Tourism officials fear US Covid test rules may harm sector’s recovery

Fáilte Ireland has warned that strict US Covid border entry rules, which still require all travelers to test negative before boarding flights to the US, could damage the recovery in the Irish tourism industry this year.

Paul Mockler, the head of commercial development at the State tourism agency, said there is “concern” in the industry at the potential impact this year of those rules. It is feared they may dissuade some US tourists from traveling abroad if they have to test negative in Ireland before being permitted to fly home.

A revival of the high-spending US market is considered critical for the recovery of the Irish tourism industry. North American visitors, chiefly from the US, spent about €1.8 billion here in 2019.

Mr Mockler, speaking from Fáilte Ireland’s Meitheal international buyers conference in Killarney, said foreign travel agents and tour operators at the event who bring business to Ireland have cited the US border rules as a problem.

People on coaches

“People are concerned. If you are a tour operator and you have 20 people on a coach for the week doing the Ring of Kerry, if any of them test positive before the flight home, it becomes a major issue,” said Mr Mockler.

“The tour operator has to find extra accommodation and the affected passenger gets stranded. The sooner the better we get to the stage where Covid border restrictions are the same everywhere.”

The US has not relaxed its border entry rules on testing so far. All travelers into the US over two years of age, regardless of vaccination status, must test negative within one day of their departure. It can be a PCR test or a more rapid antigen test.

Most other countries, including Ireland, have scrapped all such rules.

At the peak of the tourism boom before the pandemic, about 1.7 million North American visitors were coming to Ireland annually. State tourism officials have suggested that a recovery to about 1.1 million visitors this year would be a good result.

International influence

US visitors are coveted by the Irish industry because they stay longer, spend more and visit a wider range of attractions than visitors from Europe.

Mr Mockler said that, overall, there was a lot of “positivity” at the Meitheal conference, which brought hundreds of tourism buyers from 19 countries, including the US, to Kerry for two days.

He said most of the international buyers were predicting a revival this year to between 60-70 per cent of pre-pandemic business to Ireland.

He said the market here would benefit from the post-Covid consumer shift to experiencing the outdoors. European tourists, in particular, view Ireland favorably as a location for outdoors tourism such as hiking.

Mr Mockler said business tourism, including conferences, would return in 2022 to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels but much of this would be existing bookings that had been deferred from before the pandemic.

He predicted a decline again in business tourism activity in 2023 and said the sector would have to fight hard to regain lost business.

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