Tourism minister Hanafin pitches value of visits 'home'

By Ray O'Hanlon

Mary Hanafin has a three-card portfolio.

But tourism was firmly on top of her deck this week during a two-and-a-half day stay in New York crammed to the brim with events and meetings designed to lure the Irish, Irish Americans, indeed anybody, across the Atlantic to an island that right now needs every tourist dollar it can get.

And the urgency behind Hanafin's mission was highlighted by its timing.

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In an easier time she might have been pitching the wonders of Ireland earlier in the year, around St. Patrick's Day, or even before it.

But Irish tourist and airline chiefs are gearing up for a marketing campaign that will continue deep into the summer. That campaign is based on the premise that Ireland is now a good value destination, one that has lately become a lot more affordable, despite the tough economic times.

"This is the year that you will get the best value, by way of the currency exchange rate, and access to value once in Ireland," Hanafin told the Echo Tuesday in an interview conducted in the offices of Tourism Ireland in Manhattan,

"People are booking holidays later and Ireland is a place where people visit throughout the year," said Hanafin, who added that her visit to New York was less of a marketing push than it was a means of issuing an invitation to people to visit Ireland.

The minister, whose portfolio also covers culture and sport, said that the idea of marketing Ireland as a place to come home to (the main Tourism Ireland slogan for the current campaign is "This is the year to come home") has a lot to do with reaching out to the Irish diaspora, and the wider Irish American family.

The idea, she said, was that people should think of traveling to Ireland as being a return to home and family and a place which, in a troubled world, was both "welcoming and comfortable."

Hanafin's message was being underpinned by her emphasis on the recent online posting of the results of the 1901 and 1911 Irish census takes.

"The 1901 census website will make it easier for Irish Americans to find out precisely where their Irish ancestors came from," the minister said.

"These records will be an invaluable resource in reaching out to the Irish diaspora here in the U.S. I have no doubt that many will be encouraged to research their Irish heritage and then follow up with a visit to Ireland. It is a fact that many people use the census as a starting point for cultural tourism."

Hanafin said that she had felt particularly touched by her own online research into her family, especially when she had read the handwritten returns.

"To see that hand writing. It has made many people proud that so many could read and write in that time. And a very positive aspect of the new information is that it's also getting young people to talk to older relations."

Ireland's tourism business is significantly dependent on golf and Hanafin described Graeme McDowell's recent U.S. Open win as "massive."

Hanafin's visit comes against the backdrop of new statistics showing a sharp drop in tourism figures caused by the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, in April and May.

The number of visitors from North America decreased by 33 percent in that period. The volcano has since ceased erupting.

[PHOTO: Irish tourism minister Mary Hanafin explains the details of her New York visit during a literally high- level Manhattan meeting with actor Gabriel Byrne.]