Tourism figures in freefall even prior to crisis
THE tourism industry saw a massive 24pc fall in foreign visitors during February -- even before the volcanic ash crisis erupted.
Aside from the huge disruption caused over the past week, there was already a major downturn in overseas visitors.
In February, that number had plummeted to 336,800, which was 108,000 fewer than the same time last year, new Central Statistics Office figures reveal.
This follows an even bigger drop in January which was blamed on the icy weather conditions at the start of the year.
Visits from Britain fell most steeply, down by almost 30pc to 171,500, while visits from the rest of Europe were down almost 23pc and North American visits dropped by 6.7pc.
Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin said that the figures were disappointing but added they "should be seen in the context of the severe weather conditions in January and February".
She said it was important to realise that February visitors accounted for only about 6pc of the annual total.
"Factors such as the Six Nations rugby match being played in Paris this year, rather than Dublin, can also have a big impact on incoming visitors in a low season month such as February," she said.
Later matches against Wales and Scotland were played in March so the tens of thousands of visitors coming to Dublin were not included in this batch of figures.
Ms Hanafin added that Tourism Ireland was spending €26m in an unprecedented drive to attract visitors and she expected the market would recover later in the year.
The air traffic disruption of the past week was another unwelcome problem, she said, but the industry here had shown what a special destination Ireland was in its efforts to help stranded travellers.
The CSO figures show that in the first two months of 2010, almost 219,000 fewer people visited Ireland than a year earlier.
Tourism Ireland said the poor figures showed the impact of the world recession on consumer spending and reduced air access to Ireland with the number of seats down by 18pc over the winter compared with the previous year.
"Reductions in departures and frequency by most airlines -- from Great Britain, mainland Europe and North America -- has meant a substantial reduction in available access opportunities for potential visitors to Ireland this Spring," said Tourism Ireland chief executive Niall Gibbons.
However, these factors did not have anything like the same impact on the number of Irish people travelling abroad, as the number of such foreign trips fell by a more modest 5.7pc to 447,200, down by just under 27,000 on February 2009.