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Ash cloud threatens to wipe out tourism

THOUSANDS of tourism jobs are now on the line as the volcanic ash crisis continues to worsen.

A massive cloud of ash around 2,100 miles long and 1,400 miles wide is now hovering ominously off the west coast.

And while all Irish airports opened for business this morning, experts are warning the days, weeks and months ahead remain extremely unpredictable.

The Icelandic volcano now poses a far greater threat to tourism than was experienced during the foot-and-mouth crisis or from swine flu.

The lack of certainly about flights is already leading to a significant decrease in holidaymakers picking Ireland for their summer break and has so far cost the hotel sector alone around €20m. The industry is already hurting from the economic turmoil in Europe and at home, and every time eruptions from Eyjafjallakokull shut our airports for a day, a further 17,700 visitors are forced to stay away.

Experts estimate the country is losing €10m for each day the airports are closed down.

Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin was set to meet industry representatives today in the hope of devising a plan to overcome the crisis.

However, she has indicated there is no money available for a compensation.

The meeting comes as the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) warned that the first week of ash cloud disruption cost its members between €17m and €20m in lost revenue.

IHF chief executive John Power predicts that the situation will deteriorate as potential visitors look elsewhere.

"We can live with delays but the big worry now is the continuing uncertainty," he said.

"The weather and airflows we have now seemingly only occur about 10pc of the year. Hopefully, we will return to normal airflows soon and ash cloud will be blown northwards."


A spokesperson for Tourism Ireland: "People are cancelling from everywhere. We already had a 13pc decline (in numbers) last year. About 7.6m visited in 2009. It's just so uncertain at the moment."

Ms Hanafin noted that €20m set aside last week for an overseas marketing drive may now be reviewed "to see if some of that can be held back".

And Transport Minister Noel Dempsey has indicated that he hopes more Irish people will holiday at home this year.

"Unfortunately, it is an act of nature and this means that uncertainty will continue into the future," he said.

Irish airspace was expected to remain open until at least 1am and Met Eireann told the Herald today that the outlook for the coming days was good.

"There will be nothing too strong in terms of winds," said a forecaster.

The wind pattern is expected to swing from the current north-easterly direction back to a north-westerly one tomorrow, but the "moderate strength" means the ash cloud may not be blown back into Irish airspace.

The Irish Aviation Authority said: "The past number of days has seen the growth of a large cloud of high ash concentration off the west coast of Ireland, and this has caused difficulty for some transatlantic operations and operations into some areas of southern Europe."