O’Donoghue’s upbeat message was that Ireland’s tourism industry will “weather the tempest” and emerge strongly from the current economic downturn. The minister was in the U.S. for a two-city tour where he addressed the concerns of tour operators and travel agents.
Tour operators have been cautiously acknowledging that the travel industry to Ireland has been rebounding better than many had expected.
O’Donoghue acknowledged the depth of concern about the industry, battered by the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, the collapse of the travel industry after Sept. 11 and the general economic downturn.
But the industry has returned stronger than had been expected. In early 2002, tour operators and travel agents reported significant anxiety among tourists planning trips to Ireland.
In the springtime, many operators reported that the trend was to book much closer to departure date and in spite of fears that many travelers would simply stay home, cancellation rates were lower than expected.
CIE tours chief executive Brian Stack said: “We are way ahead of where we thought we were going to be in 2002.”
Stack attributed this to travelers “gripping on to a known brand.”
O’Donoghue’s speeches in New York and Chicago received a generally positive response from travel agents and other leisure industry professionals who specialize in vacations to Ireland.
“Ireland’s tourism industry is strong and resilient,” said O’Donoghue to his New York audience. “It is a perfect microcosm of the larger national economy.”
One of the industry’s strengths has been its small, family-owned enterprises, O’Donoghue continued, which have responded well to individual customer’s needs.
Crystal Travel manager Kevin Kelly said that O’Donoghue’s speech had reassured many in the industry after there had been a growing feeling in 2002 that Ireland was focusing on the home market in the belief that U.S. and Canadian tourists simply would not be flying after Sept 11.
That perception, Kelly said, is now changing.
“In 2002 there may have been a trend to look at the home market,” Kelly said. “But O’Donoghue certainly seems committed to strengthening and expanding the North American market.”
After Sept. 11 the Ireland vacation industry did contract sharply as air carriers such as Aer Lingus made significant cutbacks.
Baltimore will see its link to Ireland reopened in early 2003, Kelly said, echoing O’Donoghue’s remarks where he said that this should be seen as a sign of the renewed commitment of the Irish market to the U.S.
“The American visitor represents a crucial component in the health and prosperity of Ireland’s tourism business,” O’Donoghue said.
Recent problems with the tourism industry, including Sept 11 and the economic downturn, have obscured the impact that will now be felt by the marketing of Ireland as a single entity, O’Donoghue noted.
The Northern Irish and Irish tourist boards were merged in 2001 into Tourism Ireland.
Tourism Ireland spokesperson Jane Shackleford said that the minister’s speech had been given a “very positive response” by vacation industry professionals.
“This was a positive message,” she said, adding that tourism industry experts should see a steady increase in business once again.
Tourism Ireland’s chief executive, Paul O’Toole, responded to O’Donoghue’s speech, saying, “this is a crucial period for Ireland’s tourism industry. We are all keenly aware that our business will flourish only when we see strength in our American visitor numbers. Our commitment to the American market is firm and unshakeable.”
O’Donoghue’s speech also urged tour operators to market Ireland not just to individual travelers and family groups.
Ireland was not just a place with beautiful scenery, he said, but a place with excellent resources for business travel and conferences.
CIE tours chief executive Stack said that O’Donaghue’s speech had “confirmed Tourism Ireland’s enthusiasm for the North American market.” He also noted that many Irish Americans had been planning trips to Ireland for a long time, and “they are determined to do this and they will not let anyone put them off a visit to the land of their heritage, not even terrorists.”