Anger over Australia's N. Ireland travel advice

By Michael McHugh,Pa
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:02

Outraged hoteliers tonight hit out after the Australian government warned its visitors to Northern Ireland to be wary of potential trouble-spots.

The advice from Canberra provoked fury from the North Coast to the lakes of Fermanagh and the Mourne Mountains, Co Down.

Earlier this year, police said the danger from dissidents was at its worst since the 1998 Real IRA Omagh blast which killed 29 people. There have been a series of failed bomb attacks on members of the security forces and one in Lurgan, Co Armagh, this month in which three children were injured.

Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, said: "Until that dissident threat is contained it is of concern, however, these things have got to be put in perspective.

"There are other countries in the world where terrorism is very much higher-profile and much more prevalent. We are not really in that position."

Nationalist SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said she would write to the Australian Ambassador in Dublin, Bruce Davis, and High Commissioner in London, John Dauth, to invite them to Northern Ireland.

"The decision by the Australian government to warn its citizens about visiting Northern Ireland seems to be somewhat of an over-reaction," she said.

"It is the stated aim of dissident republicans to destabilise the peace and this type of advice plays right into their hands."

Earlier this year, Northern Ireland was affected by serious sectarian rioting in north Belfast's Ardoyne, linked to the loyal orders' marching season.

After a parade on July 12 through the nationalist area, 80 police officers were injured in days of clashes in Belfast.

Missiles were hurled at police by youths and a piece of masonry dropped on a policewoman's head.

There have been tensions connected with parades in other parts of the country, including Rasharkin, Co Antrim.

Dissident republicans have stepped up their activities and planted several devices under cars aimed at members of the security forces, which have failed to explode.

In Lurgan, three children, including a two-year-old, were hurt in a blast which police said was intended to kill officers.

Last night, a viable device was discovered in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.

Despite the perceived escalation in threat, Michael McCormick, marketing director at the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, said last year 50,000 Australians visited Northern Ireland compared to 40,000 in 2000.

He added that they were made up of backpackers spending up to two years in the UK and Ireland and older people with more disposable income staying for as little as a fortnight.

"The vast majority of Aussies and Kiwis are experienced travellers and because it is a big piece of expenditure they plan their trip for a couple of years or 18 months," he said.

"They will keep an eye to see what is going on. If it moved to become a more serious level of warning then that could have an impact."

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs warned citizens of bomb attacks aimed at police and military targets and said they should avoid demonstrations.

It said: "We advise you to be alert to your own security in Ireland."

But Australians in Belfast said they did not feel threatened.

Michelle Maxwell, 31, from Melbourne, has lived with family in Belfast for three years and works for a city centre hairdresser.

"I have no problem at all, I go out and just live my life here," she said.

"You have to keep your wits about you and not put yourself into any kind of danger.

"In Melbourne, they have spots where there are gangs and crime going on."

Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, which markets the island abroad, said the threat assessment had not changed and was at the same level as the US, France and Germany.

"We will be taking the matter up with the ambassador in Dublin. It does not reflect a lot of hard work done on the ground to improve the perception of Northern Ireland as a tourist destination," he said.

"Australia is a very important destination for us as they tend to stay longer and travel more to Northern Ireland than many other nationalities, it is important that we keep the foot on the pedal."

He said they had not received any calls, emails or comments on the Facebook site.

Northern Ireland Tourism Minister Arlene Foster said she would be raising the matter with the Foreign Office in London.

"According to its website, the travel advice from the Australian government's department of foreign affairs and trade has been revised and reissued, but the overall level of the security advice has not changed," she said.

"Similar travel advice about personal safety and potential terrorist activity is given in relation to the United Kingdom as a whole, along with other countries like Sweden and Spain."

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