Northern Ireland tourism industry figures have warned that £160million in visitor spending and half a million tourists could be hit by plans for a US-style visa waiver document for trips across the border.
The impact was outlined by tourism chiefs to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, after a recent vote in Westminster on the Nationalities and Borders Bill.
If passed, the government’s proposals will mean EU citizens who are not Irish will have to apply online for pre-travel authorization to cross the border.
Dr Joanne Stuart of the NI Tourism Alliance said there had been ‘no consultation whatsoever with industry’ on the plans and said the single-entry system ‘would simply be unworkable and utterly unworkable’ .
Under new post-Brexit immigration and border control legislation passing through Westminster, non-Irish EU citizens living in or visiting the Republic of Ireland would need an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) to cross the border to Northern Ireland.
Last month, MPs voted 298 to 216, a majority of 82, to reject a Lords amendment to the bill which sought to drop the requirement for foreigners to need an ETA.
The visa waiver-style system, which would be similar to that used in the United States, would not apply to Irish or British citizens, who are guaranteed free movement around the island under the travel zone. long-standing joint (CTA) agreement.
While industry figures criticized the proposals, former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson argued he did not believe the measure would “impact tourism”.
The UK government has also insisted that the ETA process will be simple and will not involve physical checks at the border.
Appearing alongside Tourism NI’s John McGrillen and Tourism Ireland’s Shane Clarke, Dr Stewart highlighted industry concerns on the island, as they also proposed an exemption on the plan.
“We had no commitments. I raised a number of questions for clarification,” she said.
“People want to travel hassle-free. Anything perceived as an additional obstacle or barrier to completing your journey will be… [they will] decide to stay in the Republic of Ireland.
“We estimate around £160m of visitor spending is at risk. We believe this could impact around half a million visitors.
“What we are suggesting is that there is an exemption for people arriving on the island of Ireland in the Republic of Ireland and then crossing the land border into Northern Ireland. They therefore do not need the ETA as their journey takes place on the island of Ireland.
Mr McGrillen told the committee he was concerned that many tour operators in the south would simply choose to give up trying to sell Northern Ireland packages over plans.
“The fact that this ambiguity exists, or that this level of explanation is required, will make it much easier for that agent to simply say, ‘I don’t need to be bothered by this hassle, it’s much easier for me to sell a trip to Cork or Kerry’,” he said.
“It’s taken us a long time…to build the level of business that we have. Our fear would be that if we don’t make it simple or easy to understand, it’s possible that this business could be lost again.
Meanwhile, Mr Clarke from Tourism Ireland described the ‘damage’ the system could have island-wide.
“It will not only be detrimental to visitors going to Northern Ireland, but also to visitors considering the island of Ireland as it would simply be seen as another obstacle,” he explained.
“It’s an industry that’s been on its knees for the past few years with Covid. They can’t quite believe that kind of regulation has been introduced.”
Government MP Kevin Foster defended the plans, reiterating there would be no physical checks at the border and the system would operate electronically.
The Under-Secretary at the Home Office said: ‘The principle has been there for a long time and it’s something that has worked very well.
“For us, it is about having a modernized immigration system, a system that is easier to work with and easier to operate and that has a number of customer service benefits as well as overall customer service benefits. border security.
“We are looking at the fact that various comparable countries have already implemented exactly this type of system.”