From the rugged Cliffs of Moher on the west coast to the home of the black stuff on the banks of the Liffey, the Republic’s top tourist attractions are bracing themselves for Britain’s EU exit and a blow to tourism – but just how bad is it?
The tourism industry was worth over €8 billion to the Irish economy in 2016, but figures for January-March 2017 found British visitors were down 6.5 per cent on the same period last year.
"The drop in the value of sterling has made holidays and short breaks here more expensive for British visitors," says Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, with the ongoing uncertainty also affecting Britons' discretionary spending.
It's been almost a year since the UK voted to leave the European Union, but, despite all the warnings, many attractions are – for now at least – still thriving.
Powerscourt Estate managing director Sarah Slazenger says visitors to the gardens for the first four months of 2017 were up 9 per cent on last year. Nonetheless, she says Brexit was “a concern” due to the “uncertain outlook”.
However, the influx of firms to Dublin after Britain’s exit could generate “additional reasons” for the families and friends of UK migrants to visit the Republic.
UK visitors form only 9 per cent of Powerscourt’s overall visitors. “We have steady business from mature markets such as Europe, the USA and the UK, as well as new and developing markets such as China,” says Slazenger.
“Our visitor numbers from China have grown from 5,000 to 30,000 over the space of five years and we are putting more resources into growing this key market.
“We have just spent a successful week meeting and presenting to 380 Chinese travel trade representatives across four cities in China and feel this market offers Powerscourt and the tourism industry in Ireland as a whole, enormous potential.”
In the west, Cliffs of Moher director Katherine Webster says the Co Clare attraction is less exposed to Brexit. "We don't see the same proportion of visitors from the UK as in the east and the greater Dublin area," she says.
“Our visitor numbers from the UK were 7 per cent last year compared to about 47 per cent in Ireland overall. So there’s a huge discrepancy there. Part of the reason for that is because the UK visitors are more about short breaks and city breaks.
“In our first quarter, we’re up by 12 per cent on last year overall. We’re seeing a very strong performance from places like India, Russia, China, Australia and New Zealand. These are the new developing markets.”
Kylemore Abbey had a total of just over 300,000 visitors last year, with UK visitors forming just 4.3 per cent of the total. A spokeswoman for the Benedictine monastery says there had been “a slight increase” in UK visitor numbers so far this year.
At the Jameson Distillery Bow St, managing director Claire Tolan says the whiskey-maker will combat Brexit by attracting additional tourists from other markets where Irish whiskey sales are growing.
Shannon Heritage, an umbrella body that encompasses a number of attractions including Bunratty Castle in Co Clare, says it experienced “significant growth” in 2016, with visitor numbers growing by 30 per cent overall.
So far this year, visitor numbers across all its seven sites are up 4.3 per cent on the same period last year. In terms of the season ahead, spokesman Ivan Tuohy says he is “cautiously optimistic” but that Brexit is “very worrying”.
“Anything that could potentially impact trade and travel is very worrying,” he says. “The prices of sterling and visa restrictions are particularly concerning. We will monitor the situation closely but are working on strategies to counteract a potential hard Brexit.” He added the group would continue to “fight” for market share.
At the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, managing director Paul Carty says visitor numbers have grown 10 per cent over the past year. “The UK market has been relatively turbulent, month to month, but overall is down just 2 per cent,” he says.
“Growth from other markets, the US and mainland Europe, in particular, have more than compensated for any drop-off in visitors from the UK.
“Brexit is absolutely a concern to anyone operating within the tourism industry. Dublin’s attractiveness as a destination is influenced by currency exchange rates, which have already been impacted by the Brexit decision and no doubt will be in the future.”
Carty says “more needs to be done” by Government to help tourism. “Like many involved in the industry, we believe more needs to be done by the Government and its agencies to address the Brexit risk as it relates to the tourism sector,” he says.
Another of the State’s most visited attractions, Dublin Zoo, says it had a “record year” over the past 12 months with more than 1.1 million visitors.
The Irish Tourist Industry Confederation, another umbrella group for tourism, expressed greater concern. "Generally we would feel that Irish tourism is extremely vulnerable to a hard Brexit and more must be done to minimise damage," it says.
“Other sectors, such as agri-food or enterprise, have received specific Brexit supports from Government but tourism has yet to get similar resources and this is a major worry. Tourism cannot be taken for granted.
“We need to retain competitiveness but also consolidate our share of British business and diversify into new markets. Longer-term issues such as the common travel area and maintenance of liberalised aviation access are critical to Irish tourism as part of any new deal.”
At the National Gallery, the State’s most visited free attraction, director Sean Rainbird, says numbers “increased substantially” to 755,577 in 2016. That figure is up from 718,637 in 2015. Attendance was also “up significantly” year-on-year during the first quarter of this year.
“On the downside, we do not yet see much impact of Brexit except a slight falling away of UK visitors possibly in response to the declining value of sterling,” says Rainbird.
“On the upside, our public programme, including the much-lauded small exhibition of drawings from the Royal Collection by Leonardo da Vinci, attracted many visitors in 2016.”
Rainbird added the season ahead will be “less defined” by Brexit and more so by the reopening of the gallery’s refurbished Dargan and Milltown wings.
One of its current displays, Beyond Caravaggio, is attracting "large numbers" of visitors and will be followed by the Vermeer exhibition, which is currently drawing big crowds at the Louvre in Paris.
On Brexit, Rainbird says the gallery is “looking into” strategies to combat any challenges.
“For this year we are confident Irish and international visitors will have every incentive to visit the gallery,” he says. “However, we will need to look at remaining attractive to the UK market, while looking elsewhere to develop new sources of visitors.”
At Tayto Park, the crisp-themed amusements venue in Co Meath, the primary market comes from Northern Ireland, according to general manager Charles Coyle.
He says numbers from the North increased last year and “remained strong” even after the Brexit vote. “So far this season they have remained strong as well,” he says.
“However, a fluctuation in sterling prices could affect this should the upcoming election result in deadlock. We are hoping to be able to attract a record crowd here due to the new attractions this year and that will rely heavily on attracting people from the North.
“The possibility of an increase in restriction in travel or a hard border in whatever that form would take, is of course a cause for concern for a business hoping to attract visitors from Northern Ireland.
“Our primary market is the domestic market and then specifically the North. Due to the nature of our business this will always be our primary market. However, we are always trying to attract other markets and will do this as best we can.”