Ireland, N. Ireland lure active vacationers

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NEW YORK -- Active vacations. Off the beaten path places. Cultural pursuits. Younger travelers.

These are among the subtle trends that tourism officials for Ireland and Northern Ireland said are gradually becoming more prevalent.

According to Joe Byrne, executive vice president of the Irish Tourist Board (ITB), North America, and David Boyce, director of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), the U.S. travel markets for both Ireland and Northern Ireland are slightly younger.

About 45% of visitors to Ireland are under the age of 45, Byrne said, compared with five years ago when about half of all visitors were under the age of 46.

Although Northern Ireland's No. 1 U.S. market segment is made up of travelers who are 55 to 70, Boyce said, the tourist board is marketing toward baby boomers, ages 40 to 55.

He said Northern Ireland is seeing greater interest from "independent and slightly younger travelers."

Another noticeable U.S. travel trend Byrne recognized is that the average length of stay has decreased from 10 to nine nights.

"The good news is that the per diem spent by our visitors has more than offset the number of decreased nights per visitor," he said.

Indications are that during their stay, U.S. visitors want to interact more with the destination. In other words, they want to experience the scenery and culture in a more active way than just sightseeing and dining out.

Boyce said activity travel is rising in popularity, and the NITB has responded by producing walking maps of Northern Ireland.

In the Republic of Ireland, "there is a greater level of participation by visitors to this market in active and passive special-interest pursuits," Byrne said, citing golf, horseback riding and ancestor tracing.

Cross Country International of Millbrook, N.Y., which specializes in equestrian and walking vacations throughout Europe, has a "23% increase in riding and a 40% increase in walking this year over last" for Ireland and Northern Ireland, according to Karen Lancaster, president.

U.S. visitors also are increasingly "straying off the beaten track," Byrne said. "While the well-established Dublin, Killarney, Blarney and Waterford are still magnets, U.S. visitors are discovering Kilkenny in the southeast, Donegal in the extreme northwest, the Lakelands area in the center of Ireland and the areas of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland."

Byrne said the ITB has been promoting those destinations and encouraging tour operators to program these areas.

Lesser-known destinations also are becoming more tourist-friendly through investment projects such as the Shannon-Erne Waterway, which connects the River Shannon in the Republic of Ireland with the Erne in Northern Ireland.

Through private investment and support from both governments, as well as the European Union, Byrne said the waterway has been enhanced during the last eight years with "national parks, walking routes, golf courses, equestrian centers, heritage centers and rejuvenated towns and villages."

The project for the 60-mile area is largely completed, he said.

As for new promotional efforts, Byrne said the ITB is running an advertising campaign with the slogan, "Ireland: Where the Green Goes Further."

The six-week newspaper campaign in the New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Atlanta markets launched the last weekend of July.

"The overriding consideration is that, for U.S. visitors, Ireland has never been better value for money because of the strength of the dollar," Byrne said. "Therefore, the value for money ratings are very high as rated by U.S. visitors."

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