Irish Gathering Defies Actor’s Shakedown Tag Amid Gloom

In New York, Golden Globe winning Irish actor Gabriel Byrne lambasted a government plan to attract the diaspora to holiday in Ireland as a “shakedown.” Three-thousand miles away in Donegal, Arlene Dennis is happier.

Bookings are up at her nine-room beachfront Carnaween House, which overlooks Narin strand in the north-west corner of Ireland, where the windswept coastline draws surfers from across the globe. Visits to Ireland rose 5 percent in the first half of the year, driven by North Americans arriving for the Gathering, a year-long series of events to attract tourists.

“We couldn’t be any busier,” said Dennis, adding she also cut prices by about 10 percent to spur trade. “It’s at least partly to do with the Gathering.”

Tourism is proving a bright spot in an economy struggling to emerge from its worst recession on record. Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s government needs free-spending visitors to help drag the debt-laden economy back to growth. Retail sales are falling and exporters struggling, with the economy slipping back into recession.

“The Gathering seems to be proving a bit more than just a gimmick,” said Eoin Fahy, an economist at Kleinwort Benson Investors in Dublin. “It’s easy to wonder about whether it’ll have much long lasting benefit, but it’s a positive now when the economy needs momentum.”

Tourism is Ireland’s biggest indigenous industry, accounting for about 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and about 11 percent of jobs, according to a study commissioned by Irish Hotels Federation. The global financial crisis battered the sector, with visitor numbers plunging 23 percent between 2008 and 2010.

The Gathering

Against that backdrop, Kenny’s government developed the Gathering, a year-long series of events designed to attract Irish-Americans and others with Irish roots to visit the country. Events include the Irish Redhead Convention in Cork, college American football games in Dublin, and an international hurling tournament in Galway.

The aim is to attract an extra 325,000 visitors to Ireland, with the focus mainly on those living in North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Many viewed the concept skeptically, with actor Byrne leading the criticism. In a radio interview in November with Today FM, the Usual Suspects actor, who now lives in New York, said some Irish Americans regarded the initiative as a “scam.”

“You talk to older people here, Irish Americans, who say we are sick to death of this,” said Byrne, who served as a cultural ambassador for Ireland in 2010 and 2011. “The only time the diaspora are ever mentioned are as tourists and how can we get people back here so we can shake them down for a few quid.”

Guinness Storehouse

Back in Ireland, though, Americans are flooding in. North Americans visitors rose 15 percent in the first half of the year from the year earlier. At the Guinness Storehouse, the country’s most popular tourist attraction, visitor numbers are up 6 percent a month on average this year.

“The Gathering has been the cream on the cake ” said Paul Carty, managing director at the Storehouse, at the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. “It has reminded people that we are here. We are having a record year.”

The surge in U.S. numbers is helping to offset a decline in visitors from the U.K., which plunged 28 percent between 2008 and 2012.

`Very Soft'

“Tourism from the U.K. is very, very soft,” Christoph Mueller, chief executive officer at Aer Lingus Group Plc, said. “What we see in the U.K. is that people save money for the main summer vacation rather than these short city trips, which were very popular in the past.”

While the increase in North American visitors may be linked to the 9 percent strengthening in the dollar against the euro over the past two years, the Gathering is playing a role, hoteliers say.

Dublin’s newest five-star hotel, the Marker, said it got a boost as 1,700 participants from some 44 countries arrived last month to set a new world record for the longest line of dancers to perform Riverdance along the nearby banks of the Liffey.

“The Gathering was a fairly instrumental factor in just raising the profile again,” said Kevin McGillycuddy, managing director of Brehon Capital, which jointly owns the Marker. “Americans would be looking for that once in a life time opportunity to come to Ireland.”

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