Thanks to a large drop in foreign tourists traveling into the country, Ireland is steeling itself to face one of the worst tourism summers since records began.

According to figures released by the Central Statistics Office of Ireland (CSO) overseas visits to Ireland fell by almost 20% to 657,500 in May 2009 compared to the same month in 2008.

Visits by residents of Ireland’s two main visitor markets declined substantially in the last 12 months. The U.K. was down 91,600 (22.8%) to 306,400 and the numbers traveling from mainland Europe fell by almost 51,200 (20%) to 219,300.

Irish residents made just over 610,000 overseas trips in May 2009, almost 10% less than in May 2008. In the first five months of 2009 overseas trips made by Irish nationals, at 2,729,400, were 10.4% less than in the same period in 2008.  

The CSO Airport Pairings database contains information of every direct flight in and out of the nine Irish airports on a monthly basis. Data is available from January 2006 to January 2009.

Speaking to the Irish press on Tuesday, Fine Gael tourism spokeswoman Olivia Mitchell described the drop in visitor numbers as “nothing short of catastrophic. The worst fears of all those working in the tourism industry have been realized, the summer season is a bust.”

Marie Fullington, vice president of strategic marketing at Tourism Ireland in New York told the Irish Voice on Tuesday that North American travel into Ireland had declined overall by 5% since the start of the year, but added that the relatively small drop off recorded in the latest American figures indicated that there was grounds for optimism about the year ahead.

Said Fullington, “By the end of April this year we’ve seen about a 5% drop in tourists traveling from the U.S. to Ireland. We had a good May, when numbers picked up, however I would be cautious about predicting if one month is good that the whole year will turn out to be.

“The numbers we’re seeing reflect the world economy and its impact on tourism. It’s not a hugely substantial drop and there have been some fantastic airfares out there that have been helping us.

“There’s also a very keen tourist interest in Ireland – a Harris Poll released recently showed that Ireland was number five on a list of Americans’ favorite destinations. That’s quite a good figure for a small country like Ireland. We have to keep on working very hard to do what we can for Irish tourism this year.”

In response to the latest CSO figures Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) president Matthew Ryan told the press, “The dramatic decline recorded in overseas visitors lays bare the decimated state of our tourism industry this year. These figures compel the government and the tourism agencies to take immediate, radical and creative action to reverse this downward trend.”