There is a tendency to think that everyone who goes to Ireland does so in order to play golf. After all, Ireland has, along with Scotland, the world’s greatest collection of links courses. Research shows, however, that only eight percent of tourists visit Ireland specifically to play golf. It is, however, an important business segment because golf tourists spend three times as much as leisure travelers.
Alison Metcalfe, vice president of marketing for Tourism Ireland for the past five years, recently discussed Irish golf tourism with Golfweek.
Golfweek: What is the state of Irish tourism?
Metcalfe: Last year was a turnaround year for us, a year of recovery. Actually, 2011 was a very good year for Irish tourism, almost one of our best years. It was a year of two halves. In the first half we saw very strong growth. We started to see growth in the fourth quarter of 2010 and it continued until about August. Then things slowed down starting in September. But in 2011, from North America, we’re up about 7 percent over 2010.
We’ve actually seen an increase in our share of the North American outbound market to Europe. I think there are three reasons for that. We’ve continued to invest in the market. When the market started to turn around, we benefited from that. Secondly, we have a great product that really delivers and satisfies U.S. travelers. And thirdly, we’ve got a great brand. The interest and awareness in brand Ireland is very high. People want to go to Ireland sometime in the future.
We need to convert that interest (to action). As we go into 2012, we’re just about to launch a global advertising campaign called “Jump into Ireland.” What we’re really doing with the new campaign is extending an invitation to . . . get involved, to participate and immerse yourself with the locals if you want. . . . The value is there. The cost of accommodations and green fees have come down over the past three years, the weakening of the euro, that adds to that.
Golfweek: Are there specific parts of Ireland that people are interested in visiting?
Metcalfe: In our advertising, we tend to focus on some of the icons around Ireland. So 2012 is a very big year for Northern Ireland. There’s been a significant investment in the tourism product – new attractions, new experiences. It’s all culminating with the centenary of the Titanic, which was built in Belfast. Opening on the 31st of March will be Titanic Belfast. It will be the world’s largest Titanic experience. It’s not a museum, it’s a visitor experience. The building itself will be an icon. The thinking is that it could become sort of the Guggenheim of Belfast and a huge attraction for Ireland. Also, there’s a new visitors center opening at the Giants Causeway, which is a world heritage site. So there are lots of events and festivals in Northern Ireland.
Golfweek: What has been the impact of the Irish professionals who have won major championships in recent years?
Metcalfe: I think the momentum that has been created by the wins by Graeme (McDowell) and Rory (McIlroy) and Darren (Clarke) has really put a spotlight on Ireland, and specifically Northern Ireland and the links courses there. The golfing market in the U.S. is really coming back very nicely, and the culmination of that is bringing the Irish Open to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1953. It’s going to put a spotlight on Northern Ireland and links golf because of the stature of the course (Royal Portrush).
Golfweek: Do you notice any impact from an event like last year’s Solheim Cup?
Metcalfe: Yes, definitely. I think it did two things. I think it increased interest in the ladies game in Ireland and it positioned Ireland as a more female-friendly golf destination. The fact that it was played at Killeen Castle, only 40 minutes from Dublin, was very attractive to women and couples that attended. There was a strong cultural offering there – food, restaurants, theaters. So I think it has forced a reappraisal. It has more women thinking about Ireland as a really attractive destination that offers great golf and a broader range of experiences.
Golfweek: What is your argument if Americans are trying to choose between a golf trip to Ireland or Scotland?
Metcalfe: We know Americans tend to alternate between Scotland and Ireland because both have fantastic golf. There’s no denying that. Where we think we have the edge is in the 19th hole, in the “craic” (hospitality) factor. Ireland is known for its hospitality, whether you’re a golfer or not. So there’s an opportunity for golfers to enjoy the music, the food, the storytelling after they come off the golf course. I don’t think that’s just us as a tourism agency saying that. We see that coming through in our visitor-satisfaction surveys.
Golfweek: Is it too early to project what 2012 will be like?
Metcalfe: It’s too early to project, but we have targets. We’ve talked to the airlines, we’ve talked to the (tour) operators. It’s off to a good start this year. There is definitely some momentum in the market, people are traveling again. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we are seeing slightly increased consumer confidence in the U.S. market. The jobs numbers aren’t where they need to be, but they’re moving in the right direction, and I think that’s having an effect on how people feel about making big purchases. We’d like to see (2012) growth in the 5 percent range.
Golfweek: If you get that 5 percent growth, where would that put you relative to Ireland’s best tourism years?
Metcalfe: Our goal is to get to the magic million (visitors from North America). That would bring us back to slightly ahead of 2007, our best year.
Golfweek: What impact has the new terminal at the Dublin airport had?
Metcalfe: It’s state-of-the-art and has a lot of potential to grow. The government has brought in a package of incentives to encourage the addition of new routes or additional capacity for existing routes. . . . We also have full U.S. custom and immigration pre-clearance available through both Shannon and Dublin (airports). That is a real selling feature for anybody. Anybody flying out of Ireland coming back to the United States is pre-cleared. When you arrive back in (the U.S.), you arrive as a domestic passenger, so your connecting time is less. We are the only country, with the exception of Canada, that has that service.