Boost to tourism as Kenny extends visa waiver


TRAVEL INDUSTRY professionals welcomed yesterday’s decision to extend a visa waiver scheme for Chinese tourists, but said more needed to be done to improve access and visas to bring large numbers to Ireland.

The visa waiver scheme was brought in last year on a trial basis to encourage visitors from emerging markets such as China to visit Ireland when they are visiting Britain, without the hassle or cost of applying for a separate visa.

“My government wishes to see many more Chinese visitors coming to Ireland. Our approved destination status is an important factor in attracting tourists but we also welcome individual and independent tourists,” said Taoiseach Enda Kenny as he launched the initiative.

Ireland was granted approved destination status, an approval granted to a foreign country by the Chinese government, back in 2004.

Tourism Ireland in China said the decision to extend the waiver prompted an immediate boost to interest in Ireland – with nine leading Chinese tour operators deciding to include Ireland in their 2012 programmes for the first time.

Fiona O’Sullivan, of Custom Ireland International, which specialises in custom travel and events, said the Taoiseach’s presence would do much to boost Ireland’s profile in China, but the key issues – access and visas – remained unresolved.

Like Britain, Ireland is not in the Schengen area. This means anyone who gets a non-Schengen visa for Ireland and Britain cannot go to mainland Europe, whereas if they get a Schengen-area visa they can visit all 25 countries in that zone. And Chinese travellers want bang for their buck.

“The two big issues are access and visas and we have to make it easier for tourists to come to Ireland. There is a need for a direct flight between China and Ireland,” she said.

Susan Barrett, also of Custom Ireland International, told of how a group of Chinese investors last year had wanted to bring 15,000 Chinese tourists to Ireland in a year on condition there was a direct flight from mainland China to Ireland.

Wayne Xu, associate president of China Travel Service, one of the biggest travel companies in China, has organised tours to Ireland for a couple of years now and said the visa waiver move was one in the right direction.

“Tour groups focus on Britain and Ireland, and many who plan to go to Britain also plan to visit Ireland by the way. We need as many free independent travellers to go to Ireland. Its a premium market, with fresh air, clean water, green grass and is a very attractive one for Chinese travellers,” said Mr Xu.

The extension of the visa waiver was announced by Mr Kenny at an event in Beijing attended by leading Chinese travel trade, media and airline representatives and was organised by Tourism Ireland as part of this week’s trade mission to China.

Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, said around 10,000 Chinese visitors come to Ireland each year, but this has the potential to increase considerably, especially given China’s strong economy and growing population, whether they come sightseeing, to play golf or as business tourists.

“The extension of the visa waiver scheme and the introduction of the short-stay visa for individual travellers is a significant step in helping us to grow visitor numbers from China in 2012 and beyond,” he said.

In the past decade, the spend by Chinese travellers has risen four-fold, making them the fourth-biggest spending tourists in the world. More than two million Chinese visit Europe every year.