We have a rich religious heritage on our doorstep
EACH year they arrive, hundreds of thousands of them; from the US, Chile, the UK, Europe, Malaysia, the Philippines and Canada -- but they're not here to play golf or go adventure-biking.
These are pilgrims, serious faith-travellers intent on learning about Ireland's unique and diverse religious heritage.
They journey across the globe to admire our world-famous monastic sites and high crosses, visit the shrine at Knock and gaze at the legendary Book of Kells.
They travel to remote Mass rocks, wonder aloud at the ancient dignity of Glendalough, visit the home of sobriety campaigner Matt Talbot and trace the story of the Legion of Mary.
"Faith-based travel is increasing as a form of special-interest tourism," says Anne Griffin, general manager of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress.
"We have unique attractions in Ireland that many other countries don't have, such as the legacy of St Columbanus, who went from Ireland into Europe."
However, although Ireland has lots to offer, she says, the domestic religious-tourism sector needs to be better organised and promoted.
"There are many Americans who travel to Rome or Jerusalem with a special interest in faith-based travel -- we could be attracting them here because we have another element of that faith-based story," she says.
At time of writing, about 8,000 people from 99 countries have registered for the Congress -- and a total of about 10,000 are expected to attend the event, which runs from June 10 to 17.
Yet, when people think about religious tourism, says Ms Griffin, Ireland is rarely the first place that springs to mind.
This would usually be Rome or Israel -- but she believes Ireland should be in there too.
"We have a lot of promotion around golfing and spa holidays, yet an enormous amount of people are travelling on faith-based tourism."
It's an area which would handsomely reward investment, says Ms Griffin.
"It's worth developing this area of tourism because these are very loyal travellers who will share their experiences with others and return to Ireland. The whole area of Celtic spirituality in Ireland has yet to be properly highlighted," she says.
"We need to make it easier for groups to explore our faith and our countryside so that they can join us in both the pub and the Church!
"There's great interest in how the Irish as a people struggled to hold on to our faith in penal times -- there are many people who want to visit Mass rocks for instance."
The Irish religious-tourism sector is just ticking over, observes Desmond Deignan managing director of Mancunia Travel in Manchester, which brings tour groups to Knock, Lough Derg, the pro-cathedral and places associated with Frank Duff and the Legion of Mary.
"It'd be good to give other places of pilgrimage in Ireland a higher profile -- and for the Irish Tourism Board to play a more active role in promoting them," he says
Tourism Ireland says it does target consumers around the world interested in faith-based travel as part of its overall promotional programme aimed at a wider 'sightseer and culture seeker' audience.
"For example, in March of this year, Tourism Ireland invited 10 leading Italian tour operators, who specialise in religious tourism, to visit Ireland so they could experience at first hand our culture and rich Christian heritage.
"During their time here, they visited places like Monasterboice, Glendalough, Newgrange, Armagh and Downpatrick, where they visited the St Patrick Centre and the 12th century Down Cathedral."
There's definitely a market out there -- Knock Shrine alone annually attracts about 400,000 foreign visitors, according to Manager Pat Lavelle.
These pilgrims travel from the United Kingdom, America, western Europe, eastern Europe, the Philippines, India, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina -- and they're interested in seeing as much as possible, he says.
Many immigrants come from strongly religious countries like Poland and Brazil and when family members visit, faith-based travel around Ireland is often high on their agenda.
It is a potentially lucrative niche and Kerry Ward, managing director of Galway company Celtic Footstep, which specialises in faith-based tours, has already spotted the growth opportunities.
The company brings in pilgrims from the US and Canada, many of whom are interested in Irish Christian heritage and Celtic spirituality.
These generally stay for up to 10 nights, visiting Knock, Lough Derg and Glendalough, as well as Newgrange, the Aran Islands and Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula.
"These groups also like to have time for prayer and reflection and Mass and they enjoy Irish culture, so there's usually interaction with the local community," remarks Mr Ward.
Ireland is seen as a 'safe' destination for youth groups -- another customer sector for Celtic Footstep, which works closely with Joe Walsh Tours (JWT) and which is developing new faith-based itineraries.
"We feel this is a sector that is growing. We work closely with JWT which sees an opportunity to grow the numbers coming to Ireland for faith-based tours and we're currently working on a programme with JWT which we will market abroad, says Mr Ward.
"We're developing products, developing different itineraries taking in all the different religious interests."
The company also works closely with the Centre of Celtic Spirituality in Armagh.
"Our focus is providing people with tours which have access to experts so we would set up lectures at the Centre of Spirituality in Armagh or arrange for an expert on a figure such as St Bridget or St Patrick to give talks or provide guided tours to interpret different sites. It is very varied," says Mr Ward.
Faith-based tourism is experiencing an upturn, according to Niall Glynn of the Dublin-based firm Marian Pilgrimages, which organises holidays in Ireland for American pilgrims en route to Fatima in Portugal and Medjugorje in Bosnia.
"Many of these tourists are of Irish origin and they want to see very specific places," says Mr Glynn.
"We've brought people everywhere from Knock to Ballintubber Abbey in Galway to Croagh Patrick to the pro-cathedral in Dublin and St Patrick's Cathedral as well as to Drogheda to see the head of Blessed Oliver Plunket in the cathedral there."
Visitors want to see the home of anti-alcohol campaigner, the Venerable Matt Talbot in Dublin's Sean McDermott Street.
"You could have 60 or 70 people in a group and they will be very passionate about what they want to see.
"The faith-tour sector is a very stable sector and it's very much tied in with the economy of the US," Mr Glynn says.
"However, in the last two years we have seen an upturn, the US is on the rise and the sector is thriving once again."
Irish Independent Supplement