THERE was good news for the country's retailers and tourism sector yesterday as Irish Continental Group (ICG) chief executive Eamonn Rothwell said the number of British holidaymakers planning to visit Ireland this summer "looks positive" based on the level of advance bookings with the firm.
Speaking following the company's annual general meeting in Dublin yesterday, Mr Rothwell said the company, whose passenger ships operate under the Irish Ferries name, has been targeting more UK holidaymakers with advertising.
He said the greater strength of sterling over the euro, as well as greater advertising by Tourism Ireland, has helped to increase the attractiveness of Ireland as a holiday destination. Mr Rothwell also praised the government decision to keep the VAT rates on items such as hotel accommodation and restaurant meals at the reduced 9pc level until the end of 2013.
"A lot of people book late, but it looks positive for the British tourism market this year," said Mr Rothwell. "I have a good feeling about it."
The euro has fallen to a three-and-a-half-year low against sterling, which makes it much cheaper for British people to visit the Republic.
Falling hotel prices are also helping to make holidays here better value. British visitors constitute the largest group among visitors to the Republic, although nationals from other countries tend to spend more. The decline in British tourists has been especially stark since 2007.
ICG has been dealing with the impact of much higher fuel costs, but Mr Rothwell said the price had eased somewhat in the past few weeks.
Last year ICG's operating profit fell 8.3pc to €49.1m after its fuel bill jumped 26pc to €52m.
The chief executive, who owns about 16pc of ICG, also said that in the absence of any major acquisition and as the company moves to a net cash position, directors would look at a progressive dividend policy or a share buyback.
"We don't see the argument for building up cash balances," he said. He said he wouldn't commit to any timeline within which a share buyback could take place. "If you were doing share buybacks, you'd do them on an opportunistic basis. You wouldn't announce them to the market because you wouldn't necessarily want to buy shares at a higher price," he said.
At yesterday's AGM, nearly 17pc of shares voting on the resolution to re-elect chairman John McGuckian were against the move.