An extraordinary period of NITB investment in the visitor economy means tourism here is ready to take advantage of the worldwide interest in destination Northern Ireland.
With Northern Ireland braced for the Titanic centenary and the series of high-profile events planned under the ni2012 Our Time, Our Place initiative the tourism industry here is on red alert.
To ensure all opportunities are seized, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) has been making sure that the tourism product on the ground is ready to deliver for the expected increase in visitor numbers and spend.
In the last three years alone the NITB has delivered around 100 capital projects right across Northern Ireland, collaborating with partners to deliver wider regeneration projects to lever tourism benefits.
Overall, it has driven forward over 200 initiatives within the last seven years, administering some £60 million worth of investments through the Tourism Development Scheme, which provides financial assistance to the tourism sector in Northern Ireland.
The financial aid has been channelled into improving the sense of welcome and visual attractiveness of tourism areas and into driving up the standard and quality of a raft of visitor attractions, important cultural buildings, tourist information centres, public spaces and activity tourism products across Northern Ireland.
“NITB’s initial vision to develop a world-class experience for visitors is coming to life,” said Siobhan McCauley, who as Product Development Director at NITB has overseen most of the projects in its funding schemes.
“What’s important is that all of this development work has been aligned to what is distinct about Northern Ireland – the signature projects of Titanic, the Causeway Coast, the Walled City of Derry, St Patrick and the Mournes. These are our most important natural tourism assets and our totally unique tourist destinations.
“The signature project concept was developed by the tourism industry back in 2004 and has strategically guided all NITB development work ever since,” she explained.
“In recognition of tourism as a key driver for the future of our economy, the Executive allocated £60 million funding to NITB, through the Programme for Government.
“Now the supporting infrastructure and tourism development aligned to the vision for the signature projects has been achieved and animated,” added Siobhan.
In the north-west, the Walled City of Derry Signature Project driven by NITB has been transforming the city and its environs into a world-class, must-see, visitor destination.
Northern Ireland’s St Patrick and Christian Heritage story is also being animated with NITB investing in key sites such as Grey Abbey, Down Cathedral and Armagh Cathedral along a 92-mile driving route.
Funded projects in the Mournes have involved the installation ofinterpretation panels along the Down coast and tourist-focused improvements at Silent Valley, Annalong, Mill Bay, Narrow Water and Dundrum.
And building on a £270,000 redevelopment of the Nautilus Centre attraction in Kilkeel under the Tourism Development Scheme, the Mourne Maritime Visitor Experience offered a series of activity, including seafood cookery demonstrations and tours, and developed podcast content, thanks to a further Tourism Innovation Fund grant of almost £25,000.
NITB finance has enabled a series of other tourism developments ranging from the creation of catering facilities and event spaces at Loughshore Park in Jordanstown; the installation of interpretation panels at North Down Museum and Bangor Abbey; and caