Ireland proves a star attraction at world's largest travel fair
World Travel Market
Can Irish tourism maintain its stellar growth curve into 2017 and beyond? Just ask Luke Skywalker.
The elusive Jedi, last seen brooding on Skellig Michael in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is this week doing a nixer in London.
Or rather, an uncanny lookalike is.
Skywalker's doppelganger is greeting visitors to the Tourism Ireland stand at World Travel Market (WTM), the world's largest travel fair. Beside him, a row of lightsabers is laid out for selfies beside maps of Ireland and Star Wars location flyers.
It's all part of a €330,000 WTM marketing push, jointly funded by Tourism Ireland and over 70 tourism businesses, to keep Irish tourism in hyperdrive.
With some 50,000 trade visitors and 3,000 media professionals filing through ExCeL London this week, the annual travel fair heralds the beginning of the island's promotional drive overseas for the 2017 season.
Visits are up over 12pc this year, according to Tourism Ireland CEO Niall Gibbons, who told Independent.ie Travel he expects over 10.5 million visitors to spend more than €5 billion on the island before 2016 is out - way ahead of early year predictions.
Several factors are spinning in Ireland's favour, Gibbons added, including increased air capacity and a new leaning towards destinations perceived as safe and secure.
A certain blockbuster film franchise has done its bit, too.
In fairness, though the Star Wars theme sounds gimmicky, it should be seen in context. This is a marketplace where 180 countries - or at least, Disneyfied, corporate-friendly versions of them - compete for business across several huge halls.
Ireland's intergalactic exploits are positively souvenir-sized in comparison to some of the monster displays on offer - from the mini-rainforests of Costa Rica's exhibit, to PortAventura's flagging of a brand new Ferrari Land.
Next to that, the 70 Irish businesses staking their claim include the new Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Co. Derry, the Guinness Storehouse, Discover Boyne Valley, Donegal Hotels, the Causeway Coastal Route and Shannon Heritage.
"There's a general consensus that business will be up next year," said a busy Assumpta O'Neill, sales and marketing executive with Titanic Belfast - which this August recorded the busiest day of its four-year lifespan.
Belfast is booming, too - with a new Titanic Hotel opening in spring.
Meanwhile, on the Kilkenny stand, Ciaran Conroy and Maura Hickey of Kilkenny Tourism were spreading word of the new Medieval Mile Museum.
The €6 million reboot of St. Mary's Church looks set to be one of the biggest boosts to Ireland's Ancient East in 2017, with Ossary high crosses recently installed.
"We're getting off the blocks now," Conroy said. "It's an exciting time."
"It is often said that Ireland’s people are its greatest tourism asset and seeing the hard work that is being put in here by Tourism Ireland, and by the representatives of the participating businesses, I have to agree," said Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, Patrick O’Donovan, who flew into London this morning.
It's not all rampant joy and enthusiasm, of course. The spectre of Brexit hangs over World Travel Market - although British visitors to Ireland have risen in the four months since the historic vote to leave the EU, uncertainty is a cause for concern.
Whatever happens, UK consumer confidence is likely to dip next year, the conventional wisdom goes, so diversifying Ireland's visitor base is key (at 40pc of all visitors, the island remains extremely dependent on British tourists).
Another potential pothole is the shortage of hotel rooms in Dublin - mentioned by many Irish businesses here when asked about their worries for next year.
According to Fáilte Ireland, Dublin is now facing a potential shortage of 5,500 rooms by 2020 - a trend with knock-on effects outside the capital, too.
"Extra money spent on hotel rooms in Dublin is extra money tourists could be spending in attractions in the country," said Biddy Hughes of Westport House.
"There's a trickle-down effect to other businesses," she added. "But that said, we've had a definite kick from the Wild Atlantic Way."
"Competitiveness is the watchword for 2017," Gibbons concluded.
As visitor numbers boom, one certainly hopes so.
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