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Tourism in Northern Ireland: Visitors from Republic triple

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John Campbell,BBC News NI economics and business editor

BBC Ken PringleBBC

Ken Pringle has run a café on Great Victoria Street for 22 years

The number of tourist visits from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland has tripled in the past decade, new analysis suggests.

Economists at Ulster University and Dublin City University have looked at official data and interviewed industry stakeholders.

The data suggests there were 400,000 south-to-north trips in 2013- which had jumped to 1.3m by 2023.

Ken Pringle has run a café on Great Victoria Street, right opposite the Europa Bus station in Belfast, for 22 years.

Speaking to BBC News NI, he said he has noticed an increased in visitors from the Republic of Ireland in recent years.

“We would get a lot of tourists in here picking up a sandwich before getting the bus,” he said.

“I think people from the south historically wouldn’t have come up here because of the Troubles or the roads weren’t great but obviously now things are different.

“On Friday afternoons on this street it’s like another world. People coming up for stag and hen dos, you see them coming out of the bus station carrying their bags, the nightlife has gotten a lot better here, it’s great to see.”

Carrickfergus Castle

A significant part of that growth has happened since the coronavirus pandemic.

During the pandemic people were prevented from flying to overseas destinations, which led to an initial bump in visitor numbers which has been sustained.

There were an average of 120,000 south-to-north trips each quarter before the pandemic but the new average is 200,000.

Alex Ryan and her daughter Belle

Alex Ryan, who is originally from Texas, said she was travelling to Belfast to visit her grandfather’s home

Alex Ryan who is originally from Texas, but now lives in London, said she has travelled to Northern Ireland to visit her grandfather’s home in West Belfast.

“My grandfather emigrated to the US so I thought I’d come here and retrace his steps,” she told BBC News NI.

“I’ve been to Northern Ireland before, about 10 years ago, but it was very fleeting and I did the touristy things like the Giant’s Causeway, so I thought I would bring my daughter Belle to visit our roots.”

Getty Images The Giant's CausewayGetty Images

There were an average of 120,000 south-to-north trips each quarter before the pandemic but the new average is 200,000

A significant part of that growth has happened since the coronavirus pandemic.

During the pandemic people were prevented from flying to overseas destinations, which led to an initial bump in visitor numbers which has been sustained.

There were an average of 120,000 south-to-north trips each quarter before the pandemic but the new average is 200,000.

The economists say that growth has been concentrated in the short breaks market describing it as “striking” that despite the number of trips increasing substantially, the average number of nights spent on a cross-border trip has remained largely unchanged.

It has stayed at approximately two nights a trip, peaking at 3-3.2 nights a trip after the initial easing of pandemic restrictions in the first half of 2021.

The study also points to continued structural differences between the tourism industries on either side of the border.

The Dark Hedges

The study says that almost half of visitors to NI stay with friends and family compared to just over a quarter of visitors to the Republic

‘Turning right’

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme, Anastasia Desmond , Senior Economist at Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre, said value for money and changing perceptions of Northern Ireland were behind some of the reasons for the increase.

“There has been a pattern of arriving into Dublin Airport and, we call it ‘turning right and coming up the road instead of turning left’, but there is still a need there for increasing the promotion of Northern Ireland,” Ms Desmond said.

Electronic Travel Authorisation

The Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) is a permit which non-British and non-Irish citizens, who do not require a visa, will generally need to enter the UK.

That will include international visitors who arrive in Dublin and then plan to travel to Northern Ireland.

“It has been identified as a potential barrier to both regional and cross-border travel,” Ms Desmond said.

“Any sort of barrier has to have some sort of effect whether that be positive or negative, but in this instance we can’t see any positive impact likely to come out of this.

“We’ve come an awful long way considering that we’ve had an extended period of civil unrest and as a country we’ve got a real vibrant tourism industry in years after that that we’ll be looking to continue to grow.”

The Republic’s industry is much bigger, with the output of the broad tourism sector estimated at almost €14bn (£11.9bn) in 2019 compared to about €2.9bn in Northern Ireland.

The Republic also attracts a bigger proportion of “pure” holiday visitors compared to NI, where people visiting friends and family remains the largest share of the market.

The study says that almost half of visitors to Northern Ireland stay with friends and family compared to just over a quarter of visitors to the Republic.

It adds that this will “have a knock-on impact on levels of expenditure by visitors”.

It suggests the one opportunity for growth in NI could be “emerging capacity constraints” in the Republic’s market.

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