Total gridlock: US and Irish holidaymakers crossing the Atlantic to see how the other half lives

With close to 42 million Americans claiming some Irish ancestry — that is, more than one in five white Americans, and one of the top three ancestries, second only to German-Americans — the relationship between the world’s most powerful and richest country and our own little rain-drenched rock on the very western fringes of Europe is both special and unique, all the more so for the very obvious disparities between the two.

For a population that is infinitely more transient than its Irish equivalent, so often less embedded in specific localities, eminently capable of radical upheavals over the course of a single generation, the freedom to up sticks and start afresh somewhere else being a fundamental embodiment of the American Dream, it is hardly surprising so many of those 42 million Irish-Americans seek to rediscover their psychic roots in the ‘Old Country’.

Neither does it hurt that Ireland is country blessed with some truly world class scenery, an impossibly rich living culture, an ancient history and heritage and stocked with a populace especially gifted in extending a globally renowned welcome to any visitor.

The history of US tourism to Ireland stretches back through the decades and generations, and continues to prosper to this day, constantly breaking records with over 1.8 million visitors coming from the US in 2018, a 14% rise on 2017, generating over €1.6 billion in revenue, a 16% rise on the previous year.

And what’s more, Ruth Andrews, chair of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC), believes the North American market will continue to grow even as the much closer markets of Britain and Europe challenge Irish operators.

Phenomenal tourism growth in last five years

“Obviously, North American has always been a very key market for Irish tourism,” says Andrews, “and continues to be and it has grown at a phenomenal rate over the last five years, bringing visitors who stay longer and travel further around the country. Europe used to be our largest market overall but now is just 39% with the US at 45%.”

Key to this growth has been the massive expansion of airline capacity.

“The growth that we’re experiencing from that market,” says Andrews, “is very much tied into the volume of airlift and the number of gateways. In terms of airlift, we have double the volume we would have had five years ago. Before, it would have been seasonal and we didn’t have double dailies and year-round flights that we now enjoy.”

As a crucial jump-off point for transatlantic flights, first Foynes, then Shannon, were at the heart of that particular slice of aviation history from the very beginning.

“The Shannon connection was hugely important,” says Pat Dawson, current chair of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA), “and the opening of Shannon Duty Free [in 1947] played a big role in opening that route up — and, of course, all planes from the US had to land in Shannon on the way to Dublin.

“Connectivity with the US was historical, the main traffic was to do with family and relatives of those who had emigrated to the US or their descendants. As the years went on, the air lines started to put on greater capacity and tour operators got involved, that was maybe four or five decades ago.”

Youngsters enjoying nature as they make friends with a confiding fox cub on the outskirts of Cork city. Many American tourists enjoy elements of the still relatively untouched landscape and culture they find in visiting Ireland. Picture: Richard Mills

Genealogical links between Ireland and the US have been crucial down through the years.

“The Diaspora will always be important to the North American market,” observes Andrews, “it now covers two, three, even four generations of heritage but it is hugely important and gives them that sense of belonging and they want to come here for the ancestral link.”

This demographic, however, is evolving. Tim Magee is the owner-director of Host Co, Ireland’s leading food and hospitality public relations company, operating in Ireland and abroad and whose Irish client list reads like a who’s who of Irish food and hospitality, including hotels such as Adare Manor, The Shelbourne, The K Club, The Lodge at Ashford Castle, The Cliff at Lyons and restaurants including Kai, Cliff Townhouse, The Tannery and Michelin-starred Aimsir, Restaurant Chestnut, Ox Belfast and the Cliff House in Ardmore.

Younger US demographic now visiting Ireland

“You can see the demographic of US tourists to Ireland is changing as well,” says Magee, “I grew up in Shannon — besides Durty Nellie’s and the Shannon Shamrock.

“Back then, those tourists were older, very often it was a once in a lifetime trip which also meant they were coming for two or three weeks and they were going to all the traditional stopping-off points, Killarney, Glendalough, Bunratty and so on.

“Now you very often see a younger and wealthier tourist drawn by an Ireland seen as pristine, wilder — even wilder than it actually is — and I think that you see more engagement with the cities, which wasn’t the case before,” he says.

“We made a big leap forward with our hotel product over the last 20 years, it has improved dramatically over a very short space time. The hotels on this island, a lot of them were built in the Celtic Tiger years, there were a lot of high-end fit outs and a lot of high end operators came in and raised the standards dramatically in a very short short space of time.

“You now have a younger more discerning American traveller, not all tied into [the genealogical connections of the American-Irish in] Boston or New York. They are not tied into tours and carefully managed groups, they are spending more and more time in cities and it’s not just Dublin but also Cork, Limerick, Galway and even the towns, places like Westport and Ennis.”

“There is also the question of when they are coming here — a lot of our clients in January, February, March of last year were still really busy with Americans coming off season. Americans have more money. When the global recession hit over a decade ago, it cut really deep here but America recovered quite quickly, within two years — of course there are black spots but by and large, they got back fairly quickly.”

Ruth Andrews agrees that the US tourist demographic is broadening beyond the traditional American-Irish visitor: “We are also getting people who look at Europe as a destination and look at Ireland in that context and they know that it is a very welcoming place.

“They know about the people and the landscape and the heritage, and even when you take our culture and heritage, we have the history of Ireland going back to medieval and prehistoric times — Newgrange is older than the pyramids, it resonates with people, we have a heritage that they envy. The world has become a smaller place, we are easier to get to.

“The way we are promoting ireland within that market and globally resonates in terms of the offering, we offer so much what they can do and see, they can be active in nature, Wild Atlantic Way, they can have a city experience, it’s easy to combine all these experiences because we are such a small island and easy to get around.”

Magee also identifies another hitherto less talked-about cohort with a long-established relationship with Ireland that has little or nothing to do with genealogical links.

American companies — tech, pharmaceutical, financial — have been investing and operating in Ireland for over three decades and they now have deep roots here,” says Magee. “That includes four of the world’s ‘Trillion Dollar’ companies — Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. There are Americans who now know Ireland well from coming here, either visiting on business or living and working here, even putting down some roots. These smart people know where to go out in Cork and Dublin, they know what a good hurling match is, where to get a good pint, where the best gigs are, where the best places are to go surfing, and so on.

“The tech community itself in the US is traditionally based on the West Coast and many of them — including those big four companies — are actually very small, tight-knit communities and they all know that their next largest base outside the US is this tiny island. They are only a couple of degrees of separation from this tiny island. It’s a very small world, that tech world, and Dublin and Ireland is very much part of the global tech community map, so to some extent it’s like America having a 51st state — but a young, liberal state very akin to California in outlook.

“Management and professionals at all levels have been coming here for decades and by now have built up years of appreciating that it’s not all Darby O’Gill the Little People, not at all. These are mobile affluent Americans with a lot of money, and a far deeper understanding of Ireland, and they are very different to the Americans of old, ticking off the traditional boxes as they tour the ‘old country’ on a single trip of a life time.

“Now you have direct flights from San Francisco and LA to access and link those tech communities in Ireland and the US and elsewhere that is now translating into a whole new body of leisure travellers from the US. Those working in the tech community, their families and friends and those in their network, influenced by this familiarity, all coming here for downtime, for vacations — interestingly almost none of it has anything to do with traditional ties of an Irish heritage or ancestry.”

USA is a destination of choice for the Irish

The traffic between the countries, of course, is very much two-way — and it’s not just all about heading for Disneyworld.

After all, the US was the third most visited country in the world in 2019 with the Grand Canyon as the world’s No 1 tourist attraction. In fact, its appeal is seemingly endless: from glitzy high rolling Las Vegas to glamorous LA to bustling New York; from the musical triad of Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans to the hipster heaven that is Portland; from San Francisco and Highway 101 along the Californian coast to the tropical temperatures and the magical nightlife of Miami to the … let’s hold up, we could do this all day but you get the pictur — only Spain remains a more popular destination for Irish travellers who, according to the CSO, take about 550,000 trips to the USA and Canada each year, spending more than €1.6 billion.

USA delivers for evolving tastes of Irish tourists

“For years, the big attractions were Orlando, Disneyworld and that kind of thing,” says Dawson, “The likes of Tour America and Atlas Travel and people like that, were the agents at the front, now every travel agent and tour agent in the country sells into the States, and the flight capacity is there to service that and, also, many people would go from Cork to London and connect that way as well to avoid having to travel to Dublin.”

Another huge fillip to this two-way traffic has been the evolution of Ireland as a transatlantic hub, with Dublin at its heart, having long superseded Shannon as the pivotal Irish link for transatlantic travel.

Ireland is now seen as commercially viable,” says Andrews, “because of the hubbing nature of Dublin Airport — Aer Lingus made a decision several years ago to expand their network to feed into their short haul European network and its been very successful, very, and obviously there a huge demand not only from tourism but also from business perspective. One thing for sure, the greater the airlift we have, the more people will travel to North America.”

And this repositioning of Dublin Airport as a European hub to the US has been crucial.

“There is a greater availability of flights than ever,” says Dawson, “with more being launched again this year and a greater availability of high end business class flights. There are more travelling so that fills up the extra capacity — flights going out now are well into the high 80s or low 90s [in percentage terms of] capacity. And one of the big reasons for that is Aer Lingus have capacity so someone from Rome could be connecting — there could be the bones of up to a million passengers using Dublin as a hub and don’t forget Shannon is a hub as well.”

Tourism has long been one of the great Irish success stories, with Irish-US tourism at the very heart of it and with Tourism Ireland, the body marketing the entire island of Ireland to the world, now operating a growth strategy that runs up to 2025, that connection is only set to grow and grow into the future.