Northern Ireland needs to grow tourists' spend by £500m, says expert
Growing Northern Ireland's tourism sector to the same size as its counterparts in Scotland and the Republic would mean an extra £500m being spent by visitors every year, an economist has said.
Gareth Hetherington, associate director of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC), said tourism spending currently accounted for 2.3% of Gross Value Added (GVA) in Northern Ireland.
In contrast, tourism accounted for 4% of GVA in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland respectively.
But if our tourism sector grew to the same levels of our neighbours over the border and across the sea, Mr Hetherington said there could be a £500m increase in spending in the economy - and another 11,000 jobs in the sector.
And he said that of 55,000 new jobs added to the economy since the start of 2012, 7,000 had been created in hotels and restaurants.
Only wholesale and retail could eclipse that rate of job growth over the period, at 8,000 new jobs.
But according to forecasts from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the UUEPC, the sector was forecast to bring 600 new jobs between 2015 and 2019.
And Mr Hetherington said there were areas of potential growth in tourism.
"When you look at a breakdown of expenditure by visitors from 2011 to 2014, what's very striking is that the category of those visiting friends and relatives, or leisure tourists, is growing - but expenditure in business tourism has been very flat.
"Not that long ago Belfast was being touted as one of the world's top venues for conferences.
"There are capacity issues in Belfast, but the extension to the Waterfront Hall will create additional capacity for conference expenditure."
And he said hospitality had grown in importance to the economy during 2015, with domestic spending in hotels and restaurants a greater driver of growth than exports had been, due to a slowdown in the global economy.
Mr Hetherington was addressing the annual Hospitality Exchange event in Belfast, which heard from representatives of the tourism and hotels industries.
Richard Ennis, director of business and corporate banking at First Trust Bank, said: "By 2020 it's estimated that the tourism industry is set to grow by 15% in Northern Ireland - so events like Hospitality Exchange provide an excellent platform to ensure Northern Ireland's tourism and hospitality industry reaches its full potential.
He added: "There are economic challenges brought about by the drift in sterling/euro exchange rate and that, coupled with the 20% Vat rate in Northern Ireland in comparison to 9% in the Republic of Ireland, is no doubt affecting many hotels' bread and butter business."