TOURISM Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew have traded blows over figures showing there has been a 43 per cent drop in visitor numbers from the south of Ireland.

Ms. Gildernew said it was “the failure of Tourism Minister Arlene Foster to embrace the potential of an all-Ireland marketing strategy” that was a contributing factor.

“The combination of the minister’s failure and her party’s negative role on the flag and marches controversy is frustrating all attempts to exploit the massive potential of the tourist industry.

“It is time the minister and the Tourist Board removed the blinkers and recognised that tourists looking at potential destinations to visit regard Ireland as a single destiny and not two separate places,” said Ms. Gildernew.

Rejecting the comments, Minister Foster hit out at the Fermanagh-south Tyrone representative, telling The Impartial Reporter: “If she wants to pick a fight with me she’s got the right person”.

“This is all part of Michelle Gildernew’s election campaign – she has been invisible for four years and now all of a sudden she is becoming visible again,” said Minister Foster.

“This is the reality: how does that bring people from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland? She knows full well that the institutions formed as part of the Belfast Agreement state that Tourism Ireland markets the whole island outside the island and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board looks after tourism in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. What is she talking about?” While she welcomed that visitors coming from Great Britain and overseas had rose by two per cent and 11 per cent respectively the tourism minister did say that she was “disappointed” but added: “It has more to do with the value of the euro.” “I have been talking to my officials about this. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is formulating a plan and I am helping them with that. We did have a high point in 2012 and we did see a lot of visitors to Northern Ireland. We are working on this,” she said.

In her statement, Ms. Gildernew also suggested that the ongoing issues over flags and parades “cannot fail to have a negative impact on the figures”.

“What, do you mean like the hungerstrike in Derrylin?” responded Minister Foster, referring to plans by Sinn Fein to hold a national hungerstrike commemoration in the village on August 3.

“The hungerstrike parade will have a huge negative impact on tourism in Derrylin because it will be seen that Derrylin is hosting a parade that glorifies terrorism and I don’t think any tourist would want to be put in a situation like that, do you?” Asked, again, if Ms. Gildernew had a point in relation to the anxieties over parades and flags having a possible impact on visitors coming from south of the Border, Minister Foster said: “This is political nonsense, I refer you back to my previous answer. Tourism Ireland does market the whole island of Ireland outside Ireland. She knows that, that’s part of the Belfast Agreement. It is not something I voted for, but something she voted for.”