New tourism figures from the Central Statistics Office showing the first increase in three years of overseas visitors to Ireland have been warmly welcomed by Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar.

The figures show overseas visitors to Ireland in the first three months of 2011 increased by 8.6 percent compared to the same period in 2010. This is the first increase in these CSO figures since July 2008.

Minister Varadkar  said "These figures show the first early signs of recovery in Ireland's vital tourism industry. The continued growth in the figures for North America in particular, which saw a rise of + 14% in Q4 2010 and a further increase of almost another 12% for this Q1 2011 report, is evidence that this market remains crucial in terms of revenues generated for Ireland.

"I'm confident that growth will continue for the rest of the year. The last two weeks have seen the highly successful visits of Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barack Obama. I don't think anything could compare with the positive images of Ireland broadcast around the world in recent days. I understand well over 11,000 articles have already appeared in print and online media across the globe."

The minister reiterated that tourism is key to economic recovery, and highlighted the measures in the Government's Jobs Initiative aimed specifically at promoting the industry:

- The three-pronged strategy to encourage carriers to restore access: removing the Air Travel Tax, airport charges, and a targeted cooperative marketing to drive businesses on new routes from key tourism source markets;

- Cutting VAT from 13.5% to 9% on the costs of certain services, many of which relate to the tourism industry, including restaurant and catering services, accommodation and admission charges to tourist attractions, entertainment and sports venues;

- A Visa Waiver Programme to be introduced on a pilot basis from July 2011 to October 2012 for certain short-stay tourists."

Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland, said: "The growth in overseas visitor numbers of almost nine percent is welcome news indeed for all of us working in the tourism industry. The figures issued today are well ahead of expectations, showing a strong turn-around and a welcome return to growth from Great Britain and North America, as well as from France, Germany, Spain, the Nordic Region and from Australia and developing markets.

"After a number of difficult years for tourism, I believe the industry is now poised for a return to growth; 2011 will be a turning point for tourism to the island of Ireland and today's figures are a really encouraging basis on which Tourism Ireland will build.

Mr Gibbons continued: "This has been an excellent month for tourism to Ireland with the announcement by the Government of a package of measures to stimulate the tourism sector and then culminating in the two historic visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama. We will continue to highlight what makes a holiday in Ireland unique and truly memorable. Our message is that there has never been a better time to visit, with great value and terrific things to see and do."

Overseas tourism has a critical role to play in contributing to Ireland's economic recovery. Overseas tourism business accounts for 59 percent (approximately €3.1 billion) of all tourism revenue and has the capacity to deliver even more for Ireland as part of an export-led economic renewal.

Tourism is Ireland's largest indigenous industry, contributing in excess of 4% of GNP and providing employment for over 200,000 people in every community throughout the island.

Mr. Joe Byrne, EVP United States and Canada, Tourism Ireland said: "2011 is an especially exciting year for tourism on the island of Ireland. Not only have we had the opportunity to showcase Irish hospitality at its best to a worldwide audience, during the recent Quenn Elizabeth II and US President's state visits, but a number of other great events will also be taking place such as the centenary of the launch of Titanic in Belfast, the celebrations in Dublin marking its recent honouring as a UNESCO city of literature and, of course, the Solheim Cup at the Killeen Castle in Co Meath."

Mr Byrne continued: "The new measures being introduced by the Irish Government to help boost tourism in 2011 and beyond will help to revitalize, not only the tourism industry, but the Irish economy as a whole.

"We have worked hard to build awareness for Ireland as a must see vacation destination here in North America and have aggressive multifaceted marketing and co-operational promotion programs in place with our key partners to build on the goodwill and to convert the interest in travelling to Ireland into a decision to travel.