Minister for Transport Shane Ross sought to reassure DUP leader Arlene Foster that Cork and Belfast would fill the gap left by Dublin Port's reduction in cruise ship arrivals.
Mr Ross wrote to the Northern Irish politician last month after she expressed concern that cruise liners may decide not to dock at Belfast Harbour if Dublin limited berth space for cruise ships due to construction work.
In his letter to Ms Foster, the Minister set out detailed conversations he had with the Dublin Port Company about its plans to reduce the number of cruise ships it can accommodate while it redevelops part of the port.
He told the DUP leader that while the port’s reduction in cruise business – from about 150 to 80 cruise ship arrivals a year from 2021 to 2023 – was “regrettable”, he welcomed the port’s intention to build cruise calls back to 150 ships in 2024 and 2025, rising to more than 200 arrivals after 2026.
“I should point out that my officials have also been in contact with the Port of Cork, who have advised that they are working with Belfast Harbour to see if they can take some of the additional business that may be lost as a result of Dublin Port’s proposals,” Mr Ross told Ms Foster in his letter, seen by The Irish Times.
The DUP leader raised concerns in her letter to the Minister that Dublin Port’s decision would limit cruise business coming to Belfast and would be “potentially damaging to the cruise industry in Northern Ireland”.
Dublin Port is expanding its freight capacity as more container ships are expected to arrive directly from mainland Europe after Brexit, as Irish transport companies avoid using the UK "landbridge".
Mr Ross told Ms Foster in his replying April 4th letter that he was "very keen to mitigate any adverse effects that Brexit or other factors may have on the tourism industry, including cruise tourism".
He said he met Dublin Port Company executives in March “with these concerns in mind” to hear more about its “rationale for prioritisation in the context of Brexit as well as the specifics with regard to cruise berths”.
A group of retailers and other businesses that benefit from cruise tourism criticised an alternative Cork-Belfast plan, saying cruise companies are likely to chose other international locations if they cannot stop in Dublin.
"If ships cannot stop in Dublin, they will take cruises off to the Balkans or the Mediterranean," said Lorcan O'Connor, a director of Carroll's Irish Gifts and a spokesman for All-Ireland Cruise Ship Action Group.
“What the cruise ships tell us is that Dublin is the hook that gets them in to Ireland. It is usually Dublin plus one other port, either Cork or Belfast.”
The group has estimated that the reduced cruise business to Dublin over the three years of the port’s redevelopment would lead to a drop of 120,000 visitors over that period. It questioned Dublin Port’s long-term commitment to the cruise business; a criticism that the port has rejected.
Eamonn O’Reilly, the port’s chief executive, said that it could not build new berths at the port if it committed to continuing accepting the same level of cruise business because there was not sufficient docking space. Port managers “would be daft” not to accept additional cruise business in later years once the construction work is completed as part of a €1 billion plan to develop the port over the next decade, he said.
“We are more than happy to provide the infrastructure if the cruise business is there,” he said.