Figures released by Tourism Ireland show that a record number of people have visited Ireland so far this year.

To date in 2006, 8.8 million people have chosen Ireland as a holiday destination - an increase of 8.5% on last year.

Over one million of them were from the United States and Canada while five million people came to Ireland from Britain, which is a new record and an increase of 4% on 2005.

The figure for North America is an increase of 11%, and the highest since 2000.

Visitors from the rest of Europe are set to jump by 17% to 2.3 million, according to the preliminary figures.

Paul Allen, who is Head of Research and Development with Tourism Ireland, said the growth in tourists was down to Ireland's unique selling points.

Mr Allen said that visitors were drawn by the country's historical living culture.

He also highlighted Ireland's warmth and welcoming people, which he said visitors take away with them and tell their friends about, putting Ireland as a destination in their minds.

Tourism Ireland says that revenue from these visitors is forecast to come in at €4.2 billion for 2006, an increase of 6.4% on 2005.

The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, John O'Donoghue, said that despite many shocks and challenges, tourism had shown sustained growth in recent years.

The minister has given an increase of 9% in Budget allocations for tourism to bring total spend in the area to €154 million.

Tourism Ireland's Chief Executive Paul O'Toole says the agency's target next year is to grow visitor numbers to 9.3 million and revenue to €4.6 billion.

'In delivering that target, we believe that mainland Europe and Great Britain will continue to be the strongest contributors to growth, followed by North America,' he said.