Is violence over flags and parades stopping visitors coming north?
Despite the positive publicity of the G8 summit and Derry's year as City of Culture, as well as the lure of the Titanic and Game of Thrones, why are tourists from the Republic not crossing the border? Brendan Hughes reports
THE number of tourists travelling to Northern Ireland from across the border has fallen sharply.
Overnight stays by visitors from the Republic dropped by almost a fifth in the last year, official statistics reveal.
Overall, holidays spent in the north by both residents and non-residents also decreased by one per cent.
However, visitors from overseas did rise by one per cent to just over two million in the 12 months to March this year.
The considerable drop in southern visitors comes despite a raft of positive publicity last year through Derry's UK City of Culture celebrations and Fermanagh hosting the G8 summit of world leaders.
Experts fear loyalist violence over parades and flags could be among the factors dissuading more people from the Republic from venturing north.
A report for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment earlier this month admitted Northern Ireland could have an "image problem".
It said "social unrest over parades and flags" had potentially had an impact, and the local tourism industry was worried about "continuing sectarianism and racial prejudice".
One tour guide last night told The Irish News how her coach full of international tourists was pelted with stones during a Belfast trip last Friday.
She said the bus, which contained about 25 tourists from Spain and South America, was attacked on Shankill Road by four teenage boys during an afternoon tour.
"Nobody was hurt and they didn't break anything. They threw the stones and we left immediately - it wasn't nice," she said.
The 55-year-old, who has worked as a tour guide in Ireland for the past decade, said she believed the bus was targeted due to a leprechaun toy with a tricolour hanging from the windscreen mirror.
"I don't feel comfortable in the north. I feel like everybody is watching what I'm doing," she said.
Over the past year 4.1 million overnight trips were recorded in Northern Ireland which generated spending of £735 million - a four per cent increase in income on the previous year, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
The 18 per cent fall in visitors from the Republic - which was even worse during the months January to March this year, when overnight trips were down 43 per cent on the previous year - was partially offset by rises in visits from Britain and other countries, which were up by seven per cent.
Richard Ramsey, Northern Ireland chief economist for Ulster Bank, said visitors from the Republic could be put off by a number of things.
He said an unfavourable euro-sterling exchange rate and cheaper restaurants and hotels due to a VAT reduction in the south could encourage more southerners to holiday at home.
But he added that negative images would be more likely to put off people in the Republic who have access to Northern Ireland media than potential tourists from Britain and overseas.
"The various protests certainly do not help. Now social media can transmit negative images very quickly and counter a lot of positive advertising and imagery," he said.
* WORLD LEADERS: The Lough Erne Resort in Co Fermanagh, which hosted the G8 summit last year