Ireland records rise in U.S. visitors, pushed youthful image

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NEW YORK -- Americans who have not been to Ireland in the past five or six years will hardly recognize the place, according to John Dully, the newly appointed director general worldwide of the Irish Tourist Board in Dublin.

Dully was in New York recently to tout his country's flourishing tourism industry, which has seen nearly a 100% increase in visitors from the U.S. in the past four years. That represents a jump from 377,000 visitors in 1993 to 718,000 in 1997.

"The traditional Ireland of clinging mists and wild horses still exists, but Ireland also is a young, dynamic modern economy," Dully told Travel Weekly. Far from being mired in old ways, the country has become downright fashionable among young visitors from Europe, Dully said, adding that he expects that trend to spill over into the U.S. market.

He cited the range of attractions Ireland offers that might appeal to younger clientele, including outdoor activities, gourmet dining and beautiful scenery protected by an ecology-conscious population. "We are living in an era where 'green is clean,' " Dully said. "We are beginning to take steps to protect our environment by ensuring visitor management techniques."

To that end, destinations that once were overlooked are now being promoted, he said. "A priority of ours is to spread the benefits of tourism throughout the country. "Once visitors have seen Killarney, for example, we would like to move them to other areas," Dully said, citing Donegal as an area that is beginning to become popular.

To accommodate tourists in secondary areas, hotels are springing up and older properties are being refurbished. For example, the three-star Kilkee Bay Hotel and Apartments is set to open in April 1999 in County Clare, and the posh St. Clerans in County Galway, the former home of filmmaker John Huston, is now an upscale hotel owned by Merv Griffin.

Another priority has been to lengthen the tourist season, which has stretched in recent years from early March to the end of October. To accommodate the increasingly strong shoulder season, hotels and attractions are staying open longer, he said, thanks to a concerted effort by the private and public sectors.

As for special interests, the strong golf niche is expected to receive a boost from the Ryder Cup, which is set for 2005 in Ireland. The exact site of the event has not been determined.

Another good draw, the appeal of Ireland's culture, is not new. "When you think of the quality of our cultural output -- in films, music, art and literature -- it is hard [to be here] and not to soak it in."

Better air service from the U.S. is another factor in Ireland's growing visitor numbers, and Dully predicted that this trend will continue. Aer Lingus, which offers service from New York, Boston and Chicago, is set to begin direct service to Ireland from Los Angeles in June of 1999.

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