There have been calls for the Government to extend free travel to all EU citizens over the age of 66 after new figures reveal a slump of over 13 per cent in the number of overseas visitors to Ireland.
The latest overseas travel figures, published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) today, show 123,200 fewer overseas visitors came to the country in August compared with the same month last year.
There were 823,100 visits from abroad during the month compared to 946,300 in August 2009, a drop of 13 per cent.
The Irish Hoteliers Federation (IHF) reacted angrily to figures saying the Government has not taken a “single meaningful action” to recover the situation.
Speaking to The Irish Times IHF president Matthew Ryan said his members are “very frustrated” because an entire season has been lost since the idea of extending free travel was first proposed last March.
Mr Ryan said the scheme would not cost the taxpayer anything as it would be a condition attached to the €350 million in subsidies provided to CIE each year.
“We’re very scared that at the moment our domestic market is stretched to the point it can’t go any further, so for us to start getting money back into this country, we need foreign visitors,” he said.
Trips to Ireland from the country’s main visitor market, Britain, saw an especially sharp decline with a drop of 25 per cent in numbers crossing the Irish Sea – 369,700 visits compared to 488,400 in August 2008 the CSO figures revealed.
Numbers from mainland Europe fell by just 2.7 per cent (8,100) to 288,500.
There was some good news with the number of visits by residents of Northern America up by over 7 per cent to from 118,200 in August 2008 to 126,600 this year. However, year to end of August show a 2.7 per cent decline in the actual numbers of visitors from the continent.
Mr Ryan said should the Government target the largely untapped market of 80 million people across the EU over the age of 66, the “action would provide a major boost to attempts to halt the collapse of the British tourist market for Ireland”.
“If it’s not costing us anything to provide a service like this why not go for it,” he added.
The figures also come amid growing pressure for the Government to abolish the air travel tax introduced in March.
Last week a mid-term review from the Government’s Tourism Renewal Group called for the removal of the tax and yesterday the heads of the country’s three major airlines demanded the same.
The chief executives of Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Cityjet issued a joint statement saying the tax is hurting tourism. They pointed out that since the €10 tourist tax was imposed on April 1st, monthly traffic at Dublin airport has fallen by 15 per cent.
And the CSO figures would appear to back up their argument as year-on-year the number of overseas trips to the country fell below 5 million for the first time since 2005. Figures for the year to end of August showed 4,886,900 trips to Ireland, 596,400 less (-10.9 per cent) than the same period in 2008.
Fine Gael’s tourism spokeswoman Olivia Mitchell said the figures confirm the sector is in serious danger and said the air travel tax “is a disaster”.
She said the sharp drop in the UK visitors was “at the heart of the matter” and called on the Minister for Tourism Martin Cullen to consider the IHF proposals.
A spokesman for Fáilte Ireland said although “disappointing” the figures are not surprising given the world wide economic situation at the moment.
He said Fáilte Ireland is working with approximately 2,000 individual businesses “to help them trade through the current recession and continue to seize any market position to ensure Ireland gets the most business available”.
The CSO data also revealed Irish residents took 748,600 foreign trips in August 2009, down nearly 11.5 per cent on the same period last year.
Eamonn McKeon of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC) described the figures as “very troubling” and said the emphasis must be on arresting the decline in the UK market.
“We face a major challenge in turning around what has been traditionally our largest market,” he added.