Ireland: land of sheep, music and castles, castles, castles

Fri, Jul 1, 2011, 01:00

1,319 foreign journalists were invited to Ireland last year to sample our tourist attractions. ROSITA BOLANDjoins a Fáilte Ireland ‘press trip’ of eight US journalists to get their impressions

NO MATTER HOW cliched we consider it to be, never underestimate the power of an Irish castle as a tourist attraction. This is something I learn during the two days I spend shadowing a Fáilte Ireland “press trip” hosting eight American journalists.

Tourism boards across the world regularly host press trips for members of the international media. They showcase different aspects of what their country has to offer, and each trip is usually aimed at a specific market. This year alone, among the trips Fáilte Ireland will host are those focusing on golf, equestrian holidays, Culture Night in Dublin, food trails in Cork and Kerry, and island-hopping in the west.

It’s last Sunday morning when I join eight American journalists at Dublin’s Conrad Hotel. They have spent the previous few days at a travel writers’ conference. Now, they are being hosted by Fáilte Ireland for a week, on an itinerary that is to take them around iconic visitor highlights of the south west, including Blarney Castle, the Midleton Distillery, the Ring of Kerry, and the Dingle Peninsula.

The journalists on the trip include Patrick Perry, Cynthia Rubin, Patti McCracken, Kathy Mangan, Beverly Burmeier, Carey Sweet and Brooke Morton. The eighth, who is on assignment for a well-known American newspaper, wishes to remain nameless. “Your feature idea is pointless and stupid,” she announces more than once by way of explanation.

Between them, the group, who are mostly freelance journalists, have written for a range of publications including National Geographic Traveller,the Wall Street Journal, Wine Enthusiast, San Diego Chronicle, Islands,the San Francisco Chronicle, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Fáilte Ireland doesn’t call these regular events “press trips”. They call them “fam trips” meaning “familiarisation trips”, explains Bernard McMullan of Tourism Ireland in New York – the name used to promote Irish tourism in the US. He is accompanying the journalists for the week with his Dublin-based colleague, Ellen Redmond of Fáilte Ireland. “It sounds less of a junket in the trade than a press trip.”

Last year, Fáilte Ireland hosted 1,319 journalists. The biggest cohort came from Britain, with 165 – reflecting the fact the British represent our biggest tourist numbers – followed by Germany at 106 and the US at 98.

Whether you call them press trips, fam trips, or junkets, the 7,624 media items produced by the journalists hosted by Fáilte Ireland last year yielded coverage equivalent to €210 million in advertising.

Our first stop on this trip is Blarney Castle, which for the second time in my life, I visit but do not kiss the stone. Most of the US journalists do. “I hate heights and it’s scary as hell, but you have to do it,” says Mangan.

“If you only have a short vacation time, which is all many Americans have, you need to have some landmark things to talk about when you go home. We’re not as worldly wise as Europeans when it comes to travel,” says McCracken. “When you come here, you want to see and do iconic things, and kissing the Blarney Stone is definitely one of them.”

None of the journalists think Barack Obama’s recent visit here will have the slightest effect on subsequent visitor numbers from the US. They are amazed at the question; in fact, they laugh at it. “Obama goes to Hawaii all the time on vacation and there’s no tourism surge there,” Sweet says.

“Obama goes everywhere. He’s just been to Chile. Most Americans don’t take any notice of where he goes. Why would his short visit to Ireland make any difference to where Americans want to go on vacation?” Morton wonders.

On the importance of the international annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations, Mangan says: “No other country gets one free day of advertising every year. That’s huge. The message we get in the US from St Patrick’s Day is, come to Ireland because it’s fun, and people are having a good time, so you will too. Forget Obama. Marketing Ireland abroad is all about St Patrick’s Day.”

We spend the first night at Castlemartyr Demense, near Cork, a recently developed hotel resort with a ruined castle in the grounds. Everyone goes wild when they see the ruin. These grown men and women literally croon over the fact they are staying in a place that involves a ruined castle.

“It’s all about the castles,” the journalists tell me, over and over again. “Castles are totally a big deal. The castles are what everyone wants to see. It’s a dream to see a castle, and the biggest dream of all is to stay in one.”

“Ireland is a really popular wedding destination, and everyone wants a castle with their wedding,” explains Morton. “This is an incredible place. You mightn’t actually be staying in a castle, but you get to look out the window at one from your bedroom window.”

“Castles are legendary, story-book like. And you can touch them. You can physically touch something that is living history, centuries old, where people lived hundreds of years ago,” McCracken enthuses, looking at the Castlemartyr ruin. “It’s only a ruin, but it’s alive.”

EVERY FAM TRIP IS AIMED at a particular market. McMullan and Redmond explain to me that this trip is aimed at the luxury end of the American market, usually to people aged over 50, who have more time and disposable income.

Most of the journalists are noticeably vague as to who they are writing for and what they are writing about. “They’re afraid if they tell you, that one of the others will steal their idea and pitch it to someone else,” McMullan tells me. “Food is the big story for a lot of them this time,” Redmond says. “Local produce especially.”

One journalist who is upfront about his assignment is David Lansing, who is writing a story for National Geographic Traveller. Instead of joining the press trip, he and fellow journalist Allan Lynch take up Fáilte Ireland’s offer of a hire car for the week, and self-guide themselves along roughly the same route. They join us for lunch on Monday at the Farmgate Cafe in Cork’s English Market.

As he samples tripe and drisheen, lamb stew, and lamb’s liver, Lansing announces that he and Lynch will be spending one night of their trip doing a “tinker caravan holiday” in Galway.

McMullan explains that the correct term is horse-drawn caravan, and that the word “tinker” is pejorative. Lansing tries again. “Gypsy caravan?” he offers. It is explained that gypsies were never indigenous to Ireland. However, Lansing is unwilling to let go of “tinker caravan” and returns to the expression. When first McMullan, and then I attempt to explain again why this is not an expression he should use, let alone contemplate writing about in his article, Lansing retorts: “I read a story about tinkers on the front page of The Irish Times.”

I assure him he is mistaken, but he is determined that it is I who is mistaken. Put it this way: it’s not a conversation I ever thought I’d be having with a reporter for a major international publication.

Castles. Green Fields. Sheep. Music. Roots. A friendly welcome. These, I am told by the group, are what the typical well-off over-50 American tourist seeks from Ireland.

I point out that this mantra is at least a half century old: what of modern Ireland? Did it contain any updated attractions or reasons to visit? No, was the overwhelming answer, or not for that particular cohort of visitors anyway.

“Ireland is the holiday of a lifetime for most people, because the flights are expensive, accommodation is expensive, hire cars are expensive and everything else is expensive,” explains McCracken. “So you want to do the iconic things. And those iconic things for that market haven’t really changed.”

“It really is all about the castles,” Mangan concludes.