Last year was a very good one for tourism to the Emerald Isle, and Tourism Ireland, Failte Ireland (the National Tourism Development Authority) and Tourism Northern Ireland are taking that success and running with it.

Alison Metcalf, executive vice president of Tourism Ireland, was in New York in January to outline the destination's strategy for tourism growth for this year, and more broadly, to 2025. The first step, she said, was to look back and see what has been working so far. In so doing, she identified three areas of strength: access, marketing and investment in product.

This last point is one that Tourism Ireland has long understood; that all the great marketing in the world, including hyping "Star Wars" and "Game of Thrones" locations, doesn't mean a thing if the product -- in this case, the travel experience -- isn't terrific and continually evolving to appeal to repeat and new visitors alike.

"We have high satisfaction levels [among visitors]," Metcalf said, adding that the U.S. continues to be a key source market. Bottom line: we visit often, and we spend a lot.

"In the last five years, Ireland has seen a 60% increase in [leisure] visitors from the U.S. and a 70% increase in [leisure travel] revenue," she said. In 2017 alone the destination welcomed a record 1.8 million visitors from North America, an increase of nearly 17% over the previous year, and those visitors spent a record $1.88 billion, a year-over-year spike of more than 14%.

Metcalf credits increased nonstop access to Ireland from the U.S. as a factor in the strong numbers.

There has been an 8% increase in peak season air capacity in the last 12 months, with direct, nonstop access from 16 U.S. gateways, she said, citing new Seattle-Dublin and Philadelphia-Dublin routes on Aer Lingus and increased frequency on Norwegian to Shannon from Providence, R.I., and Stewart Airport in New York's Hudson Valley.

As to refining the Ireland experience, Metcalf said part of the marketing strategy has been to "look closely at what the inspiration is for U.S. vacationers to come to Ireland, and we've got a clear view that it's compelling, unique experiences, food, music, scenery and culture."

She singled out the Irish food scene, which has undergone a notable transformation in the last decade or so, from the boiled dinners of our grandparents' generation to one boasting Michelin-star chefs and trendy eateries with cutting-edge menus.

She also pointed to a number of big events on tap just in Dublin alone that regularly generate a lot of visitor interest, such as the St Patrick's Parade and Festival from March 15 to19, the International Literature Festival from May 19 to 27 and the Dublin Theatre Festival from Sept. 27 to Oct. 15.

Improvements to the tourism infrastructure include continued investment in such scenic routes as the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's Ancient East and the Causeway Coastal Route as well as proposed new accommodations in Dublin and Belfast.

As to overtourism, Metcalf said this has not yet become a problem in Ireland, partly because visitors tend to fan out to various parts of the country rather than just concentrate in one or two key cities. That said, tourism entities continue to work to lure travelers to all parts of the destination and to coax them to travel during the shoulder season, which Metcalf said is already becoming popular, especially for Americans.

Finally, the overall strategy for growth includes understanding the key role industry collaboration plays in Ireland's tourism success.

"We pay attention to our distribution channels, the travel trade, tour operators, airlines and the retail community, including upscale travel professionals," Metcalf said.

Or, to borrow a phrase from her New York presentation: "Capturing the attention of U.S. consumers is not about changing technology or finding new interventions in the consumer journey... The island of Ireland must be vivid, motivating, noticeable and arresting." 

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI