From beginners to professionals, Irish dancing will be central to all St Patrick's Day festivities around the world this weekend.

The tourism industry sees it as a unique way to promote Ireland as a holiday destination, writes Patricia O'Callaghan.

Tourism Ireland is trying to break into the Chinese market and is using Irish dancing as just one way to do so.

Eighty three million people in China are said to take holidays abroad now.

15,000 Chinese tourists visited Ireland last year, and there are hopes to grow that number to 50,000 people by 2017.

Tourism Ireland Chief Executive Niall Gibbons said it is a difficult market to break into, because there is very little awareness of Ireland in China.

“But music and dance is a very important component of what makes us distinct and unique,” he said.

The tourism body teamed up with Riverdance when the dance show did a 21-city tour of China at the end of last year.

Tourism Ireland said it was a success, raising awareness for Ireland in a way that traditional advertising could not do.

“These big international stage shows [Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, Heartbeat of Home] really give us something to shout about, in terms of keeping us one step ahead of the competition”, Mr Gibbons said.

This weekend, thousands of professional dancers will perform in St Patrick’s Day functions, festivals and parades around the world.

While on the streets and in the pubs, beginners and tourists will be dipping their toes into Irish dance.

It’s more than a dance. It’s a part of our culture and heritage and that’s a core part of what we’re selling abroad as a tourism proposition, according to Mr Gibbons.