Northern Ireland’s tourism industry has been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak in China, according to industry bodies and firms.
BBC News NI has been told that as many as 3,000 hotel rooms have been cancelled by Chinese tourists between January and March.
Coach companies have also had tours cancelled as far away as the summer.
Covid-19 has killed more than 2,000 people and infected more than 72,000.
Airlines have restricted flights in and out of China and large areas have been placed into quarantine.
Tourism Ireland estimates 100,000 Chinese tourists visited the island of Ireland in 2018.
It has cancelled a planned sales mission to the country at the end of the month and has suspended social media advertising with industry partners.
The cancellation of trips has had an effect on coach companies in particular, with one now looking to other markets for business.
Colin Neill, of Hospitality Ulster, said the cancellations were “causing real concern”.
“While 3,000 rooms isn’t a lot in the capacity that we have, if you are specialised in that area you would really notice it.
“If this continues, the numbers will escalate right through the year as we go into peak season.
“I don’t think it will close businesses but I am sure now there are hotels where staff hours are impacted because they aren’t filling the rooms.”
He said Chinese tourists were a “really significant element of our tourism” and that the cancellations were a “huge challenge to the industry”.
Northern Ireland ‘A major worry’
Caroline McComb, of McComb’s Coaches, told BBC News NI she depends heavily on the Asian market.
“We have already seen a massive impact on current and future bookings because of coronavirus,” she said.
“Many of our agents who work in Asia have been contacting us because before they would have had a non-cancellation policy.
“They now need to know that for any bookings that need to be cancelled that they’ll receive a full refund.
“Several of our vehicles are Chinese vehicles and they use parts that are unique to a Chinese supplier. We currently have two off the road because we cannot get the parts.
“Obviously it’s a major worry for us for the year ahead that coronavirus will stop people from Asian countries coming to Northern Ireland so we are trying to diversify and target other markets.
“The entire tourism industry in Northern Ireland is obviously going to be affected by this and because Asia is such a growth market for us we really do need to work hard to develop other markets.”
Northern Ireland Analysis: ‘There will be a knock-on effect’
By Richard Morgan, BBC News NI business reporter
The 3,000 room cancellations represent a small percentage of the overall number of rooms available in Northern Ireland, but as it is off-season it will hit the industry harder.
There will also be a knock-on effect.
In 2019, Northern Ireland had 9,500 hotel rooms, with the majority in Belfast.
China is a growing market that tourism chiefs have been targeting and this will come as unwelcome news.
Another coach firm, Hannon Coach, has also felt the impact of fewer Chinese tourists.
Marketing manager Owen McLaughlin told BBC News NI its summer bookings have dropped by a third.
“There’s been an immediate drop in the number of Chinese tourists using the Belfast to Glasgow express.
“We’ve had a number of cancellations for our summer tours already. This has had a very big impact and is really significant.”
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