A variety of elements affect the critical issue of how many people come to visit our shores


It makes no sense to focus only on airport charges when considering how to increase tourist numbers, argues John Burke

The tourism sector faces yet another season of uncertainty, primarily as a result of the global economic downturn and the impact of September 11th on air travel.

Tourism is a vitally important industry in the Irish economic mix, and John McManus (The Irish Times, January 7th, 2002) alluded to recent gloomy reports from tourism bodies and the risk to some 11,000 jobs in the sector.

The precise elements which contribute to the state of tourism are as many as they are varied, and as external as they are internal. The Ad Hoc Interdepartmental Group on Visitor Issues established by the Government after the attacks on the US set out to examine how more tourists could be encouraged to visit Ireland.

The group's task is daunting, primarily because of the multiplicity of factors which have a bearing on visitor issues. To date, the group's recommendations relate almost exclusively to Dublin Airport. In this regard the response from Aer Rianta has been more extensive and wide-ranging.

The other two main airports, Shannon and Cork, cannot be sidelined in any overview of tourism, especially as they account for substantial numbers visiting the west, from Donegal to west Cork.

Aer Rianta's response was certainly not, in the words of John McManus, "to rubbish the Ad Hoc Interdepartmental Group" or to put forward its "own watered-down proposals."

Because Shannon has been worst affected by the downturn in transatlantic travel since September last, Aer Rianta has proposed to introduce a special incentive scheme of €12.70 per additional visitor for both Shannon and Cork airports.

In addition, it has a zero airport charges scheme now in place for Dublin, Shannon and Cork with the aim of encouraging new and existing airlines to introduce new routes from the three airports.

Aer Rianta considered its response more appropriate in the context of what is needed to kick-start visitor numbers throughout Ireland, and not just the greater Dublin area, for the coming season. There is more than sufficient capacity at Dublin Airport to facilitate tourists and to meet the targets of the tourism industry.

It is worth noting that the numbers of passengers travelling through Dublin and Cork airports last year (and since September 11th) recorded an increase over the previous year.

Despite the claims of vested interest groups, airport charges at our three airports are the lowest of comparable airports throughout Europe, a fact which has been verified by independent studies.

Aer Rianta makes no profits from airport charges. The Commission for Aviation Regulation in its own review found that Aer Rianta had the lowest income per passenger from airport charges of comparator airports in Europe.

It makes no sense to focus exclusively on airport charges as the solution to the State's tourism problems. Airport charges are only a tiny element of the airlines' cost structure. Marketing and promoting Ireland as a tourism destination and dealing with issues of quality and value for money are the real issues.

It is true that Aer Rianta does not agree with the views of the Commission on Aviation Regulation regarding the level of investment required in the airports over the next number of years, and this is why we have sought a judicial review.

Adequate investment in infrastructure is essential for the proper development of the three airports which play pivotal roles in the economy, tourism, leisure and industry.

The current debate and indeed action on visitor issues must be widened beyond Aer Rianta and beyond airports. Those with responsibility for tourism in the public and private sectors in Ireland should not focus only on the facilities and charges at the airports in Dublin, Shannon and Cork. Visitor issues also include quality of service, air fares, hotel charges, restaurant prices, taxis, pub charges, car-hire costs, petrol prices, etc.

The role of tourism bodies such as Bord Fáilte and Tourism Ireland is critical to an enlarged debate on tourism, and certainly the Ad Hoc Interdepartmental Group could be the catalyst for major change in how efficient and effective Ireland is in attracting visitors.

Meanwhile Aer Rianta will play its role across the economic, geographic and social landscape. However, it cannot be held solely responsible for the well-being or otherwise of Irish tourism.

John Burke is chief executive of Aer Rianta