Plans by Westminster to introduce a new travel visa known as an Electronic Travel Authorisation – ETA for short – is a requirement to all non-visa national visitors to the UK whether they arrive direct into a UK port of entry (Airport/Ferry Terminal) or via the land border. The cost of an ETA will be £10. Each traveller must get their own ETA, including children and babies and the guidance states that the majority of decisions will be made within 3 days.
This briefing relates to the requirement of non-visa nationals, arriving in RoI prior to travelling to NI via the land border, to apply for an ETA whether they are on a day trip, transiting through NI or staying overnight.
Case for providing an exemption for tourists entering NI via the land border
NITA has been lobbying for an exemption for non-visa nationals crossing the land border for the last 18 months and following engagement with the Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick and Home Office officials, NITA submitted a proposed solution of a short- term duration exemption in January 2023. We would like to see a complete exemption for tourists arriving into NI via the land border, however following discussions with the Home Office, NITA have put forward a compromise solution of a time-bound exemption of 5-7 days which would cover around 90% of these tourists.
The Minister for State for Immigration considered our proposal but made the decision not to grant an exemption as it would undermine the rationale to introduce the ETA. At the same time, the Minister of State did grant an exemption for non-visa national residents of Ireland to travel to the UK without the need for an ETA.
The refusal to exempt tourists from the ETA requirement is perplexing. The Home Office argue that it would undermine their rationale for the ETA and that UK border security must be uniform across all borders. However, it’s crucial to recognise that the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is unique, with no immigration checks due to the Common Travel Area (CTA) and no plans to introduce such checks.
Considering the relatively small number of tourists crossing this land border compared to the total visitors to the UK (1.8%), the absence of immigration checks, and the unlikelihood of “persons of interest” applying for an ETA, a short-term exemption for tourists seems entirely reasonable. This approach would preserve the Good Friday Agreement’s collaborative spirit across the island of Ireland, safeguard the financial contribution of overseas tourism to Northern Ireland, all without compromising the ETA policy.
We continue to make the case for an exemption and although the policy has been set, the Minister for Immigration has indicated that he is open to further discussion. We believe that the justifications below provide a strong case.
We have the support of the tourism industry, other GB tourism bodies, the Department for the Economy, Head of the Civil Service, all Northern Ireland MPs, Shadow SoS and MoS, Taoiseach and Tánaiste as well as a number of peers in the House of Lords.
Rationale for an Exemption
Northern Ireland Tourism holds a unique position within the UK:
- Tourism is one of the six areas of co-operation enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement, which introduced a new business model to promote NI overseas as part of the island of Ireland destination through the creation of the cross-border body Tourism Ireland. This is different to all other regions of the UK which are promoted overseas by Visit Britain.
- Overseas tourism to Northern Ireland accounts for around 25% of total tourism spend, £250M in 2019. Spend from day trips is not reported and we conservatively estimate that this generates a further £250M. ETA is putting £500M of tourist spend into the economy at risk.
- The majority of overseas tourists (70%) arrive via the Republic of Ireland, as over 85% of flights from Northern Ireland airports head to holiday destinations. Plus, the 300-mile-long border between RoI and NI is an invisible one, allowing seamless travel. It is only a 90 minute journey from Dublin to Belfast.
- The decision to make a day trip to Northern Ireland is usually made at the last minute. To be faced with applying and paying for an ETA for each member of the group travelling (with no guarantee that you will have an immediate decision) will put many tourists off and they will stay within the Republic of Ireland.
- Unlike those tourists who arrive in the UK via a direct port of entry, tourists who travel via Republic of Ireland will not be aware (through their booking agent), that an ETA is required if they are intending to travel to NI. With Northern Ireland being promoted as part of the Island of Ireland, a lot of tourists are not even aware that they are crossing into the UK when they travel to Northern Ireland, and therefore a tourist can inadvertently enter NI without being aware of the need to have an ETA and being subject to criminal sanctions including the potential to be deported. Although the Home Office have committed to continuing with the policy to have no immigration checks on the land border, immigration checks will be intelligence led so a tourist could be stopped at any point on their visit.
- Ultimately, tourists and operators may opt to skip Northern Ireland altogether in favour of the Republic due to the added cost and hassle.
Following engagement with Home Office officials we proposed an exemption from the ETA requirement for those visitors who travel to Northern Ireland (NI) via the Republic of Ireland (RoI). Ideally, we would like to see the requirement completely removed, however, based in research by Tourism Ireland a duration exemption for a period of 5- 7 days stay in NI would mean around 90% of international visitors would not require an ETA.
This exemption should cover promotable visitors travelling to NI, via RoI, as part of their trip to the island of Ireland including those travelling as part of a tour group or travelling independently.
Note: Promotable visitors are made up of holiday makers, those visiting family and friends, conference, trade/fair/exhibition visitors.
We believe this minor adaptation is in keeping with the spirit of the original legislation and the Good Friday Agreement and will allow seamless tourism on the island of Ireland to continue in the majority of cases. It will protect our tourism economy, ensure clarity in marketing and eliminate disruption for most visitors.