Speech by Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport Leo Varadkar to Seanad Eireann on the Gathering Ireland 2013

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Firstly I welcome the opportunity to address the House today about The Gathering Ireland 2013 and outline progress on the initiative at the beginning of a very significant year for Irish tourism.
Tourism has always been an important driver of economic activity for Ireland. It is estimated that the tourism and hospitality industry employs around 185,000 people and every year generates in the region of €5.5 billion in revenue from home and abroad. It is an industry largely populated by smaller enterprises and is deeply rooted in the fabric of Irish economic life, urban and rural. 
In terms of our overseas visits, we were fortunate to enjoy a number of years of successive growth up until 2007 when we reached over 8 million overseas visits. However, the general global economic downturn meant that we then endured a very challenging period with a reduction in overseas visits in each of the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 when numbers fell back to just over 6 million visits. When we came into office in 2011, this Government decided to put the tourism sector at the heart of its economic recovery programme. Firstly the Jobs Initiative introduced the lower VAT rate for key tourism services, lower PRSI rates, the visa waiver scheme and an air access strategy.  We built on this initiative in the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs, with continuing commitment to tourism services and investment. In addition, and despite the very challenging economic circumstances we found ourselves in, we continued to provide significant resources for overseas tourism marketing activity.
These measures have worked. The number of overseas visits to Ireland increased in 2011 for the first time since 2007, reaching over 6.5 million and representing an increase of 7% on 2010 levels. Figures released earlier this week show that this positive momentum has continued with a small increase again recorded in 2012 and all of our main market areas, with the exception of Great Britain, showing solid growth levels.
While all of the Government measures I mentioned earlier were important, the time was right for an initiative of even more significance and something that would create a new buzz and momentum for Irish tourism. Having met with the tourism agencies, I was persuaded that the idea of inviting the world to a year-long celebration of everything that is best about Ireland could provide a real boost for the sector here.  This is the context in which at the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2011, I announced the concept of the Gathering Ireland 2013. The initiative was driven by two imperatives: the need to explore how the Irish at home and abroad, and those with a strong interest in and affinity for Ireland, could work together and contribute to our overall efforts at economic recovery; and secondly, to examine ways in which Ireland and its global network could build on their existing relationship not just in economic terms but in terms of community and connection.
The overall target we set was to attract at least 325,000 extra overseas visitors to Ireland in 2013.  Assuming this target is achieved, and I am confident that it will, it will generate an additional €170 million in revenue for the Irish economy this year. 
While the initial idea came from Fáilte Ireland and while we decided to fully commit to it, from the outset, we were clear that we did not want the initiative to be something done “by the Government”. I wanted everyone across the country to have a part to play in it and help make it a success. Thankfully the call to arms was heeded and every county in Ireland is playing its part.
Preparations for the Initiative
In terms of how preparations for the event evolved from the initial launch, a tremendous amount of work was done throughout last year. Fáilte Ireland, the lead agency for the implementation of the initiative put in place a Project Executive Team to implement it and Jim Miley the former Chair of Concern International was appointed Project Director to drive the initiative forward. A Project Advisory Group was also established with representatives from the private sector, academia, the tourism industry and the State Agencies. Tourism Ireland has specific responsibility for promoting The Gathering in overseas markets and also provided staff for the Project Team. 
The St. Patrick's Day festivities last March were used for the main overseas launch while key international tourism industry partners were invited to become part of The Gathering at the Fáilte Ireland Meitheal trade fair in April.  A major domestic launch took place on Friday 11th May 2012 in Dublin Castle at an event attended by An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste, Minister Ring and myself. 
To garner support at local level, a series of Gathering Community Meetings were held throughout Ireland, providing an opportunity for people to learn more about ‘The Gathering’ and how they could be part of it.  Over 7,000 people attended 60 community meetings throughout the country. A website was established with information on how people could become involved, including online support for potential organisers to submit queries and download promotional material. In addition, dedicated social media channels were established to promote the event.
In terms of resources, I was pleased to provide a specific additional €5m allocation to Fáilte Ireland last year and this was ring-fenced for preparations.  This allocation was primarily used for establishing the support structure and for marketing the event. 
