Belfast Telegraph

Completion of attractions such as Titanic Belfast provides us with an opportunity to showcase new Northern Ireland

We ask Mark Henry how important is the local tourism industry?

Tourism is recognised as a vital, export-oriented service industry and is set to play an important role in our economic regeneration.

Right now, tourism is responsible for in excess of 4.9% of GDP in Northern Ireland and supports approximately 40,000 jobs right across the province.

Of course the global downturn has impacted on travel and tourism to destinations right across the world and Northern Ireland has been no exception. However, despite these challenges, nearly 15 million tourists have come to Northern Ireland in the years 2002 to 2010, spending about £2.35bn while they were here.

Tourism Ireland is the organisation responsible for promoting Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland overseas. Consumer research that we have undertaken in recent months shows that negative perceptions of security and safety still linger and remain the single biggest barrier to growing tourism to Northern Ireland. Nothing short of a fundamental repositioning of Northern Ireland in consumers' minds is required in order to get them to consider holidaying here.

Next year presents us with just such an opportunity. A year of major tourism events is planned under the banner of 'NI2012' and the completion of iconic new tourist attractions such as Titanic Belfast and the Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre provides us with a wonderful opportunity to showcase the new and vibrant Northern Ireland around the globe.

NI2012 will provide a once-in-a-decade opportunity to change perceptions of our place and to position Northern Ireland as a 'must see' cultural tourism destination. And it nicely lays the ground for Derry-Londonderry's tenure as the first ever UK City of Culture the year after.

Over the next 12 months we will invest millions of pounds in the most extensive programme of marketing activity ever undertaken for Northern Ireland - to include TV, press and extensive online campaigns.

However, we need more local partners - from accommodation providers to visitor attractions and tour guides - to join us in the hundreds of opportunities we have to tell our story overseas.