Ireland woos Georgians

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ATLANTA -- Georgia does so much to generate interest in what Ireland offers that the Irish are trying to build on that foundation.

From Augusta’s Masters Tournament and the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Savannah and Dublin, Ga., to the direct flights leaving Atlanta’s international airport and foreign investments made by Coca-Cola while an Irish descendant headed it, Georgia does much of the work already.

“The phenomenon that is St. Patrick’s Day is the principle source of envy of all of my opposite numbers on other countries’ tourist boards,” said Joe Byrne, executive vice president of Tourism Ireland North America. “It’s fantastic publicity for us to hang our message on for coming to Ireland.”

Paul Gleeson, Ireland’s consul general in Atlanta agrees.

“They’ve got the tone of it in Savannah,” he said. “We’re very lucky to have that.”

The icing on the cake would have been if Irish golfer Rory McIlroy had maintained his three-round lead at the Masters and brought home the green jacket. Still, his success highlights the quality of golfing on the Emerald Isle.

Many Georgians trace their ancestry to Ireland, as evidenced by the active Hibernian Society chapters in the state. That also creates a tourism opportunity for the genealogy buffs and the curious.

To make the point, Tourism Ireland hosted a dinner theater of sorts Thursday night at the Atlanta History Center museum for 150 upscale travel agents from across the state. Fourteen performers flew in to sing, dance and play authentic tunes. An open bar served Irish whiskey and Guinness beer while guests munched classy versions of fish-and-chips, grilled salmon and bubble and squeak -- the Irish nickname for leftovers with gravy -- all prepared by Princess Diana’s former chef who now oversees dinning at a five-star resort in County Claire.

The event was more lavish than the typical road-show presentation by national tourism boards, and the travel agents loaded up on brochures and pamphlets.

Tourist Daniel Sklar of Atlanta just returned from 10 days in Ireland and came back for another taste of it at the event. He describes himself as an “adventure traveler” who enjoys the kinds of challenges and strange foods many tourists avoid. After seeing China, Central America and other parts of the Third World, he had been putting off a trip to Ireland for the very reasons 4.5 million Americans visited over the last two years.

“It doesn’t jump out as one of the more exotic,” he said. “They speak English. The water is safe to drink.”

Those are selling points Tourism Ireland stresses. Plus, now is a good time for bargains.

Ireland’s economy blazed during the 1990s when it was known as the Celtic Tiger for enjoying growth that propelled it to one of the world’s wealthiest nations. However, the economy crashed severely in 2008, and it continues to sputter.

The highways, airports and other infrastructure built during the boom remains an asset that makes travel across the country easier. And the attractive tax and work-force features that led to the boom could still make the country attractive to investors.

Ireland is also marketing itself to business executives, and Georgia is a key target in that effort, too.

It hadn’t opened a consulate since the 1930s, but it chose Georgia as the site of its newest one two years ago because of the potential for trade -- and all of the existing ties to the state, Gleeson said.

“Also, we want to have Irish companies to explore the opportunities that are in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas,” he said.


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