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Rural Ireland hoping to lure tourists to hidden gems

NEWGRANGE, Ireland, April 15, 2006 (AFP) - Rural Ireland is fighting the growing trend for tourists to spend long weekends in Dublin with a plan to woo visitors to the Emerald Isle's hidden gems.

"There is a European trend for mini-breaks of three or four days. In our country, this favours the cities, like Dublin, Cork or Galway," said Damian O'Brien, in charge of developing cultural tourism in Ireland.

While the numbers of visitors heading to Ireland continues to grow, the rural west of the republic has seen visitor numbers plummet by 20 percent from 2004.

More worrying was an Ireland Tourist Board study published late last year which revealed that while the country and its citizens had a positive image abroad, foreign tourists struggled to name a particular place they would like to visit.

"We have the pubs, the nature and the reputation for being warm and friendly, but we lack cultural icons like the Eiffel Tower," O'Brien told AFP.

Rural tourism is mostly centred on bed and breakfasts, country cottages and outdoor activities such as golf and fishing.

The Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Dublin in County Meath, is a United Nations World Heritage Site which attracts 230,000 visitors per year.

The kidney-shaped mound of white quartz and granite, which overlooks the Boyne river valley and dates back to 3,200 BC, is one of the oldest human constructions known -- more than 600 years older then the Giza Pyramids in Egypt.

Meath is hoping to use Newgrange to develop the rural county's cultural tourism scene. The plan is to attract visitors to Meath and keep them there for longer than the afternoon it takes tourists to come up from Dublin and look round the tomb.

"Newgrange stands in the centre of many sites," said Michelle Whelan, Meath Tourism Officer.

"We organised signs and a coach service so that people can now go from one to another. It represents two days of visits," she told AFP.

The network of attractions includes several other prehistoric tomb sites, castles, fortified towns and mediaeval abbeys.

A further 1,000 beds will be available in the region in two years' time.

The plans include a five-star hotel in the middle of nowhere and a boutique hotel where each room is customised, following a recent trend in top-of-the-range hotels.

The area has boosted funding for arts and crafts and has encouraged new events to stretch out the tourist season.

Events are planned around the Saint Patrick's Day national holiday on March 17 -- and a horse race on the beach has even been slated for December.

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sounds pretty boring, no ones going to go to ireland for b&b
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