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Fall in visitors from Republic blamed on strong sterling and perception of Northern Ireland

By Margaret Canning

Published 27/05/2016

Big attraction: Giant's Causeway
Big attraction: Giant's Causeway

An image problem has been blamed for a decline in the number of people visiting Northern Ireland from the Republic.

Tourism Ireland set up a taskforce to look at the issue after figures from the Statistics and Research Agency showed there were 320,000 overnight trips made by tourists from the South in 2015 - an 18% slump.

But the news was not all bad, as the total number of overnight stays by visitors from the Republic, Great Britain and overseas was 2.3 million - an increase of 5% and the highest number on record.

The overall number of trips - including staycationers - was 4.5 million, which was roughly consistent compared to 2014.

A total of 67 cruise ships docked in Northern Ireland during 2015, which was again similar to the previous year.

John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland, suggested that the region suffered from an image problem in the Republic.

He said that while he hoped his taskforce would be able to make a difference, its job was made more difficult by outbreaks of dissident violence and incidents like the 2012 flag protests.

"I don't think you can underestimate the ramifications of civil unrest on our nearest market, but you can't look back and we have to look to the future," Mr McGrillen added.

But Michael Williamson, a consultant and expert in tourism at ASM Chartered Accountants, said the fall in visitors from the South was down to currency fluctuations, with a strong pound making it more attractive for people from the Republic to travel to holiday destinations in the Eurozone.

He added that the improving Irish economy may have convinced people to take holidays even further afield, rather than crossing the border.

In addition, a lack of headline events in Northern Ireland in 2015 - compared with 2014, which boasted the opening of the Giro d'Italia cycling race, and 2012, which had the centenary of the Titanic - meant there was no attention-grabbing draw for visitors from Ireland.

Mr Williamson said that on the positive side, an increase of 5% in overnight trips from external markets showed that Northern Ireland's tourism offering was improving.

Bridgene McKeever, director of McKeever Hotel Group, which owns three hotels here as well as Dillon's Hotel in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, said the Northern part of the business had seen a fall in visitors from the Republic.

She blamed the decline on the lower Vat rate that the South's tourism industry benefits from.

"Our property in Letterkenny saw a huge increase of Northern Ireland visitors for currency reasons too," Ms McKeever said:

"On top of this, the 20% Vat rate in Northern Ireland has made it difficult to be competitive as a destination, with properties in the Republic only subject to 9% for stays.

"That being said, great work has been done by Tourism Northern Ireland."

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