good year for bringing their conference to Ireland, and this can be a useful tool.

Beyond that though, The Gathering is – as the Minister mentioned – about Ireland and its global network building on its existing relationship, not just in economic terms but in terms of community and connection. The Gathering in and of itself isn’t about tourism numbers alone – but is about trying to reconnect bonds and links that may have faded down through the years. Links between families, links between communities and links between people. The Gathering is, at its core, a chance for people to reflect on that and to give them the chance to reach out and reconnect with those they may not have seen for a long time.

For my part, I am involved on a Committee which is seeking to implement a novelty Gathering initiative. Proposed by Mark Daly and co-chaired by members from the various parties, the initiative would see politicians from around the world invited to address the Seanad. I can see great merit in the proposal, and it could give us the opportunity to invite the Martin O’Malley’s of the world over to Ireland again and, hopefully, bring some of their family or colleagues along with them.

As the Minister says, anybody coming to Ireland this year for The Gathering or otherwise will not be disappointed. The early results from the latest Visitor Attitude Survey are certainly encouraging but so too are the recent global plaudits we have been getting, several travel guides including Fodor’s have named us as a top destination in 2013. This shows that we already have a tourism product people enjoy and one that can deliver a vibrant sustainable tourism industry for the future.

Indeed, better value for money also helps in this respect, and we have seen the value of staying in hotels and eating out in Dublin steadily improving – helped in no small part, I believe, by the VAT reduction and the continuation of that reduction. It has given a sector which was mired in negativity up until 2011 some reasons for cautious optimism.

The future of Irish tourism is bright, and The Gathering is a great idea which I hope we – all of us – both in this Chamber and when we’re speaking to our friends, relatives, constituents or whoever – will firmly get behind in 2013. We are a great nation for modesty, but sometimes we have to take stock and realise that – actually – Ireland is a great place to visit and there’s no better time to do that than 2013. The Gathering is a great frame upon which we can base a number of smaller initiatives – such as our own one here in the Seanad – and I encourage everybody here to embrace it, encourage it and promote it. Thank you.

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