Veteran Irish Tourist Board (ITB) executive Paul O'Toole took the
helm of the new all-Ireland promotional entity Tourism Ireland
following the Jan. 1 merger of ITB with the Northern Ireland
Tourist Board. Travel Weekly's Europe editor, Kenneth Kiesnoski,
discussed the state of Irish tourism and the organization's plans
for the U.S. market with O'Toole at a recent Tourism Ireland event
in New York.
Travel Weekly:In the wake of a depressed
U.S. economy, the foot-and-mouth disease scare and the Sept. 11
terror attacks, some estimate that U.S. arrivals to Ireland dropped
by as much as 15% last year. Is that accurate, and how soon do you
expect a reversal?
O'Toole: It turned out to be less bad, coming
in at somewhere around a 13% drop compared with 2000, which was our
best-ever year. We haven't got the revenue numbers yet, but I
suspect they're similar.
TW:Has a recovery begun?
O'Toole: Like the rest of the world, we're
waiting with baited breath to see what happens.
Forecasting in this travel climate is a bit like crystal ball
gazing, but we're starting to see more Americans willing to inquire
about a trip to Ireland.
We believe there's life in this market yet. The precise moment
recovery will begin we can't gauge, but we hope to see the market
turn and respond to our efforts this year.
TW:Tourism Ireland has the special task of
promoting Northern Ireland -- which generates more than its share
of bad press worldwide -- as a leisure destination. Can you
surmount the region's historic "Troubles," and, if so,
O'Toole: I think it's a natural thing for
people to want to feel safe when they travel. Perhaps in the past
there's been a perception -- and I stress that word --
that you can't experience that in Northern Ireland.
The reality is quite different. Northern Ireland is as welcoming
as any other part of Ireland; the incidents that have occurred in
the past as well as those reported recently are actually very
isolated and confined to a small part of Belfast.
They're regrettable, but they do not typify the Northern Ireland
TW:Will your campaign address fears about
O'Toole: Our campaign concept is based on the
whole of Ireland, so we'll be motivating consumers to consider
different parts of the island.
We think through experience people will find Northern Ireland is
a wonderful, unexplored part of destination Ireland, and we'll
address that subtly via our overall theme, the blend of images we
use and information we provide.
TW: In light of the susceptibility of transatlantic travel to
terror and safety scares, will Tourism Ireland focus less on North
America and more on close-in markets such as the U.K. and
O'Toole: We look at the North American market
as a long-term bet; we are going to have a very vigorous campaign
here in which we'll invest at least $6 million this year.
This market is so important to us we want to have faith and
stick with it. So we're putting our dollars where we believe we'll
see long-term benefit.
TW:Britain just declared the last of its
counties free of hoof-and-mouth, which devastated its travel
industry in 2001. Was the problem as widespread in Ireland, and
what's the impact been on Irish tourism?
O'Toole: It was a matter of guilt by
association; there were a total of three cases in Ireland, compared
with thousands in Britain, but people didn't really distinguish
between the two.
There was also a need to ensure the disease didn't [spread in]
Ireland, so there were some restrictions [on travel], but the
practical reality was that there was plenty for visitors to see and
do. We've had to spend a lot of time on what we call a "reassurance
campaign" to explain that.
TW:Some agents report ethnic and other
niche travelers have been among the most reliable customers since
Sept. 11. Back in October, you launched a promotion aimed primarily
at Irish-Americans; how did that go, and will the emphasis on
ethnic and other niche markets continue?
O'Toole: The way we're approaching it first is
to target the people we know best, and they're the Irish ethnic
The theme of our campaign will be that everyone is a little
Irish; we think that's a concept that will appeal to all people
considering holiday choices.
We do look at specific niches; golf is important to us, as are
equestrian and outdoor pursuits such as walking, cycling and
TW:You're revamping your Shamrock Club
destination specialist program this year. How else do travel agents
fit into your plans?
O'Toole: If you look back at the successful
growth of tourism to Ireland from the U.S., the retail travel agent
has played a very significant part.
And we think agents are going to continue to be important, so
we're running a road show of Irish industry representatives and
U.S. wholesalers for travel agents in 23 cities.
We'll supplement that with regular bulletins to agents, and we
hope to organize a very large fam trip to Ireland this year. We
value agents highly and will invest in them.
TW:Many smaller European destinations rely
on national flag carriers to funnel visitors from the U.S. Aer
Lingus has struggled since Sept. 11; what would it mean for Ireland
if it -- like Sabena and Swissair -- were to fold?
O'Toole: Access to Ireland is absolutely
fundamental, since we're an island; you either fly there or sail
there. So Tourism Ireland invests in developing and sustaining
In the case of Aer Lingus -- and Continental and Delta [which
also provide service from the U.S.] -- we will partner them,
aligning marketing campaigns to stimulate traffic.
Wherever demand is, we want to partner with airlines, tour
operators and travel agents to get that business.