DUBLIN, Ireland -- Perception is everything. Just ask the Irish Tourist Board, which has adjusted its projection of U.S. arrivals downward by 20% this year due to the fallout from hoof-and-mouth disease.

But Ireland had just a single confirmed case of the livestock virus -- and that was more than a month ago.

Although Great Britain is the epicenter of Europe's hoof-and-mouth problems, many people so closely associate Ireland with the U.K. that the tarnished image has, in fact, crossed the Irish Sea.

During an educational study tour of hoof-and-mouth disease's impact on Ireland, a delegation of 12 ASTA officials heard nearly a dozen members of Ireland's travel industry -- and the republic's prime minister -- plead for a better understanding of the containment of the disease and the minimal impact it has had on the Irish travel experience.

"The only problem is perception," Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told the delegation. "Unfortunately, we took precautions, and the message that got out was that we've closed up."

That message was enough to turn U.S. tourists away, leaving the Irish Tourist Board hard-pressed to come close in 2001 to last year's record U.S. arrivals of 1.1 million.

The Irish government implemented strict precautionary measures during the first few weeks of the crisis, such as closing national parks and postponing the St. Patrick's Day festivities, but now many parks and nature trails have reopened, and the St. Patrick's celebration is rescheduled for late May.

"The message [we need to get out now] is that the Republic of Ireland is hoof-and-mouth free," said Niall Reddy, general manager, enterprise support, for the tourist board. "Any restrictions are merely precautionary and do not detract from a holiday," he added.

Some measures are evident, as the ASTA delegation saw on its visit. For example, some hotels and restaurants have disinfectant mats at their entrances. But that had to be pointed out to several members of the delegation because the mats are not conspicuous.

Although farm visits and walking on unpaved paths in the countryside are discouraged, visitors still can travel in rural areas and enjoy nearly all of its attractions, tourism officials said. All golf courses are open, with the exception of the Killarney golf course.

John Healy, president of the Incoming Tour Operators Association, said although there has been some inconvenience to tour groups, the precautions have not taken away from the experience.

For example, at the Cliffs of Moher, signs warn that visitors cannot walk on nearby fields and must stay on the paved paths, but visitors can still stroll to the edge of the cliffs and enjoy the views.

The motorcoach business seems to have been hit particularly hard -- and may be the most difficult to entice back this year, according to the industry and ASTA agents here.

ASTA executive vice president Bill Maloney noted during a meeting with Irish officials here that the scare hit at the height of booking season, causing cancellations by those who typically are most fearful -- the elderly group tour client.

But the U.S. agents told officials that other Americans -- particularly FITs -- would be back soon because their "memories are short." It would help if airline fares and package prices dropped, they said.

John Power, chief executive of the Irish Hotels Federation, said the industry plans to focus efforts on American FITs because operators already have canceled many departures.

Con Horgan, chairman of the Abbey Travel Group, which owns hotels, travel agencies and ground operators in Ireland, said it may be too late to salvage the summer peak season.

He said Ireland's travel industry hopes to reverse the downturn in the fall, so that by the end of the year, the expected 20% drop in U.S. traffic could be shaved to 10%.

ASTA members show support of Irish tourism

DUBLIN, Ireland -- ASTA said it plans to get the word out to members that Ireland remains a hospitable place to visit.

As a delegation of Society officials and chapter presidents visited Ireland on a fact-finding tour sponsored by the Irish Tourist Board, ASTA executive vice president Bill Maloney suggested the delegation act as a "truth squad" and spread the word at chapter meetings that Ireland is open to tourism.

At the same time, agents on the trip said travel counselors have had to do what they do best: Actively counsel clients about their travel plans in the face of a barrage of media attention and confusion about hoof-and-mouth disease.

"We have to hold clients' hands," said Diane Moore of Vacations Plus, Milwaukee.

Carol Georges of the Happy Traveler, San Diego, and San Diego ASTA chapter president, said her firm has not received Ireland trip cancellations but has fielded "lots of questions."

She and other agents said they believe many Americans who planned to visit Ireland have put off their trips due to fear or uncertainty.

In a meeting here with Irish tourism officials, the agents suggested continual updates on the situation, lowering prices to stimulate demand and an intensifying of promotional efforts.

Robert Kern of PNR Travel, Los Angeles, and SoCal ASTA chapter president, said "clients are asking a lot of questions, and they need answers."

"If we have the information available, it's important for us to be able to show people they can come here and there are no problems," Kern said.

Susan Dushane of Travel by Greta, Northridge, Calif., and an ASTA area director, reminded Irish travel officials that "Americans are forgiving, and their memories are short. You may not see it this summer, but people will come back."

Robert Vaughan of Belair/Empress Travel, Bowie, Md., told the group the peak-season booking period when groups were likely to book Ireland has passed, but "you'll get people who can travel on short notice."

"A lot of my clients have not booked for this summer," Georges added. "Don't give up on this season."

Board's mission invades U.S.

The Irish Tourist Board is taking several steps to boost business from the U.S. in the wake of the hoof-and-mouth scare. Some highlights include:

  • A mission by 35 suppliers from the Irish travel industry, scheduled to arrive May 21 for a blitz of the U.S. They will meet with agents in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington and Boston.
  • A $3.5 million campaign in the U.S. including advertising, much of it co-op with tour operators and Aer Lingus, which is offering $399 roundtrip flights from the East Coast to Ireland. The campaign includes direct mailings to agents and cable television ads featuring actor Martin Sheen of the "The West Wing" television series.
  • Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, who has been recruited as "ambassador of travel to Ireland." He is spreading the word on Irish tourism during the group's U.S. concert tour.
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