The former chief executive of the airline group that owns British Airways and Aer Lingus has said Ireland will have a big job to do to recover from the message it has sent out to international visitors during the pandemic. 

Willie Walsh, who recently stepped down as boss of IAG, said the country has always traded on the basis of the "island of welcomes," but the signal since last year has been "very worrying".

"I think the message that went out was very different, it was stay away, we don't want to see you, we are worried that you are going to bring disease, don't come near us," he said.

"And I think we have a big job to do to recover from that."

Mr Walsh also said it is a pity that pre-flight Covid testing was not embraced earlier as the industry had argued that it was an important step for the sector.

"Some jurisdictions did embrace it, where you had to have demonstrated that you had a coronavirus test before your travel, and I think that is good, that helps to reassure people," Mr Walsh told the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation Virtual Conference.

Mr Walsh, who will shortly take up a new role as Director General of the International Air Transport Association, said some sort of vaccine passport will be part of the solution into the future as well.

"This will be part of the future for a period of time," he said.

The former airline executive said the airline industry is ready and willing to recover and the experience shows that when people are able to travel, the demand is there.

"I don't worry about the underlying demand because once people are told the green light, you can travel, it will pick up very quickly," he said.

In relation to arguments around pursuing a zero-Covid approach, Mr Walsh said he is not sure Ireland's economy could have been shut down in the same way as Australia.

"We're so dependent on trade outside of Ireland, we are so dependent on tourism, on external investment for our direct investment, we are not like Australia," he said.

"So our island is different to other islands and I think we have got to recognise that some of the things that they did that made very much sense for them would not have made sense for us."

"And therefore I think we have to have an Irish solution to what is an Irish problem."

But he added that if we were to do this again and do things differently, it would have to be an all-island solution.

He said it didn't work to have restrictions on people flying into Ireland but open access to those arriving into Northern Ireland.

Mr Walsh also appealed to the Government to work with those involved in the tourism sector to plan the recovery.

"Work with us, we are part of the solution, we are an incredibly flexible resilient segment of the economy," he said.

"We will be part of the rebuilding, we will be part of the economic recovery, but you have got to work with us, you have got to support us. This is a time to support the tourism industry, to work with us, to generate jobs to generate economic recovery and we will only do it if we are working together."