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
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
"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
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,
"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."