Investment in heritage key to luring the cultural tourist

OVER THE last six months, everyone from Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the most lowly Minister of State has said the way to revive our…

OVER THE last six months, everyone from Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the most lowly Minister of State has said the way to revive our economy is to invest in the "cultural tourist". Get the foreigners to spend their dollars, euro (if it survives) and yen, writes PETER COX

This seems like a good idea, so the Government appears to have left Fáilte Ireland’s budget mostly intact.

There has been an impressive rise of 7 per cent in tourist numbers – the first increase in three years.

However, our one-eyed Government has slashed investment in the already underfunded heritage sector, which happens to be the main attraction for cultural tourists.

The heritage sector has never had significant financial support or, indeed, political champions of any denomination.

The Coalition, in the budget, further cut the heritage allocation which is now reduced by 84 per cent over the last two years.

Every euro invested in heritage returns €300 to €400 to the exchequer. Every four full-time jobs created in the sector generate 10 part-time jobs.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has now lost a number of senior staff and the few left at this level are so overstretched and underfunded they can no longer promote or protect our national monuments.

It is expected that 60 per cent of senior heritage specialists in the public service will apply to retire in February, which will leave the sector bereft of expertise required to manage national monuments, ordinary heritage and even world heritage sites.

Within five years, cultural tourists will not visit Ireland because our heritage sites will be in poor repair, ill-interpreted and some will have to close because of health and safety restrictions.

The money invested by Fáilte Ireland encouraging cultural tourists to come here will be wasted if it is not matched by investment in the heritage sector.

Yet even the statutory Heritage Council, established in 1994, is now under threat, with a proposal in the budget that it be amalgamated into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht until late lobbying succeeded in a stay of execution. It is now “under review”, so the executioner is still in the wings.

If the Heritage Council were to be subsumed into the department, the sector would suffer a massive haemorrhage as the council’s work keeps the modicum of traditional skills alive in this country – from thatching, the use of lime mortars, stonemasons and slaters as well as supplying minimum funding assistance to save our vernacular heritage.

The Heritage Council has also suffered huge funding cutbacks over the last couple of years despite the fact that a Quantum Research study showed that the grants made over the last 10 years have contributed at least two-fold and possibly four-fold to the exchequer in income tax, VAT, employment and buying local and Irish goods.

If the council were to be abolished now, it would be a short-sighted act of lunacy.

Meanwhile, it was not until 2010 that the then government finally reviewed the “tentative list” of World Heritage sites compiled by the Office of Public Works as far back as 1992.

Most other countries review their heritage treasures at least every five years.

The Republic has two world heritage sites: Skellig Michael off Co Kerry; and Newgrange in Co Meath. Both were inscribed by Unesco in the mid 1990s.

Other states with similar populations to Ireland have more – Croatia has seven and New Zealand five, for example.

When will the Government look at the bigger picture and engage in consultation with agencies like the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the Heritage Council, Fáilte Ireland, the Irish Heritage Trust and others and actually implement a heritage plan that will put Ireland at the forefront in offering a superb product to attract cultural tourists?

Dr Peter Cox is vice-president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Ireland, which was founded in 1984. It has more than 100 members drawn from the State heritage services, local government, museums, universities and private practice.