Felicity Long
Felicity Long

*logoFor such a beautiful country, Ireland has had more than its share of tourism woes. Even before the worldwide economic downturn, there were signs that the much vaunted "Celtic Tiger" years of prosperity were in jeopardy.

The boom in hotel construction began to fizzle, the exchange rate kept North Americans away and, as if that weren’t enough, the volcanic ash cloud that spread from Iceland to the European continent in April disrupted air travel into and out of Ireland at the beginning of high season.

Overseas visits to Ireland fell by 11.6%, to slightly less than 7 million, in 2009 compared with 2008, according to the Central Statistics Office Ireland, and the discouraging slump has continued into 2010. There was a decline in international visitors during the first half of the year, down to 2.6 million from 3.3 million during the same period in 2009.

Now for the good news.

In June 2010, the number of North American visitors to Ireland rose by 1.4% over June 2009, up to 123,600 over 121,900.

The surprising, if slight, uptick prompted Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin to strike a note of cautious optimism, expressing “some confidence that things are turning around for the tourism sector.”

“Visitors from [the U.S. and Canada] are particularly important as they tend to book well in advance, stay longer and spend more than visitors from nearer markets who are on shorter breaks,” Hanafin said.

In further proof that the U.S. has not abandoned its longtime love affair with Ireland, Frommer’s named the destination its 2011 Reader Favorite selection. In fact, Ireland received 29% of the overall vote from the 10 nominated destinations, edging out last year's winner, Paris.

Frommer’s readers responded to the country’s beautiful scenery, and we agree. Add to that relatively low airfares from the U.S., at least compared with flights to continental Europe; famously friendly inhabitants; and a red-hot culinary scene, and you have a destination with staying power.

Oh, and the Guinness isn’t bad, either.

For more on travel to Ireland, visit www.discoverireland.com.

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