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Cross-border tourism between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has more than tripled in one decade, an all island tourism report has found.

The report, produced in collaboration with Dublin City University, points to strong recent performance in the tourism industry in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, however a range of performance gaps continue to lead to greater economic impact in the Republic of Ireland than in NI. These include:

  • Visitors to Northern Ireland are more likely to be visiting friends or relatives rather than on holiday or a business trip. Of those visiting friends and relations, almost half will stay with them, considerably reducing the earned income from accommodation.
  • Visitors from GB are crucial to both parts of the island, but the scale is different, they make up two thirds of visitors to NI compared to one third in the Republic.
  • People stay in Northern Ireland for fewer nights, which is particularly common among long-haul visitors.

Examining the impact of the ‘staycation’ on domestic tourism as well as international visits and tourist spending habits, the research found a buoyant and resilient tourism industry across both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with strong evidence of a bounce back from the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Taking these factors together, the Republic of Ireland had approximately 4.3 times as many trips by international visitors compared to Northern Ireland in 2019, but 7.6 times as much expenditure totalling a respective €4,874m in the Republic of Ireland and €672m in the North. Examining GVA generated by the entire tourism industry, including on-island tourism, in 2019 the tourism industry in the Republic of Ireland (€13.8bn) was 4.8 times larger than the industry in Northern Ireland (€2.9bn).

The scale of domestic tourism trips within NI, at roughly two million per annum, remained static in the decade from 2011, whereas, in the Republic, the scale of within-state tourism increased from 6.5m to 11m trips in the same period, probably reflecting the stronger economic performance, since the low point of the post-2008 crash.

Notwithstanding some public commentary that many people from the Republic of Ireland never travel to NI, the number of trips by residents of the Republic to Northern Ireland has increased dramatically over the past decade. In 2013, on average less than 100,000 cross-border trips were made per quarter, a figure that has grown to over 300,000 in 2023. In the years following the pandemic, over 200,000 trips per quarter have been recorded.

Looking Forward 

The research paper notes that Northern Ireland has a lower starting point for tourism growth and development, given the legacy of conflict in the region, but states that continued cross-border cooperation has the potential to unlock long-term growth across the island.

An opportunity to leverage the more developed sector in the Republic of Ireland does exist for Northern Irish tourism, including by benefitting from emerging capacity constraints in the Republic, attracting those who may be unable to find suitable accommodation across the border or may have been priced out of the ROI market.

Stronger convergence is possible, the research has noted, via a combination of greater alignment in public policies, higher levels of investment and changing external perceptions, but will raise questions around future cooperation in marketing, visa-requirements, tax and regional development policy, and, perhaps most crucially, in the perception of the visitor, with some of these processes likely to require UK Government intervention if pursued.

The report also examines the issues experienced by industry stakeholders in a post-pandemic era including the labour market, infrastructure and connectivity, private sector investment, regional development and sustainability.

Read the full report findings here.

Ana Desmond, Senior Economist at the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre said:

“The tourism sector across the Island of Ireland has demonstrated remarkable growth and resilience in the last number of years. This research has shown how the international and domestic visitor market has both grown and diversified with recent significant findings including the sharp and sustained increase in domestic cross-border visits to NI since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

"Tourism growth and development is a natural area for cooperation across the island and has been ongoing for many years. The sector has demonstrated that it can adapt to external challenges and recover strongly. 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.”

Professor John Doyle, Vice President for Research at Dublin City University said:

“This is a very welcome cross-border analysis from Ulster University and Dublin City University.  It highlights a real opportunity for economic growth, for businesses to grow their income and profitability, and for better wages in the sector. Cooperation will benefit both parts of the island, but given the more developed tourism industry in the Republic, it should benefit Northern Ireland to a much greater extent. 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."