Is Brexit already having an impact on tourism? CSO figures for January-March 2017 found British visitor numbers 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, CEO of Tourism Ireland, the state agency charged with drumming up overseas interest in Ireland as a holiday destination.
Continuing economic uncertainty is making British travellers more cautious about their discretionary spending, which is impacting on travel to Ireland. The agency is working closely with the industry at home to figure out the best way forward, but “competitiveness and value-for-money will be a more important message than ever throughout 2017”, says Gibbons.
There is some good news in the figures. Visitors from North America were up 23 per cent, a performance that reflects well on Tourism Ireland's decision to prioritise that market for 2017. Those efforts had a fair tailwind behind them, in the form of more airline seats than ever, from more destinations across the US and Canada.
Visitor numbers from Australia were good too, up 16 per cent, alongside rises of almost 10 per cent and 4.5 per cent in tourists from France and Spain respectively. However, given that overall visitor numbers grew by just 1 per cent, Ireland's heavy reliance on British travellers is clear.
In the absence of certainty as to what Brexit will ultimately look like, Tourism Ireland is pressing ahead with its bid to boost performance in new markets. Even as the CSO figures were published it had a delegation on a sales mission to China to cultivate interest there. Chinese visitors, which are typically high spending, stand to make a lucrative contribution to the industry's coffers, if only they can be persuaded to extend their itineraries beyond the designer shopping destinations of London and Paris.
Tourism is the island of Ireland’s largest indigenous industry, generating more than 4 per cent of GDP and employing 220,000 people. Last year the island of Ireland attracted approximately 10.5 million overseas visitors in total, delivering revenue of about €5.4 billion.
Tourism Ireland’s aim is to grow that by 4.5 per cent, to €5.7million, this year. But if it is depending on increased competitiveness to help deliver those targets, adverse currency fluctuations, the prospect of a hard Border and continuing economic instability won’t help. And neither will a continuing shortage of hotel bedrooms, particularly in Dublin, which is only serving to push prices up.
As one of just a handful of all-island bodies operating here, it will be watching the way Brexit unfolds more closely than most.