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UK post-Brexit border plans will cut tourists to Northern Ireland, MPs told

British plans to require foreign visitors to Northern Ireland to secure advance Electronic Travel Authorizations will harm the U.K. region’s efforts to tempt tourists across the Irish border, industry chiefs have told MPs.

The plans, contained in the U.K.’s Nationality and Borders Bill, would mean that the hundreds of thousands of American tourists who land annually at Dublin Airport would need to complete online forms and pay fees before they could travel legally to Belfast barely 100 miles away. Such trips currently are seamless.

Foreign travelers and tour companies long shunned Northern Ireland because of its violence and instability. But the 1998 peace accord that capped “The Troubles” committed the Irish government to encourage visitors to add the north to their itineraries. Dublin and Belfast jointly created an all-island agency focused on this goal, Tourism Ireland.

Britain’s post-Brexit bill to create a new online system for visitors to the U.K. will needlessly complicate that effort, tourism leaders told the House of Commons committee on Northern Ireland.

They said the Conservatives’ England-centric proposals ignore the reality that most foreign tourists, including more than three-quarters of Americans, visit Northern Ireland only as an excursion from the Republic of Ireland. These include spur-of-the-moment trips by train, bus or rental car to visit Belfast’s Titanic attraction or “Game of Thrones” filming locations.

“People want hassle-free travel. If anything is perceived to be an additional obstacle or barrier, people will stay within the Republic of Ireland where they can travel around and won’t need any additional administration or cost,” said Joanne Stuart, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance.

Tourism Ireland executive Shane Clarke, who oversees the agency’s efforts to boost visits to Northern Ireland, said it had just surveyed a dozen tour operators in Ireland, France, Germany and the U.S. about Britain’s intention to require tourists visiting Ireland to pay for Electronic Travel Authorizations before traveling north.

All expressed “incredulity that this was being proposed,” he said, forecasting that tour operators faced with new “barriers and uncertainties” would scrub Northern Ireland from their circuits in favor of Cork, Kerry and Galway.

This would be “extremely damaging to Northern Ireland,” he said, “because it’s a very exciting part of the island of Ireland itinerary but it’s not a standalone destination.”

He highlighted other impracticalities, such as the fact that visits to parts of the Republic of Ireland’s own Wild Atlantic Way coast, particularly Donegal in the northwest, mean driving through Northern Ireland to get there.

Defending the policy, Immigration Minister Kevin Foster told the committee the U.K. was simply seeking to replicate the kinds of online travel requirements already in force in the United States, Australia and New Zealand and soon to go live for visitors from non-visa third countries to the European Union.

He said Northern Ireland couldn’t have different travel documentation rules than those which apply in Britain.

“We are the United Kingdom government. We are not the Great Britain government,” he said, stressing that London was liaising with Dublin to make the future operation of the Electronic Travel Authorization regime as simple as possible.

“Our default position is that everyone who isn’t a U.K. or Irish national will need to have it.”

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