There are big plans afoot in Co. Clare for the next two years, and a delegation from the Banner County spent the St. Patrick’s season in New York, Boston and Providence to spread the word and encourage Americans to choose the Shannon region as a starting point for their Irish travels.

The delegation included Neil Pakey, CEO of the Shannon Group which oversees Shannon Airport, Shannon Development and the International Aviation Services Center; the Mayor of Clare, Councilor John Crowe; and Tom Coughlan, the CEO of Clare County Council.

The Clare representatives marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, attended a large event in the city with the local Clare Association, and had particularly productive meetings with officials in Providence connected to the Rhode Island capital’s airport, T.F. Green. The delegation also stopped in Boston for meetings with members of the City Council.

Adding to the Clare excitement for this year’s St. Patrick’s trip was the awarding of the annual Fleadh Cheoil, the biggest traditional Irish music and dance event in Ireland which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, to Clare for the year 2016. The fleadh will pump some €40 million into the local economy for its 10-day duration, with half a million visitors enjoying Clare hospitality, many for the first time.

“It’s always a great occasion for us to come to the United States to reconnect with Clare people,” Coughlan told the Irish Voice. “We meet with familiar people from home who live here, and we couldn’t be more thankful for people like Danny Moloney of Liffey Van Lines who couldn’t do enough for us, and Bill Lewis from the Clare Association.”

The Clare officials spent time in Providence building on a link established last December when a delegation from the city visited Clare to exchange ideas on a number of initiatives, including the expansion of direct flights between T.F. Green and Shannon.

“We are looking at a number of things together,” Coughlan said. “The local Providence officials and those from Green would love to see an expansion of service into Shannon and they’re pushing for that. They were telling us that the Irish are the second largest ethnic population in the area after the Italians.

“So we are looking at that and seeing what’s possible. Service may start on a charter basis. We’ll just have to prove the business is there.”

The venerable Shannon Duty Free was run for a period by the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and known as the Loop. Shannon recently disconnected itself from the DAA and is now making decisions on its future, and the duty free shop has reverted to its original name.

“Shannon Duty Free is the home of duty free, and like in the past, when it looked further afield than Ireland to establish duty free shops, we had discussions with the people of Green on that as well, to extend the brand there,” said Coughlan.

Providence city officials are also intrigued by the industrial zone of multi-national businesses that have established hubs around Shannon Airport thanks to travel proximity and tax incentives, and are studying the concept further to see if T.F. Green could build upon a similar idea.

“They’re looking to us for advice on that. And their airport has twice the number of passengers that Shannon has, so we can learn much from them too. All in all it was extremely beneficial,” Coughlan said.

Mayor of Clare Crowe said next year’s Fleadh Cheoil will be a transformative event in the county and beyond. The Clare County Council helped the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann craft a winning bid, an effort that was five years in the making.

“It’s one of the biggest events in Ireland,” Crowe said. “And we hope to have it for two years in a row. Clare will really benefit, and visitors are going to be treated to a great experience because the county is so steeped in Irish traditional music. It’s going to be massive.”

An all out effort to promote Clare for the whole of 2016, culminating with the Fleadh Cheoil and continuing beyond, will begin on January 1. Clare will hold the County of Culture title for the year, and the many local festivals that happen during the 12 months will be promoted and expanded more than ever before.

“We’re trying to spread the word all throughout Clare. We want everyone to benefit,” says Crowe.

The Wild Atlantic Way, a more than 1,500 mile long coastal drive along the Atlantic that stretches from Cork to Donegal, has been a highly successful initiative which was first promoted last year by Failte Ireland, the government tourism agency. The Clare delegation met with Tourism Ireland in New York to further promote Clare’s role along the route, especially next year when visitors who are “culturally curious,” – a key target market for Tourism Ireland – have more reason than ever to stop and stay in the county.

“Visitors can’t do the Wild Atlantic Way in one day,” said Coughlan, noting that the initiative helped to boost visitor numbers to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Clare’s top tourist attractions, to more than one million in 2014.

“So what we’re saying is that if you’re interested in culture, and interested in the best of everything that Ireland has to offer, stop in Clare and enjoy it all because that’s what you’ll get.”

Coughlan and Crowe are also eager to promote the use of Shannon Airport for visitors as opposed to Dublin. “When you fly into Shannon, you’re flying into the middle of Ireland, not a concrete jungle,” said Crowe. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere. We just need to let more people know we are here.”

“Many Americans think they have to fly into Dublin to get anywhere in Ireland. And that’s not the case. They can land in Dublin and drive hours to see the Cliffs of Moher, or they can land here and be in the middle of it all. That’s the reverse way we like to look at things,” Coughlan added.

The best way the Shannon region can meet the needs of Americans? “Actually, I think we need to stay the way we are. The region is unspoiled. We need to give good value and good craic, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” said Coughlan.