Thousands of visitors may be forced to cancel forthcoming trips to Northern Ireland due to volcanic ash clouds, it has emerged.
The warning comes from tourism experts across the province and those responsible for marketing Ulster as a must-see destination.
It also follows a sustained period of disruption on the ground, with local hoteliers, taxi drivers and restaurateurs all feeling the pinch after flights were grounded for six days last month.
With eruptions from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano already underway this week — and predicted to last for up to a year — there are fears the worst may be yet to come. A spokeswoman for the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau (BVCB) last night said 5,000 people are due to attend conferences in the city over the next two months.
“May and June are the busiest months of the year for meetings and conferences in Belfast. At least 5,000 are expected — and that’s only counting the ones we’ve been involved in organising.
“It’s business we’ve worked hard to get and if this goes on, as it did in the previous incident in April, it will impact negatively on our tourist sector,” she said.
Businessmen and women have cancelled trips at short notice without any immediate plans to reschedule because of the current air travel uncertainty. And local retailers have also suffered in recent times, having been deprived of a significant number of chance shoppers to boost their coffers.
“We are crossing our fingers that this all blows over quickly,” said the BVCB spokeswoman.
“Otherwise it’s not just us who will suffer. Other businesses — such as taxis, hotels and cafes — will probably not be able to recoup the lost income at a later date.”
Hugh Black, manager of Victoria Square, one of Northern Ireland’s most prestigious shopping centres, said he’s hoping retailers won’t be effected.
“We had 180,000 shoppers last week, which means an increase of 5% in footfall compared to this time last year,” Mr Black said.
“The April travel chaos didn’t impact on us but if it turns out to be an ongoing problem, obviously it will have an effect.
“However, I’d be more concerned about the tourist aspect than the shopping side of things.”
A local taxi driver, who asked not to be named, said business is tough enough in the downturn without any added factors.
“We get most of our custom at the minute from out of town business people, so this has been bad for us all round,” he said.