Ireland’s hospitality industry has reaped the benefits of an upturn in overseas visitors, hoteliers have said.
The average room occupancy rate for hotels and guest houses across the country reached 64% last year, up 3% on 2013 and the highest level since before the global financial crash in 2007.
The figures were released by the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) ahead of its 77th annual conference, which gets under way in Co Cavan tomorrow.
IHF chief executive Tim Fenn said the sector had benefited from an increase in overseas visitors of almost 9% over the last twelve months.
He said consumer confidence in the domestic market had also strengthened.
But Mr Fenn acknowledged that gains have not been spread evenly across the country.
He said many rural hotels continued to experience subdued domestic demand and had difficulties encouraging overseas visitors to venture outside the traditional tourism locations.
Mr Fenn added: “Regional tourism requires much greater support.
“Unfortunately, the recovery is slower in many rural areas, which continue to lag behind the larger cities and tourism hotspots.
“This is a major challenge for many hotels and guest houses given the vital social and economic role that tourism employment plays in rural areas.
“The immediate focus this year must be to assist these areas to live up to their tourism potential and attract a greater share of overseas visitors in 2015 and beyond.”
Mr Fenn said more than 33,000 jobs have been created in the wider tourism and hospitality sector since 2011.
He said the tourism industry as a whole now supported approximately 205,000 jobs - equivalent to 11% of total employment in the country.
Of those jobs, more than 54,000 are in the hotels sector.
“Ireland is now firmly back on the tourism map and there is a real sense of optimism in the sector following a strong performance last year,” said Mr Fenn.
“The tourism industry has made enormous strides to grow market share.
“We’ve doubled our value-for-money rating among holidaymakers to 92% since 2009 and we’ve significantly upped our game on the marketing front, with targeted campaigns from Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland achieving strong cut through and reinvigorating our tourism brand.”
The IHF said during 2014 overseas visitors grew by 586,000 to 7.27 million, with increases across all key markets.
Visitors from North America were up by 15% to 1.2 million in 2014.
Visitors from mainland Europe were up 7% to 2.5 million while visitors from Britain - Ireland’s main tourism market - were up by 8% to 3.1 million.
Mr Fenn highlighted the importance of the 9% tourism VAT rate.
“Since its introduction in 2011, this initiative has brought us more closely in line with tourism VAT rates across the rest of Europe, making Ireland more competitive as a destination,” he said.
Mr Fenn said there was also renewed optimism on the domestic front following years of subdued consumer confidence in Ireland.
“Though still fragile, tourism businesses are seeing signs of an upturn in the home market with people gradually starting to take more trips at home and spending more money in the local economy,” he said.
“This is of tremendous importance given visitors from the island of Ireland account for 69% of all hotel bed nights.”
The IHF said total revenue generated across all tourism-related businesses in 2014 was up 9.4% at 6.45 billion euro (£4.77 billion) and accounted for 4% GNP.
Of this, five billion euro (£3.7 billion) was attributed to foreign exchange earnings from overseas visitors (up 10.6% on 2013) and 1.45 billion (£1.07 billion) to home-grown tourism (up 5.6% on 2013).