Why can’t Northern Ireland benefit from duty free bonanza?

31 August, 2023

Belfast International Airport has not been able to cash in on the return of duty free a­fter Brexit but elsewhere the summer travel season was a soaraway success.

Restoring the duty free allowance for international travellers was one of the few consumer gains from the whole torturous Brexit process. From January 2021, a generous personal allowance of four litres of spirits, 18 litres of still wine and 42 litres of beer has been in place for travellers returning to the UK from the European Union, providing a signi­ficant commercial boost to continental travel retailers and ferry operators on the Irish Sea and the Channel.

Yet not every part of the UK benefited from the reinstatement of duty free shopping, which, lest we forget the UK Travel Retail Forum, believes contributes more than £900m to the UK economy annually. Northern Ireland’s airports were excluded because the Northern Ireland Protocol – a complex part of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit – was still under discussion.

However, the agreement of the Windsor Framework earlier this year, which included an aim to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, should mean that duty free sales of liquor and tobacco could be returned to Belfast City and Derry airports, the UK Travel Retail Forum argues. The Forum believes the inability of these airports to sell duty free goods results in a loss of £5m each year to the regional economy, including the country’s nearly 30 craft distilleries.

“The return of duty free post-Brexit has proven incredibly popular with consumers, with overseas retailers seeing significant increases in sales of duty free goods to departing UK passengers,” said UK Travel Retail Forum chair Nigel Keal. “This has been a crucial financial support as the aviation and travel-retail sectors recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Preventing airports and businesses in Northern Ireland from accessing this revenue stream is unfair. It puts them at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the UK, and to the rest of Europe,” he added.

Strong summer

While Northern Ireland remains a duty free anomaly, the rest of Europe appears to have enjoyed a strong summer season, as have global shopping destinations such as Dubai, Singapore, Paris and New York. According to aviation consultancy Forward Keys, forward airline ticket data shows that sun and beach destinations were up 22% this summer compared with the same period in 2021; urban destinations increased 42%, while shopping trips rose an even higher 53%.

Family travel is experiencing a signi­ficant rebound, driven by a surge in demand for vacations accumulated over the past couple of years when travel conditions for this particular segment were less favourable. Presently, bookings have reached 90% of pre-pandemic levels, with a resurgence of international air travel being perceived as family-friendly once more.

Couples and solo travel have also recovered well, according to Forward Keys. Yet group travel, a key customer segment for the travel retail business in Asia/Paci­fic, is faring less well and it remains to be seen whether it will fully recover to pre-pandemic levels, which should perhaps give pause for thought for the wider travel-retail business.

Back in Europe, the unlikely candidate of gin seems to have benefited from the summer getaway season despite flagging domestic sales in the UK, its biggest market. For instance, in July, Dufry-owned World Duty Free partnered with Surrey-based Silent Pool Distillers to launch a limited-edition, summer-themed Silent Pool Gin exclusively at London Gatwick airport.

Inspired by the gardens of the Surrey Hills at the height of summer, the Silent Pool English Garden Expression is a floral gin limited to only 7,000 bottles priced at £32.09 each. Peach and apricot were added to the gin’s line-up of botanicals, as well as aromatic ‑ orals such as lavender, chamomile, distilled rose, and local honey.

Meanwhile in Germany last month, William Grant & Sons opened what it claimed was a Hendrick’s Gin Perfumery at Frankfurt airport in partnership with travel retailer Gebr Heinemann. The novel activation featured an edible, cucumber-infused fragrance developed in collaboration with Hendrick’s global brand ambassador Ally Martin which was used by travellers as a spritz over sample Hendrick’s gin and tonics.

Other typically surrealist touches at the Terminal 1 promotion included a giant Eau de Cucumber atomiser, a Victorian-style shop window and a Story Wall where travellers could feed cucumbers into port holes to ­find out how the fragrance was made. They could also pick up a phone to hear what the fragrance sounded like at the Perfumery’s intriguingly entitled Answering the Call of the Unnecessary station.

“The Hendrick’s Gin Perfumery is the latest example of how Hendrick’s is able to disrupt the gin category in travel retail in its own delightfully idiosyncratic way,” said William Grant & Sons global travel retail regional director for Europe & Americas Rufus Parkinson, commenting on the fun activation.

“On one level, the Perfumery will provide some relaxing fun for stressed travellers. On another, the activation has a more informative angle – to alert gin drinkers to the fact that Hendrick’s is oddly infused with rose and cucumber, which is a key point of differentiation for the brand in the crowded gin category.”

Gin may be flagging in the UK, but the examples of Silent Pool and Hendrick’s suggest the category still has further potential to grow in travel retail if travellers are provided with something out of the ordinary.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.