An Irish-American philanthropist is pitching in to save the flagging Irish tourism industry.

Chuck Feeney has offered to support a scheme giving $100 vouchers to American tourists who visit Ireland, the London Times reported today.

Tourism minister Martin Cullen said the 78-year-old Feeney got in touch after the Farmleigh conference, where business luminaries from Ireland and the diaspora joined politicians to discuss the economy.

Feeney said he wanted to help Ireland’s tourism industry directly, Minister Cullen told the Times.

Feeney grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of an insurance underwriter and a nurse. In his youth he travelled to Japan and Korea as a GI and he later studied at Cornell University in Ithaca. He made his money through duty free products and has often donated funds to philanthropic schemes in the U.S., Ireland and elsewhere.

In 1982 he set up Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation that gives money to initiatives in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as South Africa, the United States, Bermuda and other countries.

Feeney, who has both Irish and American citizenship, lives an abstemious lifestyle himself, according to an article on the Atlantic Philanthropies website. He wears $9 reading glasses and a $15 watch. 

The billionaire only gives money to causes of his choosing – his foundation does not accept unsolicited requests for cash. In the past he has made contributions to the Northern Irish peace process and he paid for Sinn Fein’s Washington office for three years. He has also given billions to Irish higher education.

Ireland’s tourism industry slumped by 12 percent in 2009, and Feeney hopes the vouchers, which will go towards discount flights and accommodation, will help Ireland’s visitor numbers climb by about 50,000 next year.