Just the second CIE tour bus to return to Ireland, this merry bunch has been comfortably taking in the sights and sounds while welcoming back a little normality into their lives with a very special vacation around Ireland.

It was a simply joyous occasion to meet a CIE Tour group as they completed their eight-day "Irish Spirit Tour" around Ireland. After a long 17 months for the travel and hospitality industries around the world, it is wonderful to see visitors returning from the United States to Ireland, and also their clear hunger for a bit of "normality" and a bit of craic.

With a smaller group on board, this coach of American tourists, led by experienced Tour Director, Dermot Honan, and with CEO of CIE Tours Elizabeth Crabill in tow, had just completed their round-trip, taking in Waterford, the Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, and Sligo before I met them at the stunning Newbridge House and Gardens in Donabate, Dublin. Their happy tour group was just the second CIE tour bus to operate this year and what a success it has been.

The Cliffs of Moher, one of the visits which is part of CIE Tours' "Irish Spirit" tour.

The Cliffs of Moher, one of the visits which is part of CIE Tours' "Irish Spirit" tour.

The resounding message was one of relief, a return to the tourism business, to travel for clients, and a return to making new friends, enjoying oneself, and experiencing something new and exciting. 

Traveling in groups

It's been 17 months since the pandemic saw travel and tour groups completely halt in their tracks. Now, back on the road, Dermot Honan is delighted and relieved to see so many friendly familiar faces. 

"It's uplifting," Honan told IrishCentral. "Setting back out and seeing people in the hospitality business, who I haven't seen for 17 months and it's been great to see so many of the same faces, that they have come back!"

With our lives all turned upside-down recently, what Honan has noted is "It's everybody's back doing what they should be doing. It's that 'bit of normal' and the clients have been great.

"They're interacting like normal. Once you're sitting down, once you're having your food or drinks you'd forget we're coming out of the pandemic at all."

Glendalough, County Wicklow, one of the visits which is part of CIE Tours' "Irish Spirit" tour.

Glendalough, County Wicklow, one of the visits which is part of CIE Tours' "Irish Spirit" tour.

CIE Tours CEO, Elizabeth Crabill, added that all their clients have been incredibly positive about the Covid safety protocol in Ireland, from hand sanitizing to indoor mask-wearing. Also, all of the clients are vaccinated, due to Government guidelines, which currently state that "travelers arriving into Ireland from the United States who present valid proof of vaccination, no travel-related testing or quarantine is necessary."

This is a weight off everyone's minds, added to the fact that now over 90 percent of the Irish population has had at least one vaccination and 64.3% percent are fully vaccinated. 

Honan added, "You have more chance of meeting a vaccinated person than an unvaccinated person in Ireland, now." A relief to us all.  

There's a sense of renaissance in Ireland this summer and visitors are free to travel at last and for these first few tours, the atmosphere has been truly special. 

One of the many highlights of this particular tour for Crabill has been the amazing welcome they have received at every hotel, museum, and attraction they've arrived at. 

Everywhere they've visited "have actually embraced the group as they come with a welcome of 'you are our first group coming in since we shut down last year and we are so glad to see that CIE coach rolling up out front'." 

The very fact that these guests can enjoy a few nights at Irish pubs during their trip is also something Crabill is excited about.

"'Normal!' That has felt like something we've been deprived of for a long time so just be able to do that in Ireland has been a real thrill," she added.

The highlights and the smiles

From Dublin, through Wicklow on to Waterford then Kerry, Clare, Sligo, Roscommon, and back again, this eight-day tour, the "Irish Spirit" tour, filled the days with some wonderful attractions and a hearty sample of the wonders Ireland has to offer. 

Tour Director Honan said "I couldn't name just one highlight of the trip, instead I would say for every person on the tour, they'd each choose a different highlight. That's what's great about the tour."

For Carrie and Jim, from Battle Creek, Michigan this was their first group tour of any kind and it won't be their last. The couple initially booked a summer 2020 tour but had had to cancel due to Covid. 

Carrie who has Irish roots, linked back to north Cork, was delighted to get a true taste of her ancestral home. 

Jim and Carrie from Battle Creek, Michigan.

Jim and Carrie from Battle Creek, Michigan.

"We've loved it all, Killarney, the driven tour around Dublin, it's all been great, and to get to stay in a real Irish castle!" she told IrishCentral. "And I've loved the food, I even tried porridge this morning!"

For Jim, a group tour made good sense. "I get to sit back and relax and take it in. It means neither of us has their head on the map and we can look around. 

"What's been great is also that we're not on the interstate, we can see them at home. We've been in real Irish towns and villages, meeting people and that's what Ireland's all about right?"

Will they be back? "One hundred percent. It's been great. We've really enjoyed it," concluded Jim. 

Back to business

The phrase "living in unprecedented times" has been bandied about more than a few times in the last 19 months but in truth, CIE Tours, a 90-year-old international tour company, has never experienced anything like this, never a total stop in tourism. Thankfully it seems that the future is now looking bright for the company.

Crabill explained that once the gravity of the pandemic became apparent their whole business flipped to customer services, to help their clients to cancel or reschedule what they had booked. They then turned to tailoring their offerings to including more independent travel options, such as self-driven itineraries or even private drivers. 

While 2020 was surely unnerving times for all in the travel industry, Crabill maintains that by September or October those interested in vacationing in Ireland were ready to book. It was travel restrictions that held them back. 

Blarney Castle, in Cork, one of the visits which is part of CIE Tours' "Irish Spirit" tour.

Blarney Castle, in Cork, one of the visits which is part of CIE Tours' "Irish Spirit" tour.

Then, when it was possible to make travel plans, customers surprised CIE Tours in two wonderful ways. Firstly, they did not opt for independent travel.

"They are not booking the independent products it is fascinating and it's been delightful for us to watch," said Crabill.

Secondly, what's taken them aback is how travelers are acting on these tours, they're making friends and enjoying them. At the time of print, CIE Tours had completed one tour in Iceland and two in Ireland. 

"We saw people inviting the couple next door to sit at their table. We saw people, when food was brought to the table, they just shared the food, they served themselves," said Crabill.

"As people are vaccinated they feel that they want to get back normal behavior as soon as possible." She added "We have to learn to travel with Covid but the message is that vaccination is the key. It makes the people feel comfortable and the visits feel comfortable." 

"There's not a long-term fear of contact with other humans. It’s just temporary and people clearly want to return to enjoying time with others."

Here's hoping for a busy 2021 and a bustling 2022 filled with CIE Tours coaches weaving their way around the island of Ireland. 

“Go n-éirí an bóthar leat” ("May the road rise to meet you").

For more information or to book a tour with CIE Tours visit www.cietours.com.