Northern Ireland self-rule expected to ignite tourism

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NEW YORK -- The long-awaited political agreement enabling Northern Ireland's assembly to appoint its executive cabinet and begin an era of self-government are signs of credibility that could dramatically spur tourism to the region, U.S. travel agents and operators said.

Biruta Auzins, an agent with Witte Associates, Grand Rapids, Mich., said the spirit of cooperation that on Nov. 27 broke the stalemate in the 19-month-old Good Friday peace accord between the Irish Republican Army and the Unionists "will absolutely ease the reluctance of Americans thinking about visiting the north."

Auzins, who traveled to Northern Ireland just over a year ago, said she found an upbeat and positive atmosphere, and she has been encouraging clients to visit.

Mark Kavanagh, sales and marketing manager for Celtic Tours, a 28-year-old operator in Albany, N.Y., said the new power-sharing government that is being formed in Northern Ireland this week will prove "an almighty boon" to tourism from the U.S.

"We have, since last February, brought five agent fam trips to Northern Ireland -- each fam having 40 or 50 agents. And the agents who had visited previously, say five or six or seven years ago, said they could see many [positive] differences in the destination.

"I think that by 2001, many, many more operators will be offering scheduled Northern Ireland departures," said Kavanagh, whose firm customizes FITs.

A spokeswoman for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in Belfast said the region welcomed 115,000 North American visitors in 1998, the last year for which figures were available.

The North American arrivals figures of the recent past closely mirror political tensions: In 1994, 77,000 visited, and in 1995 -- the first full year of an IRA ceasefire -- the total rose to 118,000, a 67% increase. In 1996, after the ceasefire collapsed, arrivals fell to 100,000.

"We know that we can do better, and what's happening now will send a very strong international message -- a link in terms of credibility," the spokeswoman said.

She added that the tourist board's annual budget will be subject to the new government's approval. This year, the budget is about $23 million. "We have no expectations yet for our 2000 budget. We are watching the advances in the [political] process and waiting to see how things get sorted out."

If all goes according to plan, Northern Ireland will have a fully operational government on Dec. 2, following the official transfer of power from London and the naming of the 12-member cabinet staff, which includes Unionists and representatives of Sinn Fein.

Among the tenuous issues that have the potential in the coming months to derail the new government is IRA decommissioning. "If the Irish Republican Army disarms -- as it should -- there is no question that tourism to Northern Ireland will open up," predicted Avril Walenton, owner of Travel Traders Unlimited in Mequon, Wis.

"Most travelers bound for Ireland go to the republic, with a relative few venturing to the north for a short stay," she added. "This has the potential to make tourists less fearful and change things for the better."

Robert Brennan, of Seattle-based Brennan Tours, said that although one cannot be certain how things will turn out, the positive forces now at work in Northern Ireland is expected to "spur jobs, tourism and the economy overall, making it a win-win situation for everyone concerned."

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