Derry tourism at 88% pre-Covid levels but 'flatline' funding and 2025 UK ETA travel restrictions a 'challenge'

Despite 2023 being a “year for recovery” from the Covid pandemic, Visit Derry has highlighted “mounting challenges” to the tourism industry in the Derry City and Strabane district, including the British government’s plan to introduce ETA travel restrictions for international visitors.
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During a deputation to Council members, at a Business and Culture Committee meeting on Tuesday, April 16, Chair, Michelle Simpson, said Visit Derry “welcomed back international travel after the devastating impact of Covid on our sector”, but warned it is continuing to struggle due factors such as the Cost of Living crisis.

Ms Simpson said tourism recovery had been “relatively good”, with global tourism back to 88 percent of pre-pandemic figures.

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“We hope by the end of 2024, we will have fully recovered to 2019 levels,” she added.

Derry’s Jazz Festival Weekend.  Photo: George Sweeney.  DER2318GS – 12Derry’s Jazz Festival Weekend.  Photo: George Sweeney.  DER2318GS – 12
Derry’s Jazz Festival Weekend. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2318GS – 12

“International travel has rebounded more quickly than anticipated, and this has been supported by air and sea capacity returning at a faster rate than expected.

“We have put the pandemic behind us, but we are now facing mounting challenges like the Cost of Living crisis, inflation, the rising business costs, public sector funding cuts, energy costs, and labour shortages.

“This will continue to impact on out tourism economy, and the introduction of Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) will be a bit of an unknown and another hurdle in selling Northern Ireland internationally.”

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Visit Derry Chief Executive, Odhran Dunne, said their 2025 strategy includes almost one million bed nights, £100 million in visitor spend and 308,000 overnight visits.

Crwods at Derry Halloween last year. (Picture: Conor McClean)Crwods at Derry Halloween last year. (Picture: Conor McClean)
Crwods at Derry Halloween last year. (Picture: Conor McClean)

“It’s critical to drive that strategy and deliver those targets,” Mr Dunne said, "because ultimately we’re looking at almost 6,000 jobs across the district that are supported by the tourism industry.

“We’ve had a 17 percent reduction in budget last year, following the rates process. That was effectively £70,000 off our budget, so we’re under pressure to drive commercial revenue.

“We’ve done that by increasing membership fees and we’re working to increase advertising and make savings.”

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SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell asked if there had been discussions with Tourism NI about a possible budget increase.

Mr Dunne said Visit Derry would receive a “flatline budget”, which is “obviously disappointing”.

He added: “We’re looking to support regional balance in delivery of services, so the challenge will be put back to them around delivering Key Performance Indicators for the region.

“We’re talking about regional imbalance, which we haven’t before, but it’s how we move those aspirations into investment.”

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Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher asked if next year’s introduction of the electronic travel authorisation (ETA), which allows individuals without visas entry to the UK at the cost of £10 per person, would put off potential tourists.

Mr Dunne said Visit Derry where working alongside the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance to allow ETA exemption for short-term visits lasting up to one week.

“It’s going to big challenge for Tourism Ireland in communication and marketing,” he concluded. “A lot international business comes via Dublin so people may not be aware that, from 2025, you have to have an ETA.

“Visitors might decide to stop at the border and turn back, so it’s a huge concern for a border city and district and another hindrance to travel.”

Andrew Balfour,

Local Democracy Reporter.