By Ed Forry
In an exclusive interview with the BIR on Sept. 7 at Tourism Ireland’s offices just off Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green, TI executive director Niall Gibbons explained the government’s vision for the year-long promotion.
“The Gathering is a very exciting initiative,” Gibbons said. “It’s the biggest tourism initiative in the history of the state. It’s going to take place in 2013. It has been in preparation through a lot of this year and it’s going to be a very exciting time for anybody coming to visit Ireland.”
He explained that the effort is “the invitation, really, from Ireland to the world, to visit Ireland in 2013, and it’s not just (for) the diaspora although they form a very important part of it. There are 80 million people around the world who claim Irish heritage, 44 million in the United States alone. There are more than over six million in Britain, and over two-and-half million in Australia. So the Irish are very spread and the markets of the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia are the four key markets for the gathering because that’s where most of the Irish diaspora are. But it extends well beyond that.”
Among the plans is an expansion of Dublin’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day parade next year where visitors will have the chance to join in the parade. Gibbons says that in the past there has been a “huge demand” from Americans wanting to join the parade. “It was always limited to a certain number of bands, but next year you’re going to be able actually to walk in the parade in Dublin. And around the country as well there’s a whole range of festivals that have been planned, and they are going to be new and upgraded. So there will be lots of things to see and do.
“I think it’s going to re-awaken a lot of people to their ancestry, too, because a lot of people have a connection to Ireland that they don’t know about yet, or they know they come from Ireland but they just haven’t discovered it, so there’s going to be lots of things to see and do when they come back here.
“The Irish reach into every section of society, and politics and everything. And there’s a great opportunity for people who haven’t discovered Ireland before, to come to Ireland in 2013. And what they’re going to experience is a year-long celebration of festivals and events which starts on the first of January with the New Year’s festival, with fireworks and a lot of music around the city. It’ll be good fun, good traditional Irish sort of fun and it’s going to be something new because we haven’t had a New Year’s Eve festival in the past. So for people who might have thought about coming around that time of the year, that is really a good reason to do so.”
Gibbons says that some 900,000 Americans are expected to visit the island this year, and the country is targeting an increase for next year. “We’re looking to work with the existing carriers (Aer Lingus, Continental, and Delta) and new carriers and we’d like to see additional air access capacity because fares are going up now because the demand is so strong. And it’s a good news story to some extent because Ireland is obviously still very popular and people really want to come here.
“But in the current economic climate, fuel prices are very high, airlines are very cautious, and we saw a large amount of capacity taken out of the market when things went bad in 2008 or 2009 and we’re very keen to see that go back in. We’d love to see more services into Boston.
“There’s no question about it, Ireland is still very popular. This year we’ll have our biggest market share of the outbound travel to Europe from the United States for well over 10 years. So of all the people from the United States who travel to Europe, Ireland has about 8½ percent of the total share. And that’s the best it’s ever been, it’s an extraordinary percentage for such a small island off the periphery of Europe. You can imagine that you’re competing with Italy and France and Germany and all these destinations.
‘And per head of population we’re by far ahead away of all of them. I think Ireland is still a dream destination; we have an experience that other countries can’t offer in terms of the warmth of the people, the scenery, the friendliness, the culture, and the fun.”
The tourism official pointed to the success of a new state-of-the-art air terminal at Dublin Airport, and an expanded road network that make cross-country travel more accessible.
“ There’s been a lot of good new developments in the last number of years; the new terminal is excellent, (and) you’ve got a really good road network now as well. So for people hiring a car (in Dublin) you can get to Galway in two hours, whereas before it took three and a half; you can get to Cork in two hours, Belfast in an hour and three quarters. So getting around Ireland is much easier than it used to be. And there are some great facilities here as well for people who want to visit. So I think we’re very well placed.
“You know as more people want to come here it’s going to be easier to get here. The value-for-money issue is very interesting because Ireland had got a perception as being a very expensive place to visit around 2007 or 2008. And we survey people from all our main countries every year to see what were (their) perceptions of Ireland. And the good news is that 99 percent would recommend it as a holiday to a friend. But our value-for-money perception in North America is the best it’s been in 10 years. And I think with the way the exchange rate has gone against the dollar this summer, it’s going to be even better next year as well.”
Gibbons said that “The Gathering is an all encompassing idea, and it is about doing what Ireland is really good at – people. That’s what the gathering is really about at the end of the day. And if you were to narrow it down there, what does it mean, well, it can mean a lot of things. (All across) Ireland at the moment, people are being asked to come up with concepts of gatherings, where they could invite people home. So that could be a clan gathering, and I’ll give you a practical example of that: There’s a man called Aidan Gallaher in Donegal. And Aidan six years ago came to Tourism Ireland and said ‘I’d like to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest clan gathering in the world,’ which used to be held by the Joneses in Wales where 1400 Joneses gathered once. Aidan managed to get 2,000 Gallaghers in Donegal, and he’s going to do another one next year, and he’s aiming to get 5,000 Gallaghers. Now that’s a very big one. So that’s where the clans can work. I mean it could be small communities just inviting people back home for families to reunite.
“There’s a very interesting project called ‘Ireland Reaching Out’ (Ireland XO) which started down in Galway by a guy called Mike Feerick. And Mike got a few communities together in East Galway, and by working with the census records online, and with local cemeteries and churches, they discovered a large number of people who had emigrated but never knew they had a connection with Ireland. So they wrote to them and invited them back. Now 30 people came, which is a small number but actually they were people who never would have thought of coming to Ireland. So those people came back, it’s a nice story in a time of real recession.
“You know it’s what Ireland is really good at.”