Speaking of bargains for tourists, Ireland is hard to beat right now

Joe Byrne, Tourism Ireland’s New York-based executive vice president for North America, is typical of the hard-working Irish men and women who are sent to the United States to represent their country. Enthusiastic, loyal, focused, and extremely bright, his friendly outgoing personality belies a tough, single-minded dedication to improving Ireland’s annual visitor count – in the North and in the South – from the United States and Canada.

I have had the pleasure of knowing Joe Byrne for many years and I recently spent some time with him in a discussion about the great success of Irish tourism in 2011 and the extraordinary events that Ireland’s tourist industry is preparing for this year and next.
“For the next two or more years,” said Byrne, “both the North and the South of Ireland are creating an intriguing and provocative welcoming party for all its visitors. “Ireland is not simply relying on its electrifying natural beauty or its legendary kind and generous people. Ireland is cleaning, building, and preparing to make every visit comfortable, memorable, and satisfying.”
For Americans, now is the time to consider adding Ireland to the list of vacation alternatives.
Byrne and Michael Binchy, of Owenoak International in Connecticut, one of Ireland’s premier travel agencies, agree that not only is airfare to Ireland $200-$300 less expensive than the cost of traveling to most other destinations in Europe, but the euro currency is also much cheaper than it was last year (or in the years before).
Hotel prices have fallen, restaurant prices are down, and the famous golf courses are soliciting business at much lower prices.
While Ireland’s general economy is suffering from increased taxes, service cuts, and 14.5 percent unemployment as the Irish struggle to escape bank debt run up during the boom years (some say “foolish” years), the tourist industry and some other areas are doing well. Visitor numbers from North America in 2011 were up 11.5 percent over 2010, to more than a million visitors.
Tourism is such a bright spot in the Irish economy that it represents more than seven percent of all economic activity, with one out of every twelve Irish men and women employed in the business. But those are only the basic numbers. As Byrne points out, the tourism industry is “very aggressively continuing its efforts to improve the visitor experience.”
In Northern Ireland, for instance, a major new Belfast Museum will be opening in April with a commemoration of the building, launching, and demise of the Titanic.
Built at a cost of $100 million, the museum will become a signature landmark in Belfast. The first pictures, or really, artist drawings, are spectacular. And this summer, Northern Ireland will open a $25 million visitor center at the Giants causeway. The causeway is a unique formation of rock structures found on the island’s north coast.
The causeway and the Cliffs of Moher are the only two UNESCO Heritage attractions in Ireland.
Queens University in Belfast is having its 50th anniversary Arts Festival late this year. And the city of Derry in the western part of the North has been named the UK City of Culture for 2013 and is looking to an incredibly busy 12-month program.
Since peace arrived in Northern Ireland, it has been said many times, “If you have not visited the North you have not been to Ireland.” An exaggeration, perhaps, but a trip there is worth considering.
There is no more excited person than Joe Byrne when he is laying out all these attractions. I’m sure they will make his job somewhat easier, but the success in tourism numbers is a reinforcement and testament to the work he, his veteran staff, and his predecessors have done for many years.
With the U.S. economy getter stronger every day, more and more Americans are deciding to answer Joe’s call and plan a vacation in Ireland. One example: the U.S. Naval Academy and Notre Dame will play their annual football game in Dublin this year, on Sat., Sept. 1. Hotel rooms are already scarce.
Says Michael Binchy of Owenoak’s: “Our business was quite good last year and this year looks even better. We expect good solid growth this year.” The firm’s specialty is golf tours, one of Ireland’s great natural attractions. With the success of Irish golfers Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, and Graeme McDowell, golfers throughout the world are planning trips to Ireland to see if they can catch what it is in the Irish air the makes such incredible golfers. Ireland has more golf courses per capita than any country in the world, and most of them are spectacular experiences.
This year’s Irish Open will be played at Royal Portrush on the North Antrim coast at the end of June and international broadcasts from on site will show the virtues of a legendarily tough course as world-class golfers try to make a reasonable score on its linksland. Lucky Americans will be there to see it all for themselves.
So as Joe Byrne says: “We invite you to come and share our wonderful island. You will have a fantastic time, be very happy you were there, and contribute to the economy at the same time.”