While overall tourist numbers and total spend rose to record levels in 2017, the one negative trend was a 7% drop in the number of visitors coming from the UK.
Some 3.9m visitors came from Britain last year which is around 40% of all visitors, making the UK our largest tourist market.
But that number dropped to just over 3.6m this year — the only market where business fell — and the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC) says the slump will continue unless major efforts are made to arrest it.
“Britain is Irish tourism’s bread and butter,” said ITIC chief executive Eoghan O’Mara Walsh.
“In many ways it might get worse before it gets better because there are concerns that the impact of the Brexit effect is filtering down.
“The UK economy as a whole is looking wobbly with higher inflation and lower growth expectation and one of the first things to get cut back in these circumstances is discretionary spend on things like tourism.”
Mr O’Mara Walsh said while phase one of the Brexit talks were successful from a tourism perspective in that the common travel area was maintained and a hard border was ruled out, phase two of the talks would prove just as critical.
They will deal with issues such as the open skies arrangement that allows EU airlines fly in EU airspace without restrictions. A new arrangement will have to be worked out when Britain formally exits the EU. Regulatory divergence will also be an issue as Britain will no longer have to abide by rules restricting state aid to commercial enterprises.
“You could have possibilities such as Belfast airports incentivising airlines to land there rather than in Dublin, Cork or Shannon which wouldn’t be a level playing field so it’s something we have a concern about,” Mr O’Mara Walsh said.
ITIC is calling for the restoration of the Tourism Ireland marketing budget for the UK which has fallen from €20m to €8m over the past six years. “We’re going to have to fight very, very hard to maintain our market share in that market and we need significant investment.”
In total 8.9m tourists came to Ireland this year, boosted by a 15.5% rise in numbers from the United States and Canada. The industry as a whole employed 228,000 people and was worth €8.7bn. But in a new roadmap to be published in March, ITIC will show how it believes visitor numbers could grow to 13m and jobs to 278,000 by 2025 given the right supports.
New attractions for the Midlands, North-West and other regions bypassed by tourists will need to be developed to help meet those targets. Among ideas being explored are a Shannon Corridor route, a Viking Coastal Route, and a new Cliffs of Moher type experience at Sliabh Liag in Donegal.
ITIC chairman Maurice Pratt said: “We need to both build new attractions and we need to find more things for tourists to do when they get here.”