Managing director Niall MacCarthy said the likelihood of a softer Brexit following UK prime minister Theresa May’s failure to secure an overall House of Commons majority should not mask the potential for difficulty ahead.
“A hard, cliff-edge Brexit would be catastrophic for the Irish tourism industry and we need to do everything we can to ensure we avoid that,” he said.
“It is looking more likely that it may be soft but it is critical we don’t take that outcome for granted, because we have to ensure tourism is protected. I cannot emphasise enough that we can’t rest on our laurels regarding a soft planned and structured Brexit.”
Aviation is also facing a huge potential headache, with Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary saying a hard Brexit could lead to a period where there are no flights to the UK and people here might have to go back to “using the boats”.
Ryanair will have to make plans to move all its planes out of the UK as early as the end of 2018 if the UK fails to stay in the current Open Skies agreement, Mr O’Leary said in March.
Mr MacCarthy said: “If the UK falls outside the customs union and the single market, then it makes it much harder and it will be more complex and take potentially longer for the UK to renegotiate back in to Open Skies.”
Mr MacCarthy said that whether it was a soft or hard Brexit, Irish tourism had to concentrate on expanding markets. UK tourists by far make up the biggest cohort of Ireland’s visitors, although there has been a big increase in north American visitors this year to date.
“It shows we must diversify and that it why the airlines and Tourism Ireland are spending €1.2m marketing Cork abroad as a gateway to both the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East,” Mr MacCarthy said.
The number of visitors from the UK fell more than 10% to 866,000 between February and April this year compared to the same three months in 2016, according to CSO figures. Fáilte Ireland’s tourism barometer has found counties in the north and west were badly hit by falling numbers.
While the British visitor market was down between February and April, north American visitor numbers were up 27% to 360,000.
Chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation, Eoghan O’Mara Walsh said a €12m stimulus package for the industry was needed now more than ever following the UK election.