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300m reasons to snub Michelle O'Neill: Northern Ireland can't afford to lose visitors from GB, says tourism chief

Market worth over £300m every year

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Titanic museum

Titanic museum

Downhill beach, Castlerock

Downhill beach, Castlerock

Giants causeway

Giants causeway

Fermanagh lakes

Fermanagh lakes

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Joanne Stuart

Joanne Stuart

Steve Aiken

Steve Aiken

Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson

Titanic museum

One of Northern Ireland tourism's leading figures has said the industry must continue to attract visitors from Great Britain despite Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill's assertion that the greatest risk posed from coronavirus emanates from the rest of the UK.

NI Tourism Alliance (NITA) boss Joanne Stuart said GB was "our biggest market for tourism", generating more than £300m a year, according to the latest figures.

Her remarks come as the row over conflicting and confusing Covid-19 holiday rules for outgoing and incoming travellers intensifies.

Although the Stormont advice remains that you must only travel abroad if it is essential, First Minister Arlene Foster said the decision was ultimately down to each individual's judgment.

Meanwhile, the Deputy First Minister, who unlike Mrs Foster wants an all-Ireland approach to travel and quarantine guidelines, said visitors from the rest of the UK were "a real and live threat".

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken failed to clear up the confusion by saying on Tuesday that his MLAs would not be taking any foreign holidays, while at the same refusing to tell the public to follow suit.

The DUP's Sammy Wilson also weighed into the debate, blaming Health Minister Robin Swann for the confusion and saying the guidance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was "clear".

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Joanne Stuart

Joanne Stuart

Joanne Stuart

Mrs Stuart, whose organisation provides a voice for the local travel industry, told the Belfast Telegraph that a clear message from the Executive was essential.

"We need to be able to attract visitors, particularly from GB, which is our biggest market for tourism," she added.

"The problem is that the way it's being communicated is still causing confusion."

Mrs Stuart said GB visitors spent £327m in Northern Ireland in 2018, equating to 34% of the overall spend.

During that period, the Northern Ireland internal visitor spend was £299m, while visitors from the Republic parted with £108m.

Those from outside the British Isles, meanwhile, spent £233m.

Mrs Stuart said the tourism industry must "maximise the opportunity that we have for the remainder of the season" after being "hit hard with regards to Covid-19".

"Part of that is about focusing on the staycation and encouraging people to stay locally and support the tourism businesses, but we also need to be able to attract visitors, particularly from GB, which is our biggest market for tourism," she added.

"Stormont has set out guidelines. They have followed the lead of England and Scotland in identifying the 50 or so exempted countries that can now travel without needing to self-isolate."

The NITA boss said the Executive should revise the "essential travel only" message.

"We need to be line with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office message to the UK," she explained, adding that it needed to be clear that Northern Ireland was open for GB and overseas visitors, provided they were on the accepted list.

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Downhill beach, Castlerock

Downhill beach, Castlerock

Downhill beach, Castlerock

Fears have been raised that travel agents face yet another hit, in what has been a very difficult year for the industry, if people are more reluctant to go abroad.

Sandra Corkin, boss of Oasis Travel, called for the 'essential travel only' advice to be lifted.

"It's really confusing. When people heard the quarantine restrictions were bring lifted from so many different countries, they saw it as a green light to travel," she added.

"The important thing is clarity and we don't have that, so it's disappointing that Northern Ireland politicians aren't taking the same stand as other places.

"There are holiday flights going out, so it doesn't make sense. It's hard to understand why package holiday flights are going ahead when 'essential travel only' is the official advice."

Ms Corkin said there had been "a big increase over the last week" in people snapping up last-minute holidays.

"There's no doubt that we've seen an upturn for last-minute holidays going out later this month and next month, which was fairly unheard of," she continued.

"People weren't making any last-minute bookings over the last few months, so when the quarantine restrictions were lifted, that definitely created a surge in people wanting to travel.

"It's very frustrating and disappointing that we can't have the same clarity in Northern Ireland as other countries have."

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Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Concerns have been raised that local tourist attractions, such as Titanic Belfast, the Giant's Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Mussenden Temple and the Fermanagh lakes, could suffer if attempts are made to seal off the island of Ireland.

Titanic Belfast said it was looking forward to reopening its doors to visitors.

A spokeswoman added: "Titanic Belfast, like many other local tourism businesses, was severely hit by the pandemic with revenue ceasing overnight.

"As an international attraction, this has been further compounded by international markets being unlikely to return until 2021, so Titanic Belfast will be relying on visitors domestically and nationally to regrow its business."

National Museums Northern Ireland said a phased reopening of its four sites would begin on July 30, starting with the Ulster Museum and followed by the Ulster American Folk Park, Ulster Folk Museum and Ulster Transport Museum, adding that they were looking forward to welcoming back all visitors."

A National Trust spokeswoman said: "We are pleased to have reopened many of our places to visitors and have been closely following government guidance around social distancing to ensure public safety."

Steve Aiken

Meanwhile, Steve Aiken said neither he, nor any of his party's representatives, would be going on foreign holidays this year, but he stopped short of telling members of the public to follow their example.

"The guidelines are there for people to look at them and follow them. If you don't have a reason to be going (abroad), what I'm saying is, and the decision I am making myself is, I am not going anywhere, but it is up to people themselves," he said.

When pressed further on the BBC, Mr Aiken refused to state that the public should not go on foreign holidays.

"What I am telling the citizens of Northern Ireland is, follow the guidance. I am not going to dictate to them what they should do," he said.

"It is up to the people of Northern Ireland to make that decision - that's what the guidelines are for.

"If you breach the guidelines, or you breach the rules and regulations, you are very likely to increase the spread of (Covid-19)."

The UUP leader's comments come after a spotlight was shone on the Executive's Covid-19 holiday rules after Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said on Monday she would be going on a holiday to Italy this weekend, only to backtrack hours later.

Sammy Wilson

DUP MP Mr Wilson said that the UUP was, through the Health Minister, continuing to send confusing messages.

"Firstly, they advise against all non-essential travel. However, that advice is only provided to allow individuals to make their own informed choices. This is not a ban on foreign travel," Mr Wilson said.

"The people of Northern Ireland are rightly confused and frustrated by the mixed messages coming from the Health Minister and his department on holiday travel".

The Department of Health said there was "some increased risk" of coronavirus from travellers arriving into Northern Ireland from places with more virus cases.

Belfast Telegraph