Surveys regularly confirm that travel and tourism lag behind pornography as the principal generators of consumer web traffic. In Ireland's case we can assume, hopefully, that the placings are at least reversed. We are certainly doing our bit for internet traffic because the 'céad míle' part of our traditional 'fáilte' now certainly applies to the plethora of Irish tourist-targeted websites that have sprung up over the past few years.
We are aiming at people's dollars (mostly) but also their sterling and euro through a collection of sites (see below). Most of these are portals, websites through which visitors can get information and links to sections or to other sites for specific services as they browse for whatever they are seeking. In addition, of course, our hotel groups, inward travel agencies such as CIE Tours and activity and entertainment providers all have their own websites, from the Abbey Theatre to Siamsa Tíre, fly fishing to pony trekking.
Regional tourism offices, country enterprise boards and town councils have also recognised the value of the internet and developed information resources for visitors from Ireland or further afield. The wonder of the web, where any cottage B&B or tourism micro-business can display its attractions worldwide, has been fully grasped by Ireland's tourism sector.
"Our own group of official tourism websites gets a total of over six million discrete web visitors every year," says John Rafferty, Fáilte Ireland's manager of customer communications. "They are complemented by the call centre service, with accommodation booking either online or through the call centre, and e-fulfilment, which of course sometimes also includes posting out printed literature."
Fáilte Ireland also has a leadership role and has been actively promoting online marketing throughout the sector, working closely with the regional bodies and particularly encouraging businesses in similar niches - such as activity holidays - or related locations to collaborate in groups or consortiums.
"This is essential to maximize their budgets in a very competitive world. Search engine optimisation, for instance, has become a tough and ongoing challenge," Rafferty points out. "In fact, it's a bit of a jungle out there and our small island has a tourism product with over 90pc small, often family, businesses. We have to work together to gain any economies of scale that we can."
One element of our tourism e-business that does have the scale, however, is Gulliver. This is the national accommodation booking agency, originally a very farsighted initiative and joint venture by the then Bord Fáilte and the Northern Irish Tourist Board in the early 1990s. They commissioned a centralised accommodation register to serve the tourist offices around the country through a central database.
The usual 20/20 hindsight shows that the endeavour was ahead of its time and in some respects too much of a burden on its designed function. The overnight reservations/vacancies database had to be downloaded to the offices, but every booking necessitated a phone call to headquarters. Along came the web and explosive internet growth to show how it might have been done with luckier timing. After accumulated costs of about €11m to Bord Fáilte and a lashing from the Controller and Auditor General, Gulliver was sold to Kerry-based Fexco in 1997 for a reported €2.16m.
Today, it is thriving in the Fexco stable and did total business of over €20m in 2002 for the 7,500 properties on its books, according to Mark O'Connor, finance and operations director of Gulliver Ireland. "Our first priority was to build back confidence that it could be a reliable and valuable universal system. The web made a huge difference in usability and today we have an extranet - Gullnet - that allows the local tourist offices and the accommodation providers to log on and put rooms on the market or reserve them as the case may be."
The system still works on the basis that each premises allocates rooms and prices to the Gulliver system, based on its direct bookings or anticipated occupancy. "We have a number of initiatives coming both on the business and the technology sides to develop the service," says O'Connor, "but it is working pretty well for the past few years - 650,000 bed nights last year was a good performance by any standards."
The Fexco team is also running www.goireland.com, one of the earliest and most successful portals in terms of traffic. Started as a small venture in 1997, it eventually went into liquidation after the collapse of the US market following 11 September.
"We spent most of 2002 re-jigging it, attaching the booking engine and setting up partnerships with providers in major sectors - Irish Car Rentals, Irish Ferries, Dublin hotels, Carrickcraft cruising, Christys Irish Stores and so on. We are projecting more than four million unique visitors to the website this year," O'Connor says. The Fexco call centre handles Fáilte Ireland's domestic enquiry traffic and also serves GoIreland enquiries through freephone numbers in North America, the UK and major European markets. Between Gulliver and GoIreland, Fexco has over 50 staff employed and also uses the IT services of the parent group including secure web hosting.
The web has also found a very important place in the highly successful marketing activities of the 1,200-bed Lynch Hotels Group. One of the country's largest indigenous and privately-owned chains, using smart IT has been integral to its success, according to marketing director David Collins.
"Technology has proved its value at the front end and in the back office. The web has been and is very important to us as a channel of communication, but it is firmly partnered with our call centre - human contact, first impressions are major factors - and with good quality direct mailing to old customers and new leads and enquiries.
"For overseas clients the combination of web and email is very effective, because we can begin to personalise our responses from the first email enquiry. The 'click to have us call you back' feature also works very well - as does the 0800 freephone number for the UK market - again because our agents then have the opportunity to be personally helpful," Collins adds.
Lynch Hotels has invested in upgrading the website and the online booking system, but Collins is very clear that simply having it there and functioning is not the end of the exercise. "You have to keep it fresh and relevant - we do weekly reviews - and you have to make sure you have the appropriate keywords and that you meet the requirements of the major search engines, which are getting tougher all the time," he says.
In the deep south and beautiful surroundings of Castletownshend in west Cork, 12 Travel is a fully-fledged online travel agency that was founded when Conor B Buckley, Conor Buckley (no relation) and Cormac O'Neill decided to return to Ireland after four years of working and studying in the US. They lived in Philadelphia but booked their round-the-world trip home from a travel agent in San Francisco located on the internet. They decided there was an opening for travel services over the internet and set up an online travel company in 1998, selling "the place we knew and loved best, Ireland". Initially aimed squarely at the US market, 12 Travel now offers its accommodation and specialist holiday packages (cruising, sailing, group holidays, self-catering cottages, etc.) in Europe and Japan, with dedicated language websites.
In Newcastlewest in Co Limerick, Tony Keane is a former investment banker who teamed up with web designer Daithi O Murchu and local businessman Ronan Gleeson to form Irish Tourism. "We are an online, inbound travel business that was set up initially to bring traffic to other providers of accommodation and services," explains Keane.
"At the same time we cultivate links to other sites as well as our commercial partners because a site like ours has to be as comprehensive and helpful to people browsing online as possible. We are not a travel agency as such, but we do add value through a 9am-10pm call centre - toll free from major markets and when tourists are on the road in Ireland. Our speciality is putting together car hire, itinerary and accommodation for our clients. It's a DIY, tailored holiday for them that we facilitate. Our current traffic rate of 15,000 unique visitors a month is relatively modest, but we think we have an exceptional conversion rate into actual business. We have plans to drive up our throughput by a factor of four or five over the next 18 months," he adds.
From these cottage industries to the national reservations system and the powerful web presence of our hotel sector, it is clear that the Irish tourism sector has grasped its internet opportunities with enthusiasm. No one has quite done a Ryanair on it, yet, but there is plenty of evidence of entrepreneurial talent poised to pounce.
By Leslie Faughnan