DUBLIN (Reuters) - Visits to Ireland by North Americans rose by 17 percent in the first quarter of the year, data show, a sign that a government-led campaign to lure visitors with Irish roots is reinvigorating tourism in the country as it emerges from financial crisis.
A pickup in the job-rich tourist trade would help cut a 14 percent unemployment rate, one of Europe's highest, although Ireland is relying mainly on exports to deliver a third year of modest growth as it looks to exit an EU/IMF bailout this year.
Having cut sales tax on restaurants and hotels, the government is now banking on a year-long tourism campaign dubbed "The Gathering" to boost the numbers of Irish diaspora visiting their homeland.
The number of visitors rose by 7.4 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2013, Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures showed on Monday, with the North American market posting its best performance since 2004.
Around half of the estimated 70 million people with Irish heritage living abroad are in the United States and Canada, meaning they are the main targets of "Gathering" advertising.
"There's clear evidence that The Gathering has been very effective in North America, in the U.S. in particular," said Eamon McKeon, chief executive of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC).
"It has absolutely hit the spot and differentiates us from other European destinations. The Gathering was definitely a conduit that helped grow air capacity and is helping consumers make the decision: 'Yeah, let's do Ireland'."
The 1.25 million people who visited between January and March was the highest number of first-quarter trips to Ireland since 2009. But it was still some way behind the 1.55 million who came in the first three months of 2008, just before Ireland's financial crisis struck.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich