Ireland could be 'safe haven for overseas tourists'
THE island of Ireland may be seen as a "safe haven" destination for overseas visitors this year due to security concerns about other parts of Europe, a tourism chief has predicted.
Tourism Ireland's chief executive Niall Gibbons said volatility elsewhere in the world is not a basis upon which to market the Irish brand, but he said it is nevertheless a factor that has to be considered.
Mr Gibbons was giving evidence to Westminster MPs in Belfast.
Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee were at Stormont as part of their inquiry into the tourism industry north of the border.
Tourism Ireland markets both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the international tourism market.
In a committee discussion about issues that influence visitor numbers coming to the island, Mr Gibbons outlined the significance of geo-politics
"I think the geo-political situation is far more volatile than it was this time six months ago," he said.
"We have seen the attacks in Paris and difficult situations in Brussels and North Africa.
"In a strange way what that has done in terms of international tourism trends - since the Arab Spring (2011) started we have seen tourism traffic pushed from North Africa and southern Europe up towards northern European countries. Actually northern European countries have actually made gain shares.
"And what we are possibly likely to see this year is Ireland being seen as a more safe haven type destination.
"Not the basis upon which you want to build your brand, but it is something we do take very seriously so to speak, particularly in markets like North America... We now see 10% of all North Americans travelling to mainland Europe now coming to the island of Ireland, which is a very, very big market share - it's our biggest ever.
"So that geo-political one is one we have to be very conscious of."
MPs heard from a number of other witnesses on the tourism sector in Northern Ireland.
One of the key issues was the campaign for the 20% VAT rate paid by tourism providers north of the border to be reduced to the 9% in operation in the Republic of Ireland.
The UK Government has proved resistant to the call, insisting the potential benefits would not sufficiently off-set the reduction in revenue take.
Stormont Finance Minister Mervyn Storey told the committee a VAT cut made sense not only in Northern Ireland, but across the UK.
"If we do this on a national basis we believe this would be of a huge benefit to the tourism product right across the nation," he said.