Pól Ó Conghaile: The Chinese are coming, and the potential for Irish tourism is huge...
You know China has the world's biggest population (1.3 billion). But did you know its travellers form the world's largest outbound tourism market?
Last year, 120 million Chinese travelled overseas, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation, spending a whopping $165 billion.
You ain't seen nothing yet. Growing middle classes, smoother visa arrangements and a booming cruise market (Royal Caribbean's new Ovation of the Seas will be based in Tianjin this year) have all fuelled the boom. Disneyland Shanghai opens in June, and even Airbnb says Chinese visitors are among its fastest growing users.
Ireland is angling for a piece of the pie.
Direct flights are lacking, but Tourism Ireland recently appointed James Kenny - a fluent Mandarin speaker - as its country manager in Shanghai. It hopes to grow Chinese visitors to 50,000 by 2017, and the omens are good.
This February, China's Travel & Leisure magazine (circulation: 550,000), named Ireland the world's best travel destination, and our Star Wars and Game of Thrones locations will not have gone unnoticed by a celebrity-obsessed market.
We need to be careful what we wish for, however. Chinese visitors spend more and stay longer than average, but the last thing we need is another thousand tour buses on the Ring of Kerry. What about Mandarin signs and speakers? Are we set up for Chinese payment preferences (UnionPay cards) and diets?
If we're serious, the quality of our visitor experience has to come first. As the Chinese proverb says: Dig the well before you get thirsty.
Wendy Wu Tours (wendywutours.ie), which celebrated its first year in Ireland this January, has a 16-night 'Wonders of China' tour giving a comprehensive immersion in the country from €3,890pp.
The trip includes three nights in Beijing, a Yangtze River cruise and two nights in Shanghai - as well as stints in Guilin, Yangshuo and Xi'an. From the Great Wall of China to the Pandas of Chongqing, it's quite a package - with flights from Ireland, visa fees, guides, transfers and meals all included.
Ireland is a dream trip for many Chinese, and the same is true for Irish visitors to China. Travel Department (traveldepartment.ie) has a 10-day, half-board trip including flights from Dublin or Belfast from €1,529pp.
The holiday includes eight nights in China, and focuses on a deep dive in Beijing with a visit to the Great Wall of China. Departure dates are June 14, September 6 and September 21, with transfers and local guides included. An 11-night tour taking in Xi'an, the Terracotta Warriors and Shanghai starts from €2,199pp in June or September.
NB: All prices subject to availability.