When China's leader-in-waiting touches down for the only European stop of his trip on Saturday after a U.S. visit, Xi Jinping will not visit Germany, France or Britain.

Xi has set his sights on Ireland's rolling countryside where he will watch Gaelic football, have a private showing of the Irish Riverdance show and visit the idyllic Cliffs of Moher.

The vice-president's fascination with all things Irish dates back to his first trip to Dublin in 2003 when he was a provincial party secretary.

His love of Ireland has been cultivated by his friendship with Ireland's ambassador to China and a passion for sport.

He very correctly noticed the similarities between Gaelic football (the national game) and Australian rules football when the rules were explained by our former president on a recent visit, Irish ambassador to China Declan Kelleher said.

He's a man who understands sports.

Dublin's government is hoping to make the most out of Xi's visit to promote exports to China of anything from IT services to dairy products during the three-day visit.

Already Riverdance is very popular amongst the Chinese and Irish tourism officials are keen to entice visitors to see Ireland's picturesque west coast scenery, its rich cultural heritage and to drink Guinness in its hotels and bars.

Vice President Xi is well informed on Ireland and has a very positive attitude towards Ireland, Kelleher said in an interview. He is interested in Irish culture and indeed Irish sport as well.

Although the Xi visit is a major coup and a huge opportunity -- particularly with China set to keep investing in euro zone debt -- Ireland is no stranger to distinguished guests.

President Barack Obama began a four-nation European tour by visiting the Irish home of one of his ancestors last year while former President Bill Clinton last week told investors at a New York event that they would be nuts not to invest in Ireland.

But Ireland's chief goal, as it tries to exit an EU/IMF bailout on schedule next year, is to ensure its booming exports keep growing.

Although China accounts for just 2.5 percent of Irish merchandise exports and 1.9 percent of services, it is being targeted as a key growth area and Xi will attend an investment forum with some 300 companies in Dublin on Monday.

The relationship has been developing very fast, trade has been developing very fast and Ireland has been very willing to develop this, said Ding Yifan, an international affairs expert at the Chinese State Council's Development Research Center.

There's no trade friction. That's more a problem for old Europe with its old economies, Ireland has a new economy.

LONG WAY TO BEIJING

For Irish exporters who sell a wide range of products from ink cartridges to artificial limbs to China, the visit of the next leader of a state is a big deal.

Jimmy White, who exports brown crab and lobster to China from the north-west Irish county of Donegal in the face of colossal competition from North America, certainly thinks so.

It'll help, there's no doubt about it. It's a long way from south west Donegal to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, White, manager of Hannigan Fish Trading, told Reuters.

China's a gigantic country with a thriving economy so we're certainly hoping to build on that.

The visit isn't all one way.

Beijing is keen to see how Ireland transformed from a developing agricultural economy to one that attracted high tech companies like Intel and houses facilities for nine of the top 10 global drug companies.

Before visiting a local dairy farm and the popular Cliffs of Moher in Ireland's rural south west, Xi will begin his trip at a high tech zone near Shannon airport which inspired the building of a similar zone in the city of Shenzhen, the pilot project of former leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms.

Chinese interest in Ireland has increased as a result and delegations from China, which have included the mayor of Beijing and high ranking members of the politburo, have quadrupled in the past 18 months, according to the Ireland China association.

However, having seen Chinese students who have never set foot in Ireland do a perfect rendition of Riverdance, the chairman of the voluntary body says the links go deeper than just business.

China has seen the U.S. use Ireland as an advantageous base to access the European market and I get the feeling that's something China would like to replicate, Kevin Lynch, whose Dublin law firm also practice in China, told Reuters

(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing)