By Harry Keaney
Angry Irish tour operators in the U.S. are planning to file a lawsuit in Ireland against the Irish Tourist Board and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board over an arrangement that allows a County Kerry company, Fexco, to both give out tourist information and make bookings, thereby creating what the operators see as a conflict of interest. Fexco owns a tour operating subsidiary, Go Ireland.
The tour operators in America fear they will be bypassed if the arrangement with Fexco is extended to the U.S. Fexco, based in Killorglin, currently deals with information requests from Ireland and Britain.
Consumers calling either tourist board’s information lines, or logging onto websites, would be linked directly to Ireland. For now, at least, information calls in the U.S. are still answered in New York.
"We have not been served with any legal papers at this point in time, so there is no lawsuit," Joseph Byrne, the Irish Tourist Board’s executive vice president for North America, told the Echo Tuesday morning.
It is believed that the purpose of the lawsuit is to find out if the tendering process for the sale of the systems to Fexco was in line with European Union regulations. Records in relation to the deal are also being sought, a tourism industry source told the Echo.
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"This is probably the most serious thing to have hit Irish tourism in the last 20 years," one U.S. tour operator told the Echo.
The operator added: "The tragedy of all this is that this nonsense could have been avoided had the Irish Tourist Board just listened and acted on requests by the Irish tour operators in America months ago. The good work of the Irish Tourist Board is now in jeopardy and travel agents are being asked by their association not to contact the Irish Tourist Board."
However, Byrne said the Irish Tourist Board very much values the partnership it has with tour operators and with travel agents. "It is because of those partnership arrangements that tourism has more than doubled in the last five years," he said.
"We are most anxious to continue those partnership arrangements and to continue the dialogue as we put in place arrangements that serve all stakeholders in Irish tourism."
Some time ago, the Irish Tourist Board sold a controlling stake in its national reservations system, called Gulliver, to Fexco.
The U.S. Tour Operators Association has passed a motion critical of the Irish Tourist Board and the American Society of Travel Agents has canceled a board meeting due to take place in Northern Ireland later this year.
The dispute also brings into the play the question of computer technology and its impact on the travel business, and especially its long-term consequences for the future of many U.S. travel agencies in the internet age.