Ireland tourism chief sees green in U.S. market

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, how?

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 experience.

TW:Will your campaign address fears about the north?

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 continental Europe?

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 market.

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 general touring.

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 access opportunities.

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.

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