Plans have been announced to relaunch Ireland as a tourist destination following a devastating 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tourism Ireland chief Niall Gibbons said estimated business was down 80% across the island as a whole from overseas visitors, a loss of five billion euro.
In Northern Ireland, the annual overseas spend is £600 million, with a similar loss expected to have taken place there too.
“There aren’t any words to describe the decimation and devastation in relation to what has happened,” Mr Gibbons told the PA news agency.
“The international spend is about 75% of the total tourism pie, from March onwards that essentially went to zero.
“There was some consolation during the summer months that the domestic market performed reasonably well because people couldn’t travel and that helped a bit.
“When you look across the spectrum of the tourism industry, you’re looking at a lot of different sectors, hotels, restaurants, pubs, events which have not been able to happen and the airports and airlines had a very tough time.”
Tourism Ireland, a cross-border body, is responsible for promoting both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland across the world to international travellers.
Mr Gibbons said the Covid-19 vaccine has provided a sense of hope for the start of the recovery in 2021.
“We see with the vaccine being rolled out safely and effectively, we will be launching our campaign around St Patrick’s week with international travel hopefully restarting sometime in quarter two,” he said.
“But we have to be very flexible. We’re setting out a stall today but it’s not cast in stone. If the vaccine is more successful then maybe it’ll be quicker, if it is slower then we will move slower.
“The key thing is that we work in conjunction with our industry to make sure that whenever we move in the international market that we do so at a time that is safe and people feel comfortable.”
Tourism Ireland is hoping to launch its three-phase plan to restart, rebuild and ultimately redesign demand during St Patrick’s week in March.
Mr Gibbons said it is carrying out international research which has so far indicated that visitors want to travel to familiar destinations, stay close to home and visit friends and family.
“I think for us the priority markets will be Great Britain, mainland Europe and there will also be good opportunities in the United States as well,” he said.
“But the longer haul markets like Australia, New Zealand, China and India are going to take a backseat until 2022.”
The north coast and west coast did quite well, caravans, camping and self-catering did very well but if you were operating a hotel in an urban area, it would have been an extremely difficult year for youNiall Gibbons, Tourism Ireland
The organisation shared its plans for restarting overseas tourism at a virtual event on Wednesday attended by hundreds of tourism companies from around the island of Ireland and overseas.
Plans will include the rollout of a major digital video campaign during the Christmas holiday period in 12 different markets, a campaign targeting the diaspora in Britain, the US and Canada, and the continuation of Tourism Ireland’s global social campaign #FillYourHeartWithIreland.
Next year, Tourism Ireland will start a new “Northern Ireland: Embrace a Giant Spirit” campaign in Britain, highlighting Northern Ireland as a great choice for a “staycation” to British travellers.
It will continue to highlight Northern Ireland’s connection with Game of Thrones and it aims to harness the opportunities presented by the new Game of Thrones studio tour at the Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge, which is due to open in the summer.
Meanwhile, Mr Gibbons said Donegal had a “spectacular year” in 2020 with domestic visitors seeking a sense of isolation.
“In general, rural areas fared quite well during the summer months, people didn’t want to be around crowds, they weren’t looking for any festivals but a sense of isolation,” he said.
“The north coast and west coast did quite well, caravans, camping and self-catering did very well but if you were operating a hotel in an urban area, it would have been an extremely difficult year for you.”