Accommodation providers in Larne are fearing for their future due to plummeting visitor numbers, following the loss of the Troon ferry route.
The loss-making Irish Sea route, which traditionally ran from March to October, was officially scrapped by operators P&O Ferries back in January.
And with the tourist season now in full swing, a number of Larne businesses are beginning to feel the inevitable fallout of the route’s withdrawal– with some guest houses reporting that visitor numbers have halved.
The Times spoke to several guest house operators in the town, who all confirmed they have experienced a substantial drop in business in recent weeks.
Ivy Chalmers of Derrin Guest House revealed that bookings over the past month have shrunk by about 40 per cent compared to the same period last year.
“Business has just dropped off a cliff in recent weeks,” she said. “If this continues throughout the summer it could be very bad news for local accommodation providers.
“We have recently invested a lot of money upgrading our facilities at Derrin Guest House, and are now faced with the prospect of having a lot more empty beds than in previous years.
“This downturn will also have a knock-on effect for the local economy, as fewer visitors means less money being spent in the town.”
It is a similar story at the Manor House, with its owner reporting that visitor numbers have plunged by 50 per cent compared to April 2015.
She added: “I have been in this business for 50 years and have never experienced a month like this.
“I believe the loss of the Troon route is one reason for this decline, but it is not the only reason. I understand that P&O cannot continue to run a route which is not making money.
“I think the Tourist Board has done too much boosting of places like Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway and Derry, while places like Larne have been downgraded and are suffering as a result.
“Hopefully things will pick up over the summer once the Gobbins has reopened, but at the minute the situation is quite dire.”
Elsewhere, Seaview Guest House has also experienced a sharp drop in the number of bookings, as has the Harbour Inn B&B, which is down by about 45 per cent on last year.
Harbour Inn owner Liz Connor told the Times: “We have had a number of cancellations as a direct result of the Troon route being cut, with people telling us they prefer to sail to Belfast instead.
“This is a very worrying situation. Our business rates have gone up recently, and if this downward trend is going to continue, how are we supposed to run a sustainable business?
“Larne is the gateway to the Antrim coast, and is a prime location for tourists to use as a base.
“But it looks like more and more people will choose instead to stay in Belfast and the town will be completely overlooked.”
Larne’s Curran Court hotel is also anticipating a slight downturn in visitor numbers due to the loss of the Troon route.
Head receptionist Jacqueline Leitch said: “We have already had some cancellations from people in Scotland who were supposed to be coming over for a wedding. But they decided it was too expensive to travel over now that the Troon route has been discontinued.”
“We also foresee the number of drop-in guests and one-nighters will go down over the summer. However, only about 25 per cent of the hotel’s customer base tends to be tourists, so the overall impact will likely not be too drastic for us.”
The Times contacted P&O Ferries to enquire if the company had any plans to re-establish the Troon route at some point in the future.
A spokesperson responded: “P&O Ferries are not currently looking for a fastcraft. Earlier this year, the company announced the decision to focus on the Larne-Cairnryan service, which provides up to seven sailings a day on the shortest, most frequent crossing between Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
When it announced the closure of the route earlier this year, the ferry company told the Times: “P&O Ferries has proudly operated this additional seasonal route since 2003, but the stark reality is that the company is continuing to make significant losses, and sadly the income from ticket sales is not sufficient to cover the annual vessel and port operating costs.”