The Independent reports that Ian Snowden of Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy warns the new ETA scheme may negatively impact the country’s tourism economy.
“There is a real risk here that might discourage tourists who come to Ireland, including Northern Ireland, as part of their itinerary during their visit,” he said, speaking at Tourism Ireland’s 2024 marketing plan launch in Belfast.
Tourism Ireland markets the Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland as a leading holiday destination.
Snowden added, “And given that 70% of our overseas visitors travel here via the Republic, getting the operation messaging around that scheme right will be hugely important.”
Northern Ireland’s tourism revenue has recently recovered to the 2019 levels.
This has “somewhat been influenced by inflation,” said Tourism Ireland’s chief executive designate, Alice Mansergh, in The Irish News.
While tourism revenue in Northern Ireland has recovered from the pandemic, the number of visitors still needs to catch up.
Snowden warned the industry not to become complacent, as new challenges need to be addressed.
UK’s new Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) scheme
The UK ETA is mandatory for non-visa nationals visiting England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
An ETA application costs £10 each. If granted, it will be valid for two years, allowing multiple short trips of less than six months per visit.
It can be used for tourism, visiting family and friends, short course study, permitted business activities, and transits.
Irish citizens can travel to any part of the UK under the Common Travel Area (CTA). This means they are exempt from the new ETA system.
The Common Travel Area (CTA) enables people to travel unrestricted between the UK, the Republic of Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey, and the Isle of Man. Travelers in the CTA can move freely without immigration controls, visas, or ETAs.
On the other hand, non-Irish citizens must satisfy three conditions to be exempt from the ETA scheme. They must not require a visa to visit the UK, be a legal resident of Ireland, and come to the UK via the CTA.
The ETA started rolling out in November 2023. It will continue to be implemented in phases on a nationality basis throughout 2024.
Avoiding barriers in Northern Ireland tourism
Mansergh explained the main concerns about rolling out the ETA and its effect on Northern Ireland’s overseas visitors.
Tourists may travel into Northern Ireland from the Republic without realizing they require an ETA. This may inadvertently put them on the wrong side of the law.
The land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is open, and there are no plans to establish a border due to the CTA.
A simple solution would be to ensure everyone needs an ETA. Still, it may pose complications and discourage people from visiting Northern Ireland.
Snowden stressed that his department has been collaborating closely with the UK Home Office about the ETA rollout.
Discussions are underway to develop a communications strategy and operate the ETA scheme in Northern Ireland.
“We have to then make sure that they understand how that works in practice, what that border looks like, and how it will affect us,” Snowden said.
He added, “We’re going to continue to work very hard to make sure that the impact of the ETA is minimized as much as humanly possible.”
Tourism Ireland aims to also work closely with relevant departments and governments to identify and minimize all risks.
No ETA exemption for Ireland tourists
This is not the first time the new ETA scheme has raised concerns about its effects on Northern Ireland tourism.
In 2023, the UK government rejected repeated calls to exempt tourists visiting Northern Ireland via the Republic from obtaining an ETA.
The Home Office stressed that such an exemption “undermines our efforts to strengthen the security of the UK border and keep people safe.”
The government emphasized that the ETA allows its capacity to screen travelers beforehand. It helps prevent individuals who may pose a threat to national security from entering the UK.
Individuals entering the UK, including Northern Ireland, must comply with the country’s immigration regulations, including obtaining an ETA if required.
“We are committed to working with a wide range of stakeholders to help ensure the ETA requirement is communicated effectively and to mitigate against it being seen as a barrier to cross-border tourism on the island of Ireland,” a UK government spokesperson said.