SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The U.S. Tour Operators Association called on Irish tourism officials to eliminate plans for a government-sponsored tour operator booking system that would bypass U.S. wholesalers and travel agents.

The controversy surrounds a contract the Irish Tourist Board, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Irish Tourism Ministry forged with Fexco, an Irish firm that last year purchased an in-house reservations system developed by the Irish Tourist Board. Under the contract, Fexco would operate the system, called Gulliver InfoRes Services. It would own 74% while the government tourist board would own 26%. The system is designed to refer travel requests from U.S. customers calling its toll-free lines or visiting its Web site.

After months of behind-the-scenes discussion about the proposed plan, the USTOA at its annual convention here passed a resolution calling for the Irish to "eliminate the anti-consumer, anti-competitive situation" that would be created by such a system. USTOA president Robert Whitley said U.S. tour operators to Ireland became aware of the contract earlier this year.

Whitley and ASTA officials traveled to Ireland and told Irish authorities that a government-subsidized call center threatens the participation of U.S. operators and agents in the Irish travel market. The system, he said, would leave the market with reduced competition, and consumers would be subject to the future dominance of Fexco. "It's a blatant bypass," said Whitley. "And, when you create a monopoly like this, you'll have one company dictating prices."

Gavin Tollman, president of Trafalgar Tours, said, "Before, we looked at the Irish Tourist Board as our partners, but if this goes ahead we will be forced to no longer work with them because they will be our competition."

The protest against the system by ASTA and the USTOA prompted the Irish Tourist Board to delay implementation of the project until next June, Whitley said. The Irish Tourist Board in New York said it was "awaiting formal details of the USTOA position." "[We have] been working with our partners and the concerned tour operators to address their concerns. We are anxious to continue those discussions and put in place services that are of benefit to all those with a stake in Irish tourism," said.

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