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I am delighted to be with you this evening - for this my first meeting with many of you from the Irish tourism industry. For those of you who have travelled from overseas, I would like to offer you a ‘cead mile fáilte’ – one hundred thousand welcomes - to our country and hope you find enough here to entice many of your clients and customers to come and visit us. I note that there are people here from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Meitheal is an old Gaelic concept. It’s about a community of people coming together, pooling their talents, exchanging, sharing and working to achieve a common goal. In the modern era, Meitheal at its most basic is what tourism, and indeed any form of trade, is all about. Someone with something to sell sits down with someone who is looking to buy.
I understand that you will rack up something like 17,000 one-to-one meeting opportunities over the period of this event. When I first read about it, it sounded to me to be a little bit like speed dating. I hope you all got a few good dates out of it all.
It is a wonderful opportunity for the Irish trade to pitch face-to-face what they have to sell but it also offers the overseas buyers a very attractive product to bring back home.
Ireland, as a destination, continues to improve and become more attractive for overseas visitors. We still have our stunning landscapes and we have managed to maintain the warm welcome of our people. The number of attractions and the amount of things to see and do have improved immensely over the last number of years. Our tourism accommodation is high quality and our public infrastructure – particularly with the opening of many new motorways and more frequent rail services – now means it is possible for visitors to see more of Ireland during their stay.
In the recent past, Ireland developed a reputation as a high-cost destination. One of the upsides of our economic crisis is that we now have a very competitive tourism product. Prices here have fallen generally over the last couple of years while they have risen across the rest of Western Europe. In particular, we now have the best value hotel rooms in Western Europe, as publicised recently in survey results from Hotels.com. For as little as €40-50 a night you can stay in a good hotel, well located with gym and even a pool. Restaurant and entertainment prices have fallen considerably and even petrol and diesel prices (while high) are lower than in the UK or most of Europe. Other tourism businesses are also offering increasingly better value to holidaymakers. Another upside of our economic crisis is that tourists are more welcome than ever. We need more visitors and will make sure they enjoy their stay and will tell others to follow in their wake.
So if you want to buy a value for money, top quality experience you have come to the right place. To those of you within the Irish tourism industry present here today I want to assure you, as a new Minister in a new Government, that tourism will remain a priority.
Tourism can provide an extremely important contribution to the economic recovery of this country and as such is extremely deserving of priority status for development within Government. I can assure you this Government sees tourism playing a major role in our economic recovery and, as Minister, I look forward to working closely with you over the coming years.
Now, just a few weeks into my post as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have been encouraged by the positive signs starting to emerge throughout the sector. With many overseas markets showing signs of recovery as well as a shift in the perception of Ireland as a good value destination – the tourism tide appears to be starting to turn. Numbers coming through our ports and airports are stabilising and starting to grow again, as is occupancy in our hotels.
Events such as Meitheal play a key role in helping that process and I hope that you had a busy day today, with many business appointments – hopefully some of which will result in new opportunities and relationships. It is particularly encouraging to hear that there was a record interest in Meitheal 2011 from both Irish tourism businesses and overseas operators. I understand that, amongst you, there are 56 new international operators this year – your interest along with that of returning operators points to the value and importance of this event. No other forum provides the opportunity for Irish businesses to meet with so many international buyers and as such Meitheal holds an important place in the tourism calendar as the leading platform for businesses to showcase their products.
I am fully aware of the preparation and work that goes into an event like this as well as all the other related events and trips which are involved. I understand that some of you have been here for a few days prior to the workshop enjoying all that Ireland has to offer on familiarisation tours around the country. I hope all of you find all the week’s events both enjoyable and informative.
As you may have heard, Prince Albert of Monaco is currently visiting Ireland accompanied by his fiancée. In short succession we will welcome President Obama and Queen Elizabeth. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase Ireland and put us back on the world stage.
With history literally being made in our time, we should use this opportunity to remind our traditional core markets in the US and the UK of this country’s unique qualities. But I believe we can go further. With the world’s media focusing on Ireland, even for only a brief period, we must extend our focus to new markets in Asia and the southern hemisphere.
We must all make the most of this opportunity. That is why I want a clear message to go out from here tonight, from Ireland’s tourism industry and from everyone who has come together for Meitheal: that Ireland welcomes the world.