While overseas visitor numbers were up 7% this year — the first increase in four years — they are still way below the record years of the mid-2000s.
The Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC) said the continued viability of many businesses demanded that the growth achieved this year continue throughout 2012.
“Simply matching the average growth rate will not be good enough — Ireland needs to target growth upwards of between 5% and 10% for the year ahead to restore financial stability to the industry,” said ITIC chairman John Healy.
He was speaking at the publication of a review of the past year, which showed that while overall figures increased, the pattern varied across the country.
Operators in Dublin reported a good season with hotel occupancy up on 2010, but businesses in many other parts of the country struggled as some areas did not see any increase in numbers.
Similarly, different sectors within the industry reported different experiences with coach tour providers, conference venues and B&B operators all recording increased numbers.
B&B Ireland, which represents over 1,000 B&B owners, also noted a change in the way visitors organised their stays, with online bookings increasing by 43% during the year.
“Online consumer bookings on bandbireland.com were up 35% from Germany, up 17% from France, up 16% from the US and up 5%-6% from Britain,” said chief executive Helena Healy.
B&B Ireland put some of the improvement down to better marketing and initiatives such as its B&B iPhone app and a new range of package breaks to cater for special interest visitors like walkers, anglers, golfers, farm-stay and Irish language enthusiasts.
ITIC chairman John Healy said that approach needed to be adopted right across the tourism industry with far more focused marketing and tailored holidays to suit particular tastes.
“Ireland as a destination can no longer afford to market ‘in Germany’ but rather needs to target defined segments with distinctive motivations to visit — for example, reaching those with an interest in walking or music living in Munich.”
Mr Healy said the reduction of the VAT rate to 9% on many tourism services was helping to restore competitiveness in key markets and he added there was good potential to boost business through major events planned for 2012 such as the Volvo Ocean Race and the London Olympics.
However, he warned lack of access to bank credit remained a problem for many operators in the hospitality sector which would not be immune to further closures.
ITIC membership includes the main state transport and tourism promotion agencies, as well as commercial bodies representing accommodation providers, transport operators, restaurants and visitor centres.
* Tourism 2011 in figures:
* Total overseas visitors up 7%
* Mainland Europe visitors up 10%
* North America up 8%
* Britain up 5%
* Jobs up 6,000
* Total jobs in sector: 180,000