Time to multiply our céad míle fáilte to China
We spoke to a senior tourism guy here . . . and he said he knew nothing about Ireland. . . [except for] ‘Riverdance’ and Rory McIlroy, writes CLIFFORD COONAN
A COMMON MANTRA when discussing Ireland’s future as a tourism destination for Chinese travellers is to increase access to and boost the profile of Ireland. Last week a tourism delegation was in Beijing to try to achieve both of these areas, led by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Naoise Ó Muirí.
When visiting China in March, the Taoiseach extended a visa waiver scheme for Chinese tourists, but industry professionals regularly insist more needs to be done to improve access and visas to bring large numbers to Ireland.
Dublin is twinned with Beijing and Ó Muirí was in the Chinese capital as a guest of the Beijing city government to attend the launch event of the World City Tourism Federation,
a new body aimed at promoting tourist and conference events and movement between member cities. “We have twinning links and that’s why we were invited. We are promoting the business side of tourism in particular. We’re the only city with a lord mayor here and it shows real commitment,” said Ó Muirí. “It’s very much companies, chambers of commerce and businesses.”
The Dublin delegation, which was welcomed by Declan Kelleher, the Irish Ambassador, was particularly interested in companies that run incentivisation programmes, the regional chambers of commerce around China and Beijing and tour operators, he said. To give an example of the possibilities, Ó Muirí cites the example of New Zealand, which has a huge stand at the event.
Fewer than 10,000 visitors come to Ireland from China every year, but New Zealand welcomes 200,000 or more. New Zealand is about 11 hours away by air, while Dublin is slightly about the same.
The lack of a direct air connection is an issue that comes up again and again, he said, and the Dublin Airport Authority was travelling with the group. “We are looking at airlines to encourage those discussions. We’ve started that process and it’s been quite positive. Our best strategy in the short term is to get an extension of an existing route, such as a Chinese airline flying into London. Anyone coming to the UK can easily come to Dublin because of the visa. All the discussions are positive,” said Ó Muirí.
“We spoke to a senior tourism guy here, not a guy on the street, but a senior person, and he said he knew nothing about Ireland. The two things he knew were Riverdance and Rory McIlroy. The brand isn’t established, it’s not known, and this is a guy who works in tourism,” said Ó Muirí.
Fiona O’Sullivan, of Custom Ireland International, which specialises in custom travel and events, and which sponsored the Irish stand, said there was a growing awareness of Dublin’s offerings such as the Convention Centre. “Some of the numbers involved in the incentive programmes are big – up to 3,500 people,” she said. “We are looking at groups of 500 or 600. The conference centre can take 8,000 but then you are looking for hotels.” O’Sullivan is pushing hard for a direct flight to really improve access.
Susan Barrett, also of Custom Ireland International, said the first thing Chinese people say when they hear about Ireland is Riverdance. “Then it’s the happy people, then the greenness. And people say Ireland and China are very similar because of the agricultural background. Professionals want to know what the facilities are and all are hugely aware of golf. The level of interest is way up. The visa issue comes up all the time, and we need to do something there. The weaknesses are in access, relating to the lack of a direct flight and the visas,” said Barrett.
One initiative launched by the Lord Mayor is an online survey titled “Dublin listens to Beijing”, designed to hear what residents of Beijing think about Dublin and Ireland. With city leaders, he also attended the opening of World Tourism Cities Expo on Wangfujing, a popular shopping street, which is Beijing’s version of Grafton St, or maybe O’Connell St.