By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As the tourist season gets under way in earnest — with St. Patrick’s Day festivals throughout Ireland attracting bands from the U.S., Switzerland, Belarus and England — concern is growing in the industry over stagnation and visitor fatigue in some sectors of the European market.
Bord Failte, Ireland’s tourist board, has targeted growth of 6 percent in visitor numbers this year and 7 percent in revenue.
While the U.S. has been a spectacular success, with 10 percent more tourists arriving each year since 1995, the stagnation of business from continental Europe and particularly Britain, traditionally the most important market, is causing increasing concern.
Tourism Minister Jim McDaid said that despite the strength of sterling and the absence of violence in the North, "we may be experiencing a peak in our current fashionability in Britain at the same time as many newer and competitively priced alternative holiday options are opening up from that market."
Bord Failte is currently reviewing the whole UK market," McDaid said, to "try to get to grips with any fundamental changes" and see how marketing campaigns could be repositioned or revamped.
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With the exception of Italy and the Nordic countries, the continental European market has been poor. The number of visitors from the two most important countries, Germany and France, were the same last year as they were five years ago.
The minister said the government target is foreign exchange earnings of £3.5 billion and 50,000 net new full-time jobs by 2006.
Tourism growth has been spectacular. It now accounts for 5.8 percent of the gross national product, employs 135,000, compared to 69,000 just 10 years ago, and represents just under 10 percent of all non-agricultural employment.
The last five years have seen the number of hotels increase from 686 to 838 and the number of rooms soar from 24,200 to almost 36,300.
However, Hotels Federation chief executive John Power said that while visitor numbers had grown to nearly 6 million, it was "extremely perturbing" there has been zero growth in the number of tourists last year.
"The additional 400,000 people to our country last year seem to comprise business travelers or people visiting relatives or friends," he said.
He said that while all additional visitors are welcome, traditional tourist areas do not benefit from corporate or business visitors.
"Many small family-run hotels and guesthouses, particularly in the rural and traditional areas of the country, noted a patchy season last year," Power said.