Brexit deal vital to maintain British visitor numbers, says tourism chief

Belfast seminar hears no deal concerns of tourism, sports and arts sectors

Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

A hard Brexit could hit the number of British tourists visiting Ireland, the head of Tourism Ireland Niall Gibbons has warned.

Mr Gibbons said it was vital that a deal was struck between the European Union and the British government in order to mitigate the potential negative fallout from Brexit.

The Tourism Ireland chief executive was one of a number of speakers at a seminar in Belfast on Tuesday examining how to maintain cross-Border collaboration and strengthen connections on the island in the culture, arts, sport and tourism sectors post Brexit.

On Monday, Fáilte Ireland chief executive Paul Kelly said in relation to a potential reduction in British visitors Brexit could cost the Irish tourism industry between €380- €390 million.


Mr Gibbons did not think it would be that bad but said "in the worst case scenario" the United Kingdom quitting the European Union would be costly.

Currently the island of Ireland attracts 4.5 million British visitors each year spending €1.3 billion. But the number of British people travelling abroad is starting to decline, and is down about three per cent, he explained at the cross-Border conference.

“The British take about 70 million trips abroad each year,” Mr Gibbons told The Irish Times on the periphery of the breakfast seminar organised by the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce.

“The first year after Brexit that increased,” he said. “This year it started to reduce, so economic certainty and uncertainty play a big role in people’s mood.”

Domestic holidays

From recent polls, Tourism Ireland had ascertained that there was unlikely to be any drop in British people taking holidays or breaks in different parts of England, Scotland and Wales but there was the likelihood of a decline in the number of such tourists travelling to Northern Ireland.

“People in England, Scotland and Wales are more likely to visit places such as Devon and Cornwall, the Lake District and Scotland than the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, and Northern Ireland,” he said.

Mr Gibbons said that in recent years there has been a 50 per cent increase in hotel accommodation in Northern Ireland with bedroom stock due to be just over 10,000 by 2020.

There was concern within the industry that if Brexit put curbs on immigration it could result in a shortage of chefs and other hotel workers and ultimately upset that expansion.

“It is just essential that a deal gets done,” said Mr Gibbons.

Arts concerns

Niamh Flanagan of TheatreNI, the support organisation for drama and the performing arts in Northern Ireland, said while the EU has pledged to provide some peace-funding after Brexit that there was great concern about a drop in financial support and what that would mean for an already poorly-financed arts sector.

She said there were scores of actors and drama groups involved in cross-Border productions and reliant on funding, some of which came from Europe. If that dried up it would be detrimental for theatre in Northern Ireland.

Theatre and the arts in general were vital to the well-being of society, added Ms Flanagan. “Our arts programming animates our cities and the towns. The arts are part of the eco-system of health and well being, of community cohesion and peace-building,” she said.

“You cannot produce good theatre without investment,” added Ms Flanagan.

Richard Williams, head of Northern Ireland Screen, said he had concerns about Brexit in terms of its impact on the burgeoning local film industry but said that the chief message was that it was "business as usual".

“We have seen no drop or real concern in terms of inward investment. My primary response to Brexit is to ignore it, to keep going, to maintain momentum,” he said.

Mr Williams said however he had some anxieties in areas such as selling programming across the Border to RTÉ or continuing to get support from TG4 for Irish language film work in Northern Ireland.

“But the main thing we can do now in relation to Brexit is not to turn concern into catastrophe by over-exaggerating the problem,” he added.

Northern Ireland Office junior Minister Lord Ian Duncan looked forward to the day when politics had moved on and Brexit was a matter that could be viewed in the “rear view mirror”.

It was important that people not be distracted by Brexit, he added. “Do not let it be the defining moment of a generation, it need not be so,” said Lord Duncan.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times