Study: Cross-border tourism has tripled in a decade, but north lags significantly behind in reaping benefits of international visits

Overseas visitors spent €5bn in the Republic in 2019, almost eight times the spend in the north

Tourism Belfast Ireland
Tourists stop for a 'selfie' in Belfast's Joys Entry. Picture Mal McCann (Mal McCann)

Cross-border tourism has more than tripled in the past decade, but a new all-island report reveals Northern Ireland has struggled to grow its share of the international market.

The joint study from Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) and Dublin City University (DCU) found the tourist industry buoyant and resilient on both sides of the border, with ‘staycations’ supporting the post-pandemic recovery.

The Republic’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) recently published data showed residents of the Republic made 1.3 million trips north of the border last year, compared to around 400,000 in 2013.

The report’s authors said tourism is worth around €17 billion (£15.5bn) to the island’s economy each year, supporting around 300,000 jobs.

But the Republic massively outperforms the north, boosted by a significantly larger cohort of international visitors.

Between 2013 and 2019, international visits to Northern Ireland grew by 33%, while the Republic experienced a 46% increase.

However, the north’s share of international visitors to the island in 2019 (19%) has remained relatively static since the 1970s.

Dublin Airport remains the dominant entry point for international visitors to the island.

Just 15% of international visitors in 2019 went on to venture north of the border. Twice as many went to the south-west of Ireland.

The research found visitors to Northern Ireland are more likely to be visiting friends or relatives rather than on holiday or a business trip, and of those visiting friends and relations almost half will stay with them, considerably reducing the earned income from accommodation.

People also stay in Northern Ireland for fewer nights, and this is particularly so for long-haul visitors.

Two-thirds of visitors to the north come from Britain, compared to just one-third in the Republic.

The study found the Republic had approximately 4.3 times as many trips by international visitors compared to Northern Ireland in 2019, but the €4.9bn they spent was 7.6 times the €672m estimated spend in the north.

In terms of economic value, tourism generated €13.8bn for the Republic’s economy in 2019, making it 4.8 times larger than the industry in Northern Ireland, where it was worth around €2.9bn.

The report also found that while domestic trips within Northern Ireland remained static at around two million over the past decade, ‘staycation’ trips in the Republic surged from 6.5 million to 11 million in the same period.

The authors said it probably reflected the stronger performance of the Republic’s economy and higher disposable incomes across the border.

Reasons given for trips to the Republic and north of Ireland (2013-2019).
Reasons given for trips to the Republic and north of Ireland (2013-2019).

Professor John Doyle from DCU said Northern Ireland stands to benefit more from greater cross-border cooperation.

“In order to close the gap with the Republic, public policy needs to move beyond the current levels of cooperation, to build a single tourism offering, in marketing, visa-requirements, tax and regional development policy, and, perhaps most crucially, in the perception of the visitor.”

Ana Desmond, senior economist at Ulster University and co-author of the report, said the tourism sector across the Island has demonstrated remarkable growth and resilience in the last number of years.

“The sector has demonstrated that it can adapt to external challenges and recover strongly,” she said.

“It will need this quality to tackle the current challenges which have been identified by businesses both sides of the border, which include labour market shortages and concerns over the cost of doing business.”

Meanwhile, Visit Belfast has said it expects tourism to deliver £133m to the north’s economy in the current financial year (2024-25).

The Belfast-focused tourism body is targeting an annual growth rate of 6.25%, which would see tourism generate £125m next year and £125m in 2026-27.

Belfast accounts for around 32% of tourism nights in the north and 40% of all tourism spending.