THIS Easter holiday weekend will see the tourist season ramping up another gear and there is optimism about growth on the back of last year’s record number of overseas visitors and the spend they generated. However, it is tempered somewhat by evidence of a sharp drop in the number of British visitors in the early months of this year due to the impact of Brexit.
Last year, the number of holidaymakers from overseas rose by 8.4%, while spending by them was up 9.3% on 2015. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), that translated into 9.584 million overseas visits to Ireland in 2016 and revenue of over €4.5 billion.
Sustaining this rate of growth is going to be a challenge, because already this year, CSO figures showed a 6% decline in British arrivals from December 2016 to February 2017 with an alarming monthly drop in February alone of 22%. The December-February decrease represents 49,200 fewer British visitors compared to the same period last year, while if the February level of decline continued for the year, it would mean 850,000 less arrivals from Britain to Ireland, according to the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC), which says is real evidence that the Irish tourism industry is very vulnerable to Brexit, rating it as the biggest threat since the global recession.
ITIC went further by warning that up to 10,000 jobs may be at risk because of Brexit in an industry that employs 220,000 people in Ireland, accounting for one in every nine jobs here and which would be regarded as Ireland’s largest indigenous industry. This is very serious, given that two out of every five overseas visitors come from Britain and many people there are cutting back on spending generally due to the uncertainty caused by the triggering of that country’s exit negotiations from the European Union.
Paul Gallagher, the chairman of ITIC, which represents airlines, hotels, tour operators, ferry companies, visitor attractions and other tourism interests, has accused the government of being ‘asleep at the wheel, despite the Irish tourism industry urgings, and corrective action is needed now.’ However, the government cannot make British visitors come to Ireland, as they are not getting the same value for money they got in recent years due to the drop of the value of sterling against the euro when the reality of Brexit dawned last year.
ITIC has called on the government to reverse recent cuts and provide an immediate €12m support package to boost tourism budgets in order to consolidate UK market share, diversify into new markets and provide a package of supports to tourism businesses, pointing out that tourism is one of the few industries that can provide regional balance and sustainable local employment. Fáilte Ireland estimates that every extra €1m generated by tourism supports almost 30 new jobs, so continued growth in the sector can drive further employment throughout the country. However, this is dependent on continued investment and competitiveness.
Most of the other overseas markets outside of the UK have been improving in recent years and these trends look set to continue, hopefully. A new direct route between Cork and the United States, as well as some indirect ones via Reykjavik, starting this summer, should see more American tourists in the southwestern region and boost West Cork’s tourism sector, making up for any drop-off in British visitors.