By Harry Keaney
Tucked inside Joseph Byrne’s business folder is a quote from Thomas Jefferson. It reads: "I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more of it I have."
As Byrne, who’s the Irish Tourist Board’s executive vice president for North America, prepares to return to Ireland after a five-year stint in New York, the Jefferson quote seems apt.
"I have been here at a time that has been very lucky for Irish tourism," Byrne said.
But’s it’s clear that, like Jefferson, Byrne believes Ireland has also worked to make its luck. "I feel the Irish Tourist Board has played a significant role in contributing to the success of Irish tourism. The reason I say ‘we contributed’ is that we have been lucky to have found tremendous partners whose goals were close enough to our own so that we could have tremendous working relationships."
Byrne points to the airlines in particular. "I unashamedly give great credit to Aer Lingus for opening up new routes and expanding capacity on existing routes," he said.
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Byrne added that, not just for politically correct reasons, he also had to mention Continental Airlines for opening up services to Shannon and Dublin from Newark Airport. And, he said, Delta Airlines, in addition to its service from Atlanta, had provided a new service from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
"These airlines put Ireland in front of their customers," Byrne said.
Despite the increase in travel to Ireland, the last few years have also been a time when, ironically, travel agents in the U.S. have become more concerned for their futures, mainly because of the onset of the internet and the cutting of commissions by airlines. Some agents have even been critical of the Irish Tourist Board and its central reservations and information system called Gulliver, operated by the Kerry company Fexco. But, according to Byrne, that issue has now been resolved. "Travel agents and tour operators asked us to level the playing field and I feel that it’s been done to everybody’s satisfaction," he said. Indeed, in March last year, Byrne was guest of honor at the Irish Travel Agents’ Association annual dinner in New York.
Byrne is certainly returning to Ireland at a time when the figures are in his favor. "During the past five years, tourism to Ireland from the U.S. has doubled," he said. "Our share of the U.S. travel market to Europe has grown from less than five percent to more than seven-and-a-half percent in those five years."
Last week, Ireland’s central statistics office released figures showing that in the first quarter of this year, traditionally an off-season period, the North American market grew by 9.9 percent, the numbers reaching 155,000. Tourism Minister Jim McDaid, referring to the increased airline access to Ireland, said, "we can confidently expect to welcome a million visitors from North America this year."
In his term in the U.S., Byrne worked in cooperation with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to promote "the island of Ireland." It’s a task not unlike that which a proposed new All-Ireland tourism body will be charged with.
"It’s something I passionately believe in and I hope it will be a part of what I will be actively involved in," he said.
Byrne, 52, the oldest of a family of nine from Tullow, Co. Carlow, joined the tourist board, in its film, TV and photography section, in 1973, having previously worked with RTE as a television studio operator. While with RTE, he obtained a degree in English and philosophy from University College, Dublin.
After studying marketing at the School of Management Studies in Dublin, he served two stints in Paris, the latter for five years as general manager for southern Europe. Then it was back to Dublin as product and promotions manager before coming to New York five years ago to head up the board’s North American operations.