December 28, 2012 4:02 pm

Irish chase green dollar by seeing red

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The River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland©AFP

Redheads of the world, unite! Promising a “festival of ginger-loving madness”, the Redhead Convention in the village of Crosshaven on Ireland’s southeast coast is one of hundreds of events next year bidding to lure home the country’s 100m strong diaspora.

“Ireland has one of the highest populations of redheads in the world and we will celebrate by getting as many together as possible,” says Alan Hayes, crowned king of the redheads this year. Competitions will include best red eyebrows, longest red hair, a carrot tossing championship and the popular “most freckles per square inch”.

For centuries Irish men and women have fled poverty, unemployment and famine to make new lives abroad. Now, as the country faces its most recent economic crisis, Dublin is asking its diaspora to help with its recovery.

On New Years Eve one of the biggest tourist initiatives in Irish history will begin with a huge fireworks display in Dublin, marking a year-long invitation to people with Irish connections to visit the country.

“Our target is to attract an extra 325,000 overseas visitors,” says Jim Miley, the project’s director. “There are also corporate events aimed at pushing out the message that Ireland Inc is a good place to invest.”

The initiative, branded The Gathering, is attempting to reverse a sharp decline in overseas visitors travelling to Ireland since its economic crisis struck in 2008.

In the past the Irish diaspora has played an important role in charitable fundraising, encouraging inward investment and even providing political clout to Dublin for the Northern Ireland peace process. The Gathering marks Ireland’s most explicit attempt yet to boost “genealogy tourism”, where tourists can trace ancestral roots in their country of origin.

The Gathering includes more than 2,500 events, including some established Irish festivals such as St Patrick’s Day. But many of the events will be local get-togethers and reunions of sports clubs or schools, and there is a range of slightly wackier events such as the redhead convention and the Left Hand festival in Mullingar, both in August. In County Sligo, people will climb Benbulben Mountain to take part in a choreographed “message of hope” inspired by the poetry of W. B. Yeats.

Dublin is actively targeting tourism as a key sector to create jobs and tackle an unemployment rate of just under 15 per cent. Last year it cut VAT on tourism and it has introduced a visa waiver scheme to make it easier for non-European tourists to enter the country.

But at a time when 87,000 people are emigrating from Ireland every year to escape the economic crisis, The Gathering is also stoking controversy from critics who accuse Dublin of neglecting its emigrants.

Outspoken Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary recently labelled The Gathering as “the grabbing”. Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, who previously served as a cultural ambassador for Ireland, said the project was a “scam”.

“Most people don’t give a shit about the diaspora except to shake them down for a few quid,” Mr Byrne told Irish radio.

Dublin, which is spending €5m promoting The Gathering, is confident, nonetheless. It cites its recent success in hosting the opening match of the US college football season this year between Notre Dame and the US Naval Academy. About 35,000 fans travelled from the US to see the match.

“About a third of the extra visitors will come from North America and it is very encouraging that we have already negotiated 16 to 20 per cent increase in airline capacity on US routes,” says Mr Miley.

Rejecting criticism of the event, Dublin says it is reaching out to Irish emigrants by funding Irish centres and Gaelic sports clubs abroad.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s tourism minister, retorts: “I thought it was a bit rich of Ryanair, which is extremely profitable. I’m sure they don’t make profits of €500m a year out of generosity to tourists.”

SCHEMES TARGET DIASPORAS

The Gathering is modelled on similar schemes in Scotland and Israel that seek to tap into their diaspora to boost tourism, investment and establish links with emigrants, writes Jamie Smyth.

“Reaching out to diasporas has become a real phenomenon over the past 10 years, particularly in the developing world where governments have seen the huge magnitude of remittances and want to tap into them,” says Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

India and Israel have both successfully raised billions of dollars through “diaspora bonds” – bonds marketed directly to emigrants in rich countries. Last year crisis-struck Greece announced plans to issue a similar type of bond to tap into its emigrants’ feelings of patriotism.

“Tourism is a big focus for several countries. Vietnam recently had a Visit Vietnam campaign targeting its diaspora. In the developed world Ireland and Scotland have been real pioneers in tapping into genealogical and heritage tourism,” Ms Newland says.

In 2009 Scotland’s “Homecoming” celebration pitched around the 250th anniversary of the poet Robert Burns attracted 72,000 overseas visitors, generating £53.7m for the local economy. The relative success of the tourism project has prompted the Scottish executive to plan another Homecoming event in 2014.

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