Visa waiver scheme ‘could dissuade US travellers from visiting Northern Ireland’, says tourism chief

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Border stock Northern Republic North Ireland
The scheme being introduced by the UK Government is similar to the visa waiver system used for entry into the US. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A tourism chief has expressed concern that a new visa waiver scheme for international travellers could damage Northern Ireland’s ability to attract US visitors.

John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, said tourists who arrive in the Republic of Ireland may decide against travelling north to avoid the “extra hassle factor” of having to secure an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA).

The scheme being introduced by the UK Government is similar to the visa waiver system used for entry into the US.

Short-term non-visa visitors to the UK will need to apply for an ETA and provide biometric data.

Irish citizens will not need an ETA to travel to Northern Ireland as they already have guaranteed free movement under the terms of the Common Travel Area.

However, non-Irish EU citizens and other international passport holders, including those who live permanently south of the border, will need to apply.

The ETA is due to be rolled out next year though several details around the scheme and its operation remain to be confirmed.

Mr McGrillen said the issue had emerged at a time when Northern Ireland was making significant inroads in attracting visitors from the lucrative US market.

“It’s probably not going to be overly expensive and it’s probably not going to be overly arduous, but it’s an extra hassle factor that we don’t need,” he said.

“If you think of an agent who has been selling Cork and Kerry for decades, and we’ve only started to convince these people to start to sell Northern Ireland, the risk is that when they’re talking to a client they might suggest to them, ‘well, you can save yourself that hassle by just staying south of the border’.

“That’s one of the key risks.”

Mr McGrillen said travel industry representatives in Northern Ireland were engaged in intensive lobbying at Westminster to try to secure an exemption from the ETA scheme for short-term visitors to the island of Ireland.

“At this point in time we’ve no set date, we’ve no set price, so the lack of information doesn’t help either, because what we’re currently trying to do is not sell for 2023, we’re trying to sell for 2024 to tourism operators in the States and beyond.

“So that lack of clarity doesn’t really help matters.”

He said the suggestion that ETAs will not be physically checked on the island was confusing.

Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen Credit: Tourism NI/PA

“There’s a little bit of a nonsense, because on the one hand the Government are saying you’re required to have it, but on the other hand they’re saying no one will be checking to find out if you have one or not,” he said.

“So there is not going to be enforcement on the island of Ireland but you’re going to be required to have it.”

Mr McGrillen said Northern Ireland had witnessed an influx of US visitors since Covid travel restrictions lifted in the States earlier this year.

He said the strong dollar was a factor in the spike, as was pent-up demand created during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing this concept of revenge tourism,” he said. “Everybody’s sort of wanting to get their own back on the virus, as it were.

“People are saying, ‘I was locked up and now I’m going to get out and make the most of it’.

“Certainly here we have seen a huge uplift in US travel since the restrictions were lifted earlier in the year.”

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