Today is a bank holiday in the Republic and a pound is worth around 92c. Throw in historically cheaper prices on this side of the border, and southern shoppers are expected to descend on towns such as Enniskillen and Newry to stock up on the goods that are much cheaper here — and even start filling their boots with Christmas presents.
In Newry, temporary road signs have been put up to ease the strain on the usually-overworked Dublin Road. Peter Murray, manager of the city’s Buttercrane Centre, said even the weekend was busier than usual and that he hopes the continuing weak sterling will help the city ride out the recession.
Buttercrane, and the city’s Quay’s Centre, experienced boom-time last year when the exchange rate — at one point, pound-euro parity — meant southern shoppers couldn’t stay away. “Last year was an exceptional year, and if we achieve that again, we will be reasonably happy,” Mr Murray said.
A new junction of the city’s bypass will open temporarily in December to ease the flow of traffic into the city in December.
Cathal Austin, manager of the Quay’s Centre, said the city’s merchants never forget that retail in a border region is a cyclical business. “In years gone by we have watched Dundalk at the top of the cycle. Now Newry is benefiting from a reverse cycle. The big task for us now is to ensure that we give people added value and something extra that keeps them coming back,” he said.
But the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has argued that cross border shopping is just one side of the pound coin, of which 7m were estimated to have been spent in Northern Ireland last year as a result of the strong euro.
A two-year campaign to increase overnight trips from the Republic seemed to pay off — last year, visitors were up by 14% to 45,000, with the number of holiday trips up 26% and people staying even longer with an average stay of two-and-a-half nights.
Laura Harvey, director of corporate development at the NITB, said: “People are not just coming up for the day to shop. They are staying overnight, meaning they are coming and experiencing restaurants, hotels and our key attractions.
“Previously there was a lack of awareness of what there was to see and do — but we have invested significantly in a big marketing push.
“We moved out our promotional material into shopping centres in places like Newry, Enniskillen and Banbridge.”
And travel expert Simon Calder said: “Canny travellers from elsewhere in the UK have already worked out that Northern Ireland offers a remarkable diversity of attractions, both natural and man-made, plus a warm welcome, and all in a place where the pound is still worth a pound.”
He said the reopening of Belfast’s City Hall and Ulster Museum would also give the city’s tourist potential a boost.
John McKenna, Belfast-born author of the Bridgestone Guide to food, drink and accommodation in Ireland, said Belfast’s St George’s Market was an important stop on the tourist trail.
“It’s one of the leading food attractions in the whole country, up there with Temple Bar Market or Dun Laoghaire market. It’s got music, places you can sit and eat — there is nowhere quite like it.”