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Tourism Ireland chief: 'It helps tourism if we have reasonably liberal borders'


Niall Gibbons

Niall Gibbons

The Dark Hedges at Stranocum, Co Antrim

The Dark Hedges at Stranocum, Co Antrim



Niall Gibbons

Tourism Ireland chief Niall Gibbons says a Brexit "raises more questions than it answers" and the more open our borders are, means more visitors to Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Mr Gibbons is a cheerful fellow. And he has good reason to be.

Business is booming, with figures for the early part of the year up about 20%.

He's is in charge of Tourism Ireland, which markets the island of Ireland abroad as a tourism destination.

And 2015 was a record year for tourism, with around eight million of them coming to Ireland.

Not only did more people come, but they also spent more - the volume figure rose 14%, but the revenue figure rose 20%.

If you take out the people who came to visit friends and relatives, revenue rose 28%, Mr Gibbons says. He's a handy man for stats.

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So why do people want to come here, and what's behind the boom?

"The research points to a number of key things. What people find best about Ireland is the friendliness and warmth of the people, that stands head and shoulders above everything else. The scenery, where the Wild Atlantic Way ticks a box particularly, and Irish culture expressed in various forms between music, dance, [or] it could be the love of WB Yeats. They're all major things that play to our advantage.

"Whereas visitors from the likes of Germany would stay for over seven days, the United States you're looking at nine, and from Australia and developing markets you're looking at 14. So you've a longer-staying, higher-spending visitor.

"With the abolition of the air travel tax (in the Republic), we're seeing a large increase in the number of air routes into Ireland as well. If you take the US for example, we're now seeing that of all US outbound travel into Europe, 10% is stopping in Ireland."

So-called 'screen tourism' is helping too, with sci-fi fans flocking to these shores on the back of Star Wars and Game of Thrones. What helps drive those fans here is digital and social media channels, which Tourism Ireland has been investing heavily in for the last number of years. The digital era doesn't necessarily make things easier, as lots of countries are competing for 'likes' and retweets, but having Lucasfilm and HBO as partners helps.

The 51-year-old Gibbons is a chartered accountant by background. F

rom Rathmines in Dublin, he did business studies in Trinity College before joining Coopers & Lybrand, which eventually became part of PwC. Later, he moved into marine research and development in the public service, where he worked for seven years.

Then an opportunity arose to join Tourism Ireland as head of corporate services.

He's now been chief executive for seven years.

It's not all sweetness and light, however, and there are plenty of challenges ahead. A potential UK vote to leave the EU for instance.

"We're keeping an eye on it, I suppose it raises more questions than it answers at the moment," Mr Gibbons said.

"I suppose the questions you would ask arising from Brexit would be: what would the future of the common travel area be? It's of big benefit to the UK and Ireland.

"And what about the future of the UK and Ireland visa, which is available now in China and India? For British people coming to Ireland who use the E111 medical card, will that get honoured? I can't answer those questions at the moment.

"I think from a global tourism perspective in general, we like to have reasonably liberal borders - you obviously have to have security arrangements in place, etc - but the more open the borders are, the better for tourism."