By Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter Published Aug 16, 2013 at 3:04 PM

Michael Ring, TD, Irish Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, visited the Wisconsin Club today to speak to local media about the important role North American tourism - and by extension Milwaukee Irish Fest - plays in his country's economy.

Tourism accounts for 4 percent of the nation's GNP and about 185,000 members of the workforce are employed in the industry throughout the nation. And since Milwaukee Irish Fest is the largest Irish festival in the world, in a region populated by descendants of Irish immigrants, it makes perfect sense that it is also a huge part of Irish Fest. You can’t miss the Travel Ireland booth located prominently just inside the Main Gate, offering pamphlets, information and package deals on air travel, lodging, tour companies, car rental and just about anything you need to plan the perfect vacation to the Emerald Isle.

Dignitaries from Ireland make a habit of visiting Irish Fest, and it’s an opportunity for Mr. Ring to reach tens of thousands of people who will be planning a trip to his homeland over the next twelve months, probably spurred on by an increase in flights to Ireland and the affordable travel options offered at Irish Fest.

Ring said that the first six months of 2013 have seen a 17 percent increase in tourism to Ireland from North America, making this the biggest year for tourism since 2007.

"It’s brilliant for us," he told "Presently, we have almost a million people coming from America to Ireland, and that creates a billion dollars’ worth of business for us. So it’s a very important market, it’s a market that’s growing for us, and we’re really delighted about it. And also with the new carriers coming in from Aer Lingus and United Airlines and Delta and all the other airlines offering more capacity in our way – we have about 26 percent more capacity than we had, that actually makes it easier for people to get into Ireland."

Mr. Ring also spoke about the advent of the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s first long-distance touring route extending from West Cork to Donegal along the coast of the Atlantic.

"We’re taking people off the highways and off the motorways; we’re going to get them into the real Ireland," he said.

Mr. Ring has been promoting Irish tourism to Milwaukee media for the past few days, and we asked him what he’s looking forward to most about this Irish Fest weekend.

"I’ve been in Chicago before but I haven’t been in Milwaukee, so I’m looking forward to seeing the whole operation," he said. "I’m looking forward to the music and particularly the culture – it’s great to see so many people (at the festival). And I want to relax and listen to some of the music. And if they let me, I’ll sing a song!"

Addressing the media, Mr. Ring praised Milwaukee for its hospitality.

"I’ve never met nicer people; I’ve never seen a cleaner city. You should be proud of where you live," he said.

Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter

Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.