VISITOR number figures issued by the Central Statistics Office for the first seven months of 2017 confirm that the feared drop in UK visitor numbers to Ireland has materialised with the numbers down 6.2%. However, while this decrease was offset somewhat by a 17.4 % increase in visitor numbers from the United States of America, the overall rate of increase in numbers – compared with the same period last year – has slowed down from 12.7 to 3.1%
Brexit has been the main cause of the UK visitor numbers decrease, driven by the huge drop in the value of sterling against the euro. Proportionately, the fall-off in visitor numbers from the UK mainland – and also from Northern Ireland – is more serious, especially for areas like West Cork which has relied a lot on British visitors over the years and who account for 40% of the overall number of overseas visitors to this country.
The welcome increase in US visitor numbers will only have begun to kick in for the south west for the second half of this year as the Norwegian Air direct transatlantic flights between Providence, Rhode Island, and Cork did not begin until the start of July. There has also been an increase in the number of visitors from mainland Europe and West Cork has certainly benefitted from the promotion of the Wild Atlantic Way, which continues to grow exponentially in popularity as the brand becomes more firmly established internationally.
The chairman of the Cork branch of the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), Aaron Mansworth, expressed his fears that the recent recovery in tourism is now under threat as a result of Brexit, adding that any fall-off in numbers gives cause for serious concern, given the importance of UK visitors to Irish tourism.
Acknowledging the welcome uplift that tourism has received in recent years – becoming a major contributor to the Cork economy, generating €820 million annually in revenue and supporting 20,100 jobs – Mr Mansworth said the reality was that regional tourism is likely to be hit hardest as the UK market has the widest regional seasonal spread of visitors. Hoteliers want the 9% VAT rate for tourism products and services, which kick-started the recovery of the industry in 2011, to be retained in order to bolster the sector’s ability to deal with the risks posed to it by Brexit.
They also want the cuts to tourism marketing funding and product development that were made during the downturn to be reversed. IHF has called for ‘a substantial increase in marketing support is required to shore up our UK market and further diversify into key growth markets such as continental Europe and North America.’ Crucially for places such as West Cork, they want this to be aligned with a greater drive to attract more visitors to the regions and to extend the tourism season.
Opportunistically, the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland has called for a ‘Brexit Budget’ with clear and actionable measures, ‘including a reduction in alcohol excise,’ as it fears the continuing decline of sterling will only further encourage cross-border shopping and damage Ireland’s competitiveness as a tourist destination.