King of the castle: Kilkenny tops tourist attraction list
Guinness Storehouse also fares well in Fáilte Ireland study
Kilkenny Castle Parkland has gained top spot in the Fáilte Ireland list of free-to-enter visitor attractions for the first time.
Kilkenny Castle had 799,032 visitors last year, while the top fee-charging attraction was the Guinness Storehouse, with just over 1.7 million visiting, figures obtained by the Sunday Independent show.
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The Castle Park includes all the walled demesne parkland to the south of Kilkenny Castle, as well as the formal terraced gardens to the north.
Popular fee-charging attractions included the Cliffs of Moher, Dublin Zoo and the Book of Kells, while in the free-to-enter market, the National Gallery, Glendalough and the National Botanic Gardens were high up the list.
According to Paul Kelly, chief executive of Fáilte Ireland, the country's national tourism authority is responding to a more discerning visitor, with a focus on innovation and interactivity in the introduction of new attractions.
"Places like the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin or Titanic Belfast are great examples of innovation. Both are past winners of the World's Leading Tourist Attraction award, and both tell their story in a powerful and emotive way," he said.
A focus on technology and interactive experiences is a key component of the recently announced €150m Platforms for Growth plan, which is part of Fáilte Ireland's wider capital investment programme. It is designed to develop major new visitor attractions across the country.
While the first round of applications is now closed, Fáilte Ireland received a record 207 expressions of interest from potential attractions from 23 counties. Leitrim, Laois and Roscommon were the only counties that did not make submissions. The top-five counties with the highest number of eligible applications were Dublin (28), Kerry (19), Galway (16), Cork (12) and Donegal (11).
Kelly said: "We are seeing an increasing number of players leveraging technology to capitalise on the authenticity theme, which is the most talked about trend in the tourism industry.
"We have drawn on our insights, research and international examples in developing this programme. We want to create world-class, high- impact, immersive attractions. We've looked overseas too. Places such as the Ars Electronica in Austria have transformed the city of Linz; it builds on the city's long history of astronomical and space discovery dating back to the 1600s."
Given the headwinds facing the industry here, including Brexit, the increase in the Vat hospitality tax rate, labour and insurance costs, Kelly added that developing sophisticated new attractions is about future-proofing each business and learning from the mistakes of the past, including the high prices associated with the Celtic Tiger era.
While 2018 was a boom year for tourism, more recent figures from the Central Statistics Office also show the number of overseas visitors to Ireland rose by 3.7pc from January to May. But the industry remains cautious and the rate of growth is slowing. The sector supports 260,000 jobs.
Kelly said: "It's clear that the rate of growth is beginning to soften, with some tourism operators also telling us that they are expecting business to be down on last year.
"Times like these, when there are a number of complex external factors at play, as well as rising operational costs, remind us of how important it is for the tourism industry to be as competitive as possible, and ready to diversify into a wider range of international markets."
Top attractions: paid
1. Guinness Storehouse - 1,736,156 (visitors)
2. Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience - 1,580,000
3. Dublin Zoo - 1,230,145
4. Book of Kells - 1,057,642
5. Tayto Park - 700,000
Top attractions: free
1 Kilkenny Castle Parklands - 799,032
2 The National Gallery of Ireland - 775,491
3 Glendalough Site - 732,824
4 National Botanic Gardens - 655,609
5 Castletown House Parklands - 642,278
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