In 2003, Ireland performed strongly in the US market against stiff international competition. While final figures are not yet available from the Central Statistics Office, Tourism Ireland estimates a 6% increase in US visitor numbers to the Republic of Ireland last year despite the impact of the war, increased threats of terrorism and SARS. This compares to a 1% increase in the number of Americans visiting Europe generally and a decrease of 8% experienced by our near neighbours in the United Kingdom.
Building on the positive performance last year, the early indications are that interest in visiting Ireland remains strong among US consumers in 2004. The target for 2004 is for a 6.8% growth in visitor numbers from the US. In that context, Ireland's competitive position appears to be holding up well even against the continued depreciation of the dollar against the euro. However, as the main holiday booking season is a number of weeks away, it is too early to make definite judgments on any adverse currency impact.
The euro is more than 25% stronger now than it was at the start of 2003. This problem is not unique to Ireland but to all eurozone countries and to sterling. It is particularly important, however, that prices on the ground in Ireland are kept in line with those in other eurozone destinations. To bring home the message that Ireland continues to offer value for money, Tourism Ireland is engaging in a major co-operative marketing campaign this year with tour operators and carriers in this vital market, which will promote a range of specially priced offers for travel to Ireland. These offers are also featured on a special offers website,www.shamrock.org, which is being extensively promoted to the American public in key US cities.
As I have said in previous replies on the broader issue of competitiveness, I very much welcome the fact that the key message from the tourism policy review group is that restoring competitiveness is the major challenge facing the tourism sector and that the industry must offer better value to its customers if it is to maximise the opportunities for future growth.
Competitiveness must be a function of the overall Irish tourism experience for customers relative to other competing locations, beginning with their initial inquiries about visiting Ireland through to their travelling here, where they go when they arrive, where they stay, who they meet, what they do, what they see and their perceptions about price and quality.