Brexit Decision Takes A Toll On Ireland's Tourism Industry

Oct 10, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 7:15 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One looming question in Europe has been, what's Brexit going to feel like? Well, some Irish businesses are finding out. They've been clobbered by a fall in the pound, the U.K. currency. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from County Donegal, Ireland.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: David Coulter owns the Inishowen Mushroom farm here. Today a conveyer's loading compost into giant trays where Coulter grows his mushrooms.

DAVID COULTER: We grow in these plastic tunnels. They're insulated tunnels. We employ about 34 people.

LANGFITT: How long's it take to grow mushrooms?

COULTER: Well, we're filling today so it's two weeks and three days we will have mushrooms for picking.

LANGFITT: Brexit's still 18 months away, but Coulter's mushroom farm is already paying a price. Soon after the Brexit vote, the value of the British pound plunged.

COULTER: Well, it's been disastrous. Ninety-eight percent of our product goes into the U.K. market.

LANGFITT: Which means Coulter earns around 18 percent less for his mushrooms because he's paid in pounds. The pound fell because investors think leaving the EU's massive market will damage the U.K. economy. Recently Coulter, who's 67, has had to reduce costs. He's laid off workers. His son, Russell, is working up to 18 hours a day, and Coulter has also found a way to save money on compost.

COULTER: That has given us some relief. If we weren't getting it, you would not be talking to me today.

LANGFITT: What would you be doing?

COULTER: I don't know what I'd be doing. We wouldn't be in business.

LANGFITT: Mushroom farmers have narrow profit margins, which make them especially vulnerable to exchange-rate swings. Coulter, though, feels relatively lucky. At least six mushroom farms have closed since the drop in the pound.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

DAN OBRIEN: Hi. How you doing?

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt. Nice to meet you.

Dan O'Brien is chief economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs, a Dublin think tank. He says only a small percentage of Ireland's exports go to the U.K., but some of those exporters, such as farms, employ a lot of people.

OBRIEN: So if you lose those exports, it has a bigger effect on the labor market and people's lives here.

LANGFITT: Is there an exchange rate in which the Irish economy starts to really feel pain?

OBRIEN: Well, there - there generally is, and it's around the point we are now. And there's a lot of fear that it could go to the point where the British pound is equal to one euro. That would put businesses out of business.

LANGFITT: Exporters aren't the only businesses under pressure.

KATIE DAUGHEN: The U.K. has long been our largest market for tourism.

LANGFITT: Katie Daughen heads Brexit research for the British Irish Chamber of Commerce. We spoke in a Dublin cafe, a short walk from Ireland's most popular tourist attraction, the Guinness Storehouse.

DAUGHEN: This year alone, visitors from the U.K. are down 6 percent, which in numerical context, it's 140,000 fewer visits.

LANGFITT: A big reason - the fall in the pound has made visiting Ireland a lot more expensive for British tourists. Not everything about Brexit is bad for Ireland. Simon Coveney is Ireland's foreign minister. He oversees the country's policy towards Brexit.

FOREIGN MINISTER SIMON COVENEY: Yes, there are some upsides. You know, Ireland will become the only English-speaking country in the European Union.

LANGFITT: Which is one reason some financial firms plan to add employees in Dublin. But Ireland's economy is so closely linked to the U.K., Coveney says the government is urging businesses to plan for the worst.

COVENEY: We have our agencies of the state working with companies now to help them be what's called Brexit-ready, which is to look at their reliance on the U.K., what's exposed in the context of Brexit and how can they try to protect against that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSHROOM CARTS BEING ROLLED)

LANGFITT: Back at the mushroom farm in County Donegal, remaining workers are pushing carts of freshly picked mushrooms. The farm produces at least 60,000 pounds a week. I pose a question to owner David Coulter.

If I may ask, do you think you're going to make it?

COULTER: Don't know. I honestly don't know.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, County Donegal, Ireland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.