THE Government is pinning its hopes on Ireland's first long-distance driving route to keep next year's tourist numbers at Gathering levels.
The scenic new driving route covers 2,500km from the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal to Kinsale in Co Cork.
Releasing its marketing plan for 2014 to 2016 yesterday, Tourism Ireland said the new Wild Atlantic Way will form a cornerstone which will help grow visitor numbers by 12pc in just three years, even though the success of the Gathering will be difficult to emulate.
In October, the organisation invited 30 influential tour operators from around the world to experience the Wild Atlantic Way first-hand, to encourage them to promote it in their holiday packages for 2014.
The tour operators visited a Sligo spa, went kayaking by moonlight in west Cork, set off from Baltimore pier for a day of whale watching, explored the Ring of Kerry and tried their hand at chocolate-making in Ballingskellig, Co Kerry.
Tourism Ireland said these markets "offer the best return on investment" – though chief executive Niall Gibbons added that German travellers must be targeted early, because they planned holidays far in advance and did not favour last-minute trips bought on credit cards.
Visitor numbers from these countries will be further boosted next year by the introduction of new Aer Lingus flights from San Francisco and Toronto, and new Ryanair routes from mainland Europe and Britain.
Visitor numbers should reach eight million by the end of 2013, the agency said, a 7pc increase on last year. There has been a particularly noticeable jump in the number of people travelling from Australia, up about one-quarter.
The overall pace of growth in visitors will slow to about 4pc a year between now and 2016, the organisation said, but will still stay in positive territory.
It is also pitching the Croke Park Classic as a major draw for tourists next year. This will bring the University of Central Florida and Penn State University to Ireland's favourite stadium to battle out their college football season opener, following the huge success of the Navy v Notre Dame game hosted in Dublin's Aviva stadium last year.
Limerick's status as a City of Culture next year was also flagged as a marketing tool, as was the fact that Ireland will host the 'Grande Partenza' or 'Big Start' of cycling race the Giro d'Italia.
Discussing its new strategy, the tourism agency also revealed that Ireland was better at promoting itself online than virtually any other country in the world.