As is normal, there is quite a bit of moaning going on about junkets and the waste of taxpayer’s money that this overseas exit represents.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
For a very small and very open economy such as Ireland, where external trade, tourism and foreign direct investment are so important, the annual opportunity to get out into the wide world and market Ireland in such a welcoming environment is very important and should be exploited to the fullest extent possible.
Not too many countries get that opportunity.
I have been in the US twice in recent years and once in Belgium for Saint Patrick’s Day, and I was astounded at the manner in which the feast day is celebrated and it does bring home to one, the incredible global impact that such a small country has had in the past and continues to have around the world.
It may sound clichéd, but it is true.
Consequently, having our senior politicians present in numerous countries and the access they get to the most important political and business leaders in the world is an opportunity that should be grabbed with both hands.
Those who criticise the overseas travel, are typical of people who know the price of everything and understand the value of little.
Ireland clearly faces two immense external challenges over the coming years in the shape of Brexit and President Donald’s Trump’s policies towards free trade and corporation tax.
To cope with and ultimately overcome those challenges Ireland will need as much international clout as possible; it will need as many friends as possible, and it will need to expand existing markets and develop new markets.
All of these things are easier said than done, but the activities of our politicians overseas during Saint Patrick’s week are immensely important to achieve these objectives.
It is also very good for Ireland’s image abroad amongst potential tourists.
Saint Patrick’s week offers a similar showcase and we should not waste it. The usual and predictable parade of begrudgers should bear that in mind.
Tourism represents Ireland’s most important and real high value added service export.
This week Fáilte Ireland published an interesting survey of visitor attitudes towards Ireland and also some really strong information on the impact that tourism has on the economy.
In 2016, 61% of overseas holidaymakers rated Ireland as good value for money and 57% expressed the view they would definitely return in the future.
US tourists were most impressed, but somewhat worryingly and definitely not surprising, just 51% of British visitors regarded Ireland as good or very good value for money, down from 67% the previous year.
This drop is almost entirely due to the weakness of sterling, a variable we have absolutely no control over.
While prices are important, the quality of the tourism product is even more so.
If we compete on the basis of price alone, it would just lead to a damaging race to the bottom. Fáilte Ireland data this week show that 8.8 million overseas visitors came to Ireland last year; the tourism industry was worth €7 billion to the Irish economy; overseas earnings totalled €5bn; the tourism industry provides employment to 220,000 workers; every €1m of tourist expenditure supports 29 tourism jobs; and every 1,000 extra tourists supports 14 jobs.
Most importantly, as well as the national significance of the industry, its regional spread is incredibly important for a country that is now paying so much attention to regional economic growth and development.
Have a great Saint Patrick’s Day.