An unexpected fall-off in tourist numbers in the final months of last year is being blamed on renewed turmoil in the global economy.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office, published yesterday, showed the number of overseas trips to Ireland fell by 4.1 per cent between September and November.
The three-month period saw a total of 1.52 million inward journeys to Ireland, a drop of 65,300 on the same period in 2010.
The decline, which comes on the back of three consecutive quarters of positive growth and a reduction in VAT on tourism-related activities introduced in July, will alarm industry operators struggling to recover from a disastrous 2010 season.
Yesterday’s figures, however, showed overall visitor numbers for the first 11 months of last year remained 6.8 per cent up on the same period in 2010, and roughly in line with year-end industry forecasts.
Trips by residents of North America decreased by 11.7 per cent to 224,500 between September and November, representing the greatest single decline.
Visitor numbers from European countries other than Britain fell by 2.9 per cent to 513,300, while visitors from Britain – the Ireland’s biggest source of overseas visitors – dropped by 2 per cent to 697,600.
The figures showed the total number of overseas trips by Irish residents for the three-month period fell by 3.7 per cent to 1.52 million when compared with 2010.
The total number of trips by Irish residents overseas and to Ireland for the period decreased by 3.9 per cent to 3.04 million.
Tourism Ireland, which yesterday launched its 2012 overseas advertising campaign with a series of television adverts in Britain, acknowledged the international economy posed a serious challenge to operators in the sectors.
Chief executive Niall Gibbons said the economic turmoil of recent months had brought increased uncertainty, “affecting business and consumer confidence and, in turn, international travel”.
Minister for Tourism Leo Varadkar cautioned against reading too much into the figures, saying it was important to look at the year as a whole.
However, he acknowledged that Ireland was dependent on spending levels in the major markets of the UK, the US and Europe.
Eamonn McKeon of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation said there had been a substantial deceleration in the growth rates from September onwards linked to the debt ceiling controversy in the US in August which, he said, saw forward bookings from North America “all but dry up”.
He said the number of US bookings had since picked up but this would not be seen in the figures until the spring.
Mr McKeon said the confederation was predicting overall visitor numbers to grow by 5.5 per cent this year, provided the European Union’s debt crisis did not worsen.
Fáilte Ireland’s Alex Connolly described the sector’s performance as “encouraging”, given the global economic environment. However, he said it was too early to detect a trend from the figures.