I am chief executive of Tourism Ireland. I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address the committee today. As members will know, Tourism Ireland is the organisation responsible for marketing the island of Ireland overseas. It was established as one of the six areas of co-operation under the framework of the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday 1998. We undertake marketing campaigns in 23 key source markets across the world.
Tourism is a vital industry for the island of Ireland. It is a significant driver of economic growth and helps to support more than 300,000 jobs in communities right across the island. Overseas tourism has recorded seven consecutive years of growth. Last year, 2017, surpassed all previous records, when we welcomed some 10.6 million people to the island of Ireland and they spent more than €5.6 billion while here. Northern Ireland has shared in that record growth. It welcomed almost 2.2 million overseas visitors last year whose visits generated more than £566 million in revenue for the Northern Ireland economy, an increase of 4% on the previous year.
Growth continues in 2018. The latest Central Statistics Office figures for Ireland show strong visitor and revenue performances in the first half of the year. For Northern Ireland, there were almost 400,000 overseas visitors in the first three months, generating revenue of almost £100 million, an increase of 3%.
While tourism performance overall is strong, beneath the surface a number of vulnerabilities are evident. For example, while we welcome the increase in visitor numbers from Britain in recent months, it is too soon to know if this represents a real longer-term turnaround in trend. Exchange rate movements have made Ireland more expensive for British visitors. As we have observed our competitors, VisitBritain, VisitScotland and VisitWales have intensified their operations across all of our major tourism markets.
Brexit dominates all other uncertainties. Since the UK voted to leave the European Union, Tourism Ireland has taken a number of steps to monitor the situation, maintain confidence among our partners in Britain and at home, and ensure we are ready to deal with the implications. Our activities have included: ongoing research among British consumers to evaluate sentiment on holidaying in Ireland; ongoing market assessment of economic trends by Oxford Economics; liaison with key tourism industry partners here on the island to assess implications and gauge reaction; and liaison with key international partners and bodies such as the European Tour Operators Association, UKinbound and the Tourism Alliance in the UK for the same reasons. This work continues and I thank the Minister of State with responsibility for tourism and sport, Deputy Griffin, and his officials, for their participation in our Brexit task force meetings in London over the past two years.
Tourism Ireland has also commissioned a wide-ranging review of the British market. The review is independently chaired, and is led by a steering group of top Irish and UK-based industry partners. It will conclude shortly and will inform planning for 2019 and beyond.
In parallel with this, Tourism Ireland continues to pursue its strategy of market diversification. This strategy, which commenced in 2014, focuses more effort on markets with a longer stay and higher spend. This has seen mainland Europe become the largest contributor of overseas tourism revenue delivering almost €1.9 billion of spend in 2017, up from €1.4 billion in 2014, an increase of 36%, and North America has overtaken Britain as number two, delivering €1.6 billion, up from €1 billion in 2014, an increase of 60%.
Last spring, our national television and digital campaigns in the US were seen by around 85 million people, and television and digital campaigns in Germany and France reached a combined 39 million potential visitors.
Opportunities in the fast-growing emerging markets of the east continue to grow, especially in China following the launch this year of the first ever direct air services from Beijing and Hong Kong, with Hainan Airlines and Cathay Pacific, respectively.
We have also identified a number of key priorities from an overseas tourism perspective, arising out of Brexit. Retention of the common travel area, and free movement of overseas visitors across the Border, is vital, especially for overseas tourism to Northern Ireland and to Border counties. On average, 75% of visitors from North America to Northern Ireland and 63% of visitors from Europe arrive via the Republic of Ireland. In addition, about 950 international tour operators now programme the island of Ireland. Any impediment or perceived impediment to free movement between the two jurisdictions and any delays at Border checkpoints could discourage tour operators from continuing to programme Northern Ireland and Border counties and could discourage holiday visitors from travelling between the two jurisdictions.
With regard to developing markets such as China, India and the Middle East, the British-Irish visa scheme, announced by the UK and Irish Governments in October 2014 and the short-stay visa waiver programme, introduced by the Irish Government in 2011 and extended until October 2021, have provided a significant boost to our promotional efforts in these markets.
The lifting of the visa requirement in January 2018 for citizens of the UAE travelling to Ireland was welcomed by the industry, which has seen an increase in business from that market since the relaxation.
We are very pleased that the World Economic Forum's global travel and tourism competitiveness index ranks Ireland third out of 136 countries in the context of effectiveness of marketing and branding to attract tourists. Ireland.com now attracts close to 20 million unique visitors a year and is available in 11 language versions. Tourism Ireland is the fourth most popular tourism board in the world on Facebook, with 4.3 million fans, the fourth on Twitter and the third on YouTube. The creation of award-winning digital campaigns have capitalised on our connections with "Game of Thrones" and "Star Wars" and have allowed us to reach new audiences across the world. Campaigns with the major air and sea carriers serving the island of Ireland, and with traditional and online tour operators, leverage significant funding each year from the commercial sector, encouraged also by investment by Irish Ferries and Stena Line in recent years. Our annual overseas publicity programme, and our relationships with 22,000 international media from around the world, generate positive exposure for the island of Ireland worth an estimated €330 million each year and greatly influence perceptions of Ireland overseas.
Favourable winds, such as a 39% increase in air access since 2010, particularly on transatlantic routes, supportive economic conditions in key markets, the fashionability of the island of Ireland as a location for "Star Wars" and "Game of Thrones" and our capacity to shift to new, lower cost, digital and social marketing, have helped to deliver record performances to the island of Ireland. Few, if any, of these factors will continue in our favour indefinitely. We have seen how economic uncertainty and fluctuating exchange rates have impacted on visitor numbers from Great Britain. Research also shows a significant and worrying diminution in what we call Ireland's share of voice, or visibility, in our top markets. Over the past two years, we have seen major competitors intensify their marketing. Also, a critical component is the future of the EU-UK open skies agreement, which has the potential to have significant downside risks for Ireland if a successful resolution is not found. In addition, the price of oil poses a risk to the sustainability of air routes. Tourism Ireland is working with industry partners to grow overseas tourism revenue by 5% in 2018 and we look well on target to exceed this. Moving into 2019, we expect to place a more significant emphasis on season extension, regional performance and sustainability.
Tourism has endured many crises over 20 years, including 9-11, the global financial crisis and terrorist attacks in North America and Europe. However, it also serves as an example of how compromise and goodwill between people can build a stronger future for us all. At a recent conference, the former secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Mr. Taleb Rifai stated, "We face a deficit of tolerance. Tourism brings people together; it opens our minds and hearts". We must continue to build on the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement and continue to build hope for the future across the island of Ireland, and a growing and sustainable tourism industry is key to this.
I thank the committee for this opportunity to present to it. I am happy to discuss these matters and answer any questions that may arise.