Recording Date: 05/08/2011 - 29:28 minute segment.
Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams sits down for an exclusive interview with Joe Byrne, CEO of Tourism Ireland. She counts talking to Joe among the things that always put a smile on her face; others include flying into Ireland. Joe has a propensity for saying surprising things that make him a great representative of his homeland.
"When you say that you're surprised by some of the things I say, it's really a premonition of what most people find when they go on vacation to Ireland," says Joe. "The happy accidents - things you end up doing rather than what you thought you'd be doing - are what make Ireland such a special destination." Stephanie agrees, adding that she often arrives in Ireland with few plans beyond simply touring the country.
"You've put your finger on our current campaign approach," Joe replies. "We spend a small fortune asking agencies to figure out what we're all about. They just repackage what we already know and send it with a big invoice. Our current set of gurus have come up with the line, 'Go where Ireland takes you.' You'll start from A and plan to go to B, but along the way, you'll end up in C and D, all the way to Z!
"That's because the characters you meet will propose everything," Joe continues. "It's a disruption to your plans, but a very pleasant one." Stephanie points out that sometimes the serendipitous moments are the best parts of a vacation. What makes a vacation in Ireland, according to Joe, are 2 essential ingredients: the character of the place and the characters that inhabit the place.
"The character of the place is one way to describe what's undoubtedly some of the most spectacularly stunning, varied, beautiful, easy to access scenery and nature in the world," he explains. "It's interrupted by towns and villages that are jam-packed with things to see and do. They used to say that the best thing about most cities and towns was that it was so easy to get out of them. Which is true. But there's not a town, village, or city in Ireland that doesn't have a huge array of cultural attractions and heritage, all presented not just professionally, but with a passion and a pride."
Some of the attractions Joe recommends are Dublin, which was just nominated as a UNESCO City of Literature. "If there ever was a city that deserved it, it's Dublin," he says. "There are 4 cities worldwide that are UNESCO Cities of Literature. But Dublin has the Writers Museum, Joyce Tower, and even literary pub crawls. Literature in Ireland is not something that's dead. In fact, it's far too important to just have between book covers!"
Further north, Joe recommends a visit to Belfast. "The range of things to see and do in Belfast has come out a ton," he says. "It's absolutely fantastic. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which has Belfast really stepping up to the plate. The ship was built there, and people there continue to claim that it was in perfect working order when it left the city."
As Joe himself shows, the Irish are a passionate people. "It's clearly a major character trait," he admits. "You'll see it in abundance throughout everything that Irish people put themselves to task with: art, literature, architecture, farming, weavers, people in the mill business - it really doesn't matter. Name the endeavor, and it's always done with passion. I like to say that these people work hard and play hard."
Joe believes that this passion comes from the fact that the Irish don't take themselves too seriously. "We're slightly self-deprecating, mocking, and all the rest," he explains. "But that's only a thin veil drawn over a pride in terms of where we come from, what we do, and what we stand for. One of the great changes in Ireland in the past 20 years has been a renewed pride in place, hobbies, sports - including Gaelic football and hurling. The best way of living this passion and paying tribute to it is to share these activities with people.
"Every town and area in the country now has the most fantastic showcases to demonstrate this passion," he continues. "Whether it's a farmers' market, a new sports stadium, a local museum, cookery school, literary museum, literary pub crawl, a world-class facility like the visitors center at Giant's Causeway, the Titanic center in Belfast on the site where the ship was originally drawn and constructed, the wonderful sights in Derry - the UK City of Culture in 2013! - the Writers Museum, or other places demonstrating our literary heritage. These places were built for the Irish to enjoy, but also for the people to be able to share with visitors from around the world."
Such facilities and showcases are the result of efforts by what Joe describes as an "interested and interesting people" who are very proud of what life in Ireland is all about. During her travels in Ireland, Stephanie has been particularly impressed by the buildings that appear old on the outside but are modern and interactive on the inside. "The displays are amazing and really get to the heart of it," she says. "Ireland manages to cut through the mustard."
Joe believes this is because the Irish have something to say. "We have a rich heritage and long history, and I'm delighted to say that it's thriving today," he adds. "Very often, some of the finer points of history or culture can be a little hard to understand. In Ireland, the feedback we're getting from visitors is that they get it. Whether they're going to a local Irish football match or pub of an evening, they're not just looking at people playing traditional music or dancing.
"Rather, they're being taken by the hand and shown a few steps," he continues. "It's not just about sitting behind the table and enjoying great food. The chef will be so anxious to share that he or she will pull you into the back for a half day or more in the cookery school for the most wonderful brown bread ever. These are just a few examples of how our heritage is so easily shared with, loved, and appreciated by visitors."
Ireland also has a long and proud history of hotel keeping that goes beyond providing guests with a clean bed. Instead, innkeepers or hoteliers are known for making guests feel welcome with small touches like greeting them with fresh scones - or perhaps a whiskey - on arrival. Many of the castles that played a role in Ireland's centuries-long history are now luxury hotels, too. "Some of our greatest old buildings - Lough Eske, Ashford, Dromoland - are a real fairy-tale experience," says Joe.
Such hotels are not out of reach for the ordinary visitor, either. Stephanie observes that because of economic conditions, visitors can find great values on stays in these castles. Joe agrees. "Many visitors from the U.S. to Ireland find it such a tremendous value that they can combine a few nights in a luxury castle hotel with a great bed-and-breakfast experience, or a stay in a more regular hotel," he says. "The value on the ground in Ireland is really exceptional."
What's also outstanding, according to Stephanie, is the outlook of the Irish people, given their history. "Talk about being served lemons and turning them into lemonade," she says. "That's just part of the wonderful, optimistic, forward-looking Irish mentality. The history of Ireland has been a history of hardship and struggle. The Irish should be the most miserable people in the world. Yet they've come through with faith, optimism, hope, and stamina. You can't help but fall in love."
Joe replies with something that may shock readers. "The crack in Ireland is great!" he says. "That's C-R-A-I-C. Craic is a Gaelic word for which there's no translation. It encompasses joy, fun, celebration, friendship, warmth, camaraderie, drink, storytelling, and dancing. That's what Ireland is about. A lot of international travelers like to feel that they can join in if they want. And the funny thing is that even the most reserved find that they want to join in in Ireland. That aspect is what makes it special."
It's also what gives Ireland the highest satisfaction level among visitors of any destination in Europe, according to Joe. "When we asked what people liked most, they say they loved the scenery, the towns, the place, and the food - which was much better than they thought," he says. "But what really made Ireland special was the interaction with people and the special ingredient, the craic. In Ireland, you have the ability not just to discover a new culture, but to rediscover yourself."
Even the natives rediscover themselves in Ireland from time to time. "My own travels brought me to Donegal and Kerry recently," Joe recalls. "My son now lives in Donegal with his wife and our 3 grandkids. My wife and I kidnapped the children to stay in a cottage, so we would bring them to school and discover the place during school hours. What made it special was the interaction with people that I hadn't met before. And the scene was repeated on a boys' weekend to Kerry and Killarney. The place was humming with visitors! The golf was dreadful, but I didn't care because I had sun in my heart from that lovely welcome."
Finally, Joe reminds listeners that Irish people don't like Americans; they love them. "There's no doubt that there's a huge welcome - a big, huge, warm, interested, and interesting welcome for Americans everywhere in Ireland," he says.