Figures from the Northern Ireland tourism industry have warned £160m of visitor spend and half a million tourists could be impacted by plans for a US-style visa waiver document for journeys across the border.
The impact was outlined by tourist chiefs to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, after a recent Westminster vote on the Nationalities and Borders Bill.
If taken forward, the Government proposals mean EU citizens who are not Irish will have to apply online for pre-travel clearance to cross the border.
Dr Joanne Stuart from the NI Tourism Alliance said there had been “no consultation at all with the industry” on the plans and said the single-entry system “would just be unworkable and completely impractical”.
Under new post-Brexit immigration and border control legislation going through Westminster, non-Irish EU citizens living in or visiting the Republic of Ireland would require an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) to cross the border into Northern Ireland.
Last month, MPs voted 298 to 216, majority 82, to reject a Lords amendment to the Bill which sought to ditch the requirement for foreigners to need an ETA.
The visa-waiver style scheme, which would be similar to the one used in the US, would not apply to Irish or UK citizens, who are guaranteed free movement around the island under the terms of the long-standing common travel area (CTA) agreement.
While figures in the industry have criticised the proposals, previously DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson argued he did not think the measure would “impact on tourism”.
The UK Government has also insisted the ETA process will be simple and will not involve physical checks on the border.
Appearing alongside John McGrillen from Tourism NI and Shane Clarke from Tourism Ireland, Dr Stewart outlined the concerns industry on the island has, as she also proposed an exemption on the plan.
“We haven't had any engagement. I have raised a number of questions seeking clarification,” she said.
“People want to have hassle free travel. Anything that is perceived to be an additional obstacle or barrier to carrying out your trip will... [they will] decide to stay within the Republic of Ireland.
“We reckon that about £160m of visitor spend is at risk. About half a million visitors we think this could impact on.
“What we are suggesting is there is an exemption on those people who arrive to the island of Ireland in the Republic of Ireland and then travel across the land border into Northern Ireland. So they don’t require the ETA because their trip is within the island of Ireland.”
Mr McGrillen told the committee he feared many tour operators in the south would simply choose to forego trying to sell packages in Northern Ireland over the plans.
“The fact this ambiguity exists, or this level of explanation is required, will make it much easier for that agent to simply say: ‘I don’t need to be bothered with this hassle it is much easier for me to sell a trip to Cork or Kerry’,” he said.
“It has taken us a long time... to build up the level of business we have got. Our fear would be if we don’t make this simple or easy to understand, there is the potential for that business to be lost again.”
Meanwhile, Mr Clarke from Tourism Ireland outlined the “damage” the system could have island-wide.
"It is not only going to be damaging to visitors that would go to Northern Ireland, it would also be damaging to visitors who would be considering the island of Ireland as it would be just seen as another barrier,” he explained.
"This is an industry that has been on its knees the last few years with Covid. They cant really believe this kind of regulation has been brought in.”
Government MP Kevin Foster defended the plans, reiterating there would be no physical checks on the border and the system would operate electronically.
The Under-Secretary in the Home Office said: “The principle has been there for a long time and it is something that has worked very well.
"For us this is about having a modernised immigration system, a system that is easier to work and operate and one that has a number of customer service benefits as well as overall border security benefits.
"We look at the fact that various comparable nations have implemented exactly this type of system already.”