Ireland is looking to attract more tourists from the Arabian Gulf as airlines boost their services to the western European island.
It is also looking at a common visa programme for Gulf residents where a single visa would cover both the United Kingdom and Ireland. That is expected to be in force by the end of this year as well, said Niall Gibbons, the chief executive of Tourism Ireland, a government-funded agency.
Direct air access between the UAE and Ireland has been an important component in promoting trade and tourism between the two countries, added Mr Gibbons, who was in the UAE as part of a trade delegation with the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny.
Etihad now flies 10 times a week to Ireland, while Emirates has seven flights weekly.
“The combined number will be between 20 and 30 flights a week by the end of this year,” Mr Gibbons said. Last year, Etihad carried more than 240,000 passengers on its Dublin route, marking an 8 per cent rise on the number from 2012. Globally, the airlines carried 12 million people, up 16 per cent.
Among the reasons the UAE and Gulf are on the radar of destination management companies such as Tourism Ireland is because the Emirates is out of the recession and “our wallets have opened up again”, said Manav Fernandez, the chief operating officer for Insignia, a branding agency.
“The outbound traveller from this part of the world is not a budget traveller and Ireland is not a cheap destination,” he said.
In 2011, the UAE qualified as one of the 17 countries for Ireland’s short-stay visa waiver programme. Now with the visa-free travel for UAE residents, the market has gained more focus, Mr Gibbons said.
Last year, Ireland reported 45,000 tourists from the Gulf, up 7 per cent on 2012, and up from 15,000 visitors from the region four years ago.
The response from the UAE to Ireland had been lukewarm despite it being a beautiful country, said Ajay Nair, the head of corporate travel and sales for Anta GlobalStar travel management company.
“Tourists from the UAE go to the UK for mainly shopping, health and for doing business, and besides, Ireland is not much known here,” he said.
Mr Fernandes said “while Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are attractive Far Eastern destinations, outbound travel to Europe and Britain tends to focus on England, France, Italy and Germany with there being no clear reasons for UAE residents to visit Ireland,” he said.
While the number of Gulf tourists to Ireland is a fraction of its total number of tourists annually, the country is considered a developing market similar to Australia as visitors tend to stay longer, between five and 10 days.
Last year, around 8 million tourists flocked to Ireland, up from 7.4 million in 2012. They spent a total of €3.6 billion (Dh17.98bn) , which constitutes around 4 per cent of Ireland’s GDP, Mr Gibbons said.
“Tourism is Ireland’s biggest growth industry, supporting 200,000 jobs,” Mr Gibbons said.
Unemployment in Ireland was at 13 per cent end of last year, down from 15.1 per cent in 2012.
The major markets for the country remains domestic tourists, the United States, France and Germany. Ireland’s tourism budget for this year is expected to remain the same as the last at €142 million, with €65m earmarked for investment for marketing and training in the international market.
Last month, Ireland became the first country in the euro zone to exit the EU-IMF €85bn bailout.