So that is a brief overview of how the foundations for The Gathering were set. I will now turn to how the finished product is looking and briefly summarise the plans for the remainder of the year.
Current State of Play
Firstly, I am pleased to say that the general response from the public and indeed all tourism stakeholders has been overwhelmingly positive. The latest update shows that there are almost 2,800 Gatherings of all shapes and sizes taking place throughout the country. 
The 2013 Estimates allocations to Failte Ireland include a special provision of €7m which I specifically provided for The Gathering. This amount is to be used exclusively to fund the promotion, development and legacy of The Gathering. 
In terms of online activity, the Gathering has had over 750,000 visits to its website. It has over 45,000 Facebook fans and has over 10,000 Twitter followers. That is quite an amount of Gathering related views and clicks!
Festivals and Events
I would now like to refer to the series of festivals and events which are in many ways the keystone to the potential success of The Gathering.  Firstly, I am pleased that we have a fantastic line up confirmed for the Gathering.  Details of all of the events are included on the Gathering website and I would urge Senators to have a look at the site to see the variety and spread of events that are taking place over the next eleven months. 
Numbers wise, as I already said, there are almost 2,800 individual events confirmed but this number continues to grow.  They include clan gatherings, festivals, special sporting events, music and concerts taking place all across the country, all year long. While many events will be well-established and internationally renowned, others will be new to the festivals scene and will offer a huge variety of contemporary cultural expression.  There will be large scale national festivals and events, but there will also be a myriad of local gatherings taking place.
We are also supporting a targeted set of special events for the Gathering, building on our existing strengths in terms of Ireland’s overseas image.  An example of this is the very successful New Year’s Event which kicked off the Gathering in Dublin. These types of events will provide a platform for the best of Irish talent and show off our host cities, towns and villages at their best.
In terms of resources, a limited amount of funding has been allocated on a once-off basis for existing festivals and events to tailor their programme, or specific elements of their programme, around the themes of The Gathering 2013. Just over €4 million is being provided by Fáilte Ireland to support almost 200 national and regional festivals and events during 2013.  €1m of this is additional funding that has been allocated on a once-off basis for major events to tailor their programme, or specific elements of their programme, around the themes of The Gathering. Examples of major events which are being enhanced around the Gathering theme include:
  • The ‘Peoples Parade’ which offered up to 8,000 visitors from around the world a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the iconic national St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin in a very special celebration of the Gathering.
  • A Gathering of Roses, which will take place at the Rose of Tralee Festival in the Summer, with 5,000 members of the extended ‘Rose Family’ invited to return to Tralee.
  • Other established cultural events which are offering enhanced programmes this year include the Galway Arts Festival, the Wexford Opera Festival and Listowel Writers’ Week.
Outside of the regular Failte Ireland festivals and events budget, an additional €2 million fund was overseen by the City and County Councils to fund Gathering Events and Activities. This scheme was administered by the Councils based on agreed application criteria with a key factor being the capacity to attract overseas visitors. These gatherings, divided into key county flagship events and community gatherings, are funded through a €1M philanthropic donation by IPB Insurance that was matched by the Government through Fáilte Ireland in response to the enormous interest expressed nationwide in the initiative.  The overall total of 1,322 funded events is made up of 82 county flagship events and 1,240 local community events. Again details of all of these can be found on the Gathering website.
This is just a short overview of what is in store in terms of festivals and events and obviously time constraints will not allow me to deal with all of them. What I will say  however, is that we hear a lot about a desire on the part of tourists for authenticity, for genuine Irish experiences and for a connection with Irish people.  I am delighted that the events and festivals developed for the Gathering by Irish towns, villages and communities, celebrate what they are proud of in their own locality. I have no doubt that they will provide that genuine local Irish experience and send overseas visitors back with many rich memories.
