Lack of long-haul flights hitting tourism in Belfast, says hotelier
Belfast's capacity to attract long-haul tourists must be improved if it is to compete effectively as a destination, according to the manager of the city's Fitzwilliam Hotel.
As the luxury city centre venue marked its fifth anniversary, general manager Cian Landers said Belfast was losing out on visitors because of the dearth of long-haul routes into the city – the only far-flung destination out of Belfast is Newark in the US – and due to competition from Dublin Airport.
Dublin Airport has ramped up advertising to attract Northern Ireland travellers – but the effect of overseas visitors flying into Dublin instead of Belfast meant that the latter was a secondary destination, Mr Landers said.
"Access into Northern Ireland is a big challenge in the industry. Dublin has grown exponentially with visitor numbers coming in through their airport.
"The challenge for us is trying to keep two airports on the go (George Best Belfast City and the International) and trying to encourage growth, particularly in the International Airport from long-haul destinations, is a challenge.
"There's a shortage of long-haul routes coming in for various reasons and that's something which government really needs to address."
But he said the Fitzwilliam had been a "success story" for Belfast, despite opening in the depths of the economic downturn in 2009. Turnover had grown by 10% in 2013 and employee numbers had grown 15% to 100 in the last two years – though detailed turnover and profit figures were not available. Mr Landers said the Great Victoria Street hotel had enjoyed a strong start to 2014, with occupancy rates of over 80% during the week and almost 100% at the weekend.
He said it was fully booked for an Irish League of Credit Unions conference in the city at the end of April – while business in the last six months of 2013 had benefited from the World Police and Fire Games and the G8.
Cast members from cult TV show Game of Thrones and movie Dracula Untold also stayed last year – and Mr Landers revealed he had already received assurances from Northern Ireland Screen that more major productions would come to the province this year.
But he said Northern Ireland was at a disadvantage because of its high VAT rate – 20% compared to an exemption rate of 9% for hospitality businesses in the Republic.
"From my point of view, if you granted me a wish, it would be could you do something about the VAT rate, because it's exorbitant here in Northern Ireland and again, the south have a 9% VAT rate and we have a 20% rate to deal with.
"Anything that would help us to add more value to pass it on to the customer would really help and have a big multiplier effect."
The hotel – which is owned by businesswoman June Burgess, and operated by hotel business Hotel Partners – does not have a star rating.
However, Mr Landers said it may seek one next year. "We position ourselves as a luxury branded property and I think at the time the decision was made to remain unbranded was in the context of the time. But we possibly might be reviewing that, and it's being considered for 2015."