Promoting the Event
Obviously we can only achieve our ambitious targets for overseas visitor numbers this year if people in our main source tourism markets are aware of the initiative. Tourism Ireland continues to roll out a major consumer campaign to promote The Gathering to the people across the world that feel linked by family, friends or otherwise with Ireland. The agency’s overseas activities are already showing dividends with 20 Gatherings confirmed through the Agency’s overseas partners outreach programme. Some examples of confirmed successes to date include:
  • SPAR bringing its international conference to Dublin and Killarney in May which will involve 280 delegates from 36 countries spending six nights in Ireland;
  • KPMG the international financial services provider are hosting their Alumni Dinner for 2013 in the Convention Centre Dublin with over 1,000 visitors expected, and
  • The International Pharmaceutical Federation Annual Congress will welcome 3,000 Pharmacists and Pharmaceutical Scientists from around the world to Dublin in August.
Obviously the immediate benefits to our economy of hosting these events are enormous. Equally important, however, is the opportunity to reap a legacy dividend  in terms of future holiday plans of those who travel.
In terms of mainstream marketing activity, throughout 2013 Tourism Ireland will continue to undertake cooperative activity with the major airlines and ferry operators. In Britain, the advertisements to date have mainly featured the good value fares that are on offer. Similar activity is underway with all of the airlines serving Mainland Europe. In France, advertising campaigns in partnership with the ferry companies will run in March and April to promote car touring holidays to Ireland during the year of The Gathering. Of course last year was one of the strongest ever for visitors from the US to Ireland and we hope to grow this further in 2013. A critical factor which will underpin this growth is the increase of over 25% in the number of airline seats between Ireland and the US this summer.  Cooperative marketing campaigns with all of these airlines will take place throughout the year.
Print and online advertising will also continue in all our major overseas tourism markets. In Britain alone a series of national press advertorials reached 8.2 million in national press titles in recent weeks. In the US, a 30 second Gathering TV ad will coincide with the broadcast of the third series of Downton Abbey reaching 500,000 households in the Chicago, New York and Boston areas every week. The Gathering is also being highlighted at major European trade and consumer fairs and Tourism Ireland is working in partnership with a number of online travel agents across Europe to promote the initiative. Of course the St Patrick’s Day festivities and the programme of overseas Ministerial visits will again be used to publicise Ireland with the “greening” of landmarks throughout the world again taking place.
These are just some examples of the overseas promotional activities that are in planning or underway but I think they show that every possible effort is being made to get the message out there that the Gathering is happening and that there has never been a better time to visit.
Legacy Issue
As I already said, there has been a fantastic response to the Gathering  across the board, from local communities, voluntary bodies, public bodies, businesses and Government at national and local level.  I am, of course, aware that the initiative has not been without criticism with certain adverse comments about the event receiving widespread coverage. 
Tourism is a valuable service export.  Encouraging those from overseas, whether Irish or not, to sample what we have to offer is not in my opinion a shakedown – any more than exporting other goods and services.  With the hotel and accommodation sector already generating additional employment since this Government came into office, tourism can offer jobs to those who might otherwise face a choice between emigration and unemployment. I apologise to nobody for seeking to increase that employment still further by investing in the Gathering. 
I should also state that I firmly believe that anybody coming to Ireland this year, be it specifically for The Gathering or otherwise will not be disappointed. If there is any doubt, early results from the latest Visitor Attitude Survey commissioned by Fáilte Ireland makes for encouraging reading.  In 2012, 65% of those surveyed said they would highly recommend Ireland to their friends to visit, and a further 32% would recommend Ireland.  Furthermore, 61% plan to return in the next few years and a massive 97% would like to return again in the future.  This shows that we already have a tourism product people enjoy and one that can deliver a vibrant sustainable tourism industry for the future.
It is also widely accepted that value for money for our visitors has improved.  Prices here have fallen generally over the last couple of years while they have risen across the rest of Western Europe. Restaurants and attractions are also offering increasingly better value to holidaymakers and all of these efforts augur very well in terms of the future of Irish tourism.
I hope this gives the House an overview of The Gathering Ireland 2013. While we have very much targeted this year, I have no doubt that the pay-off for participation will have longer term positive consequences. The many events which are offering unique and engaging experiences to visitors, may develop into annual traditions or create on-going connections with other parts of the world. More importantly, the connections we strengthen and build, at home and abroad, will I believe be the most important legacy of The Gathering Ireland 2013.
Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport: 01 6041090 / 01 6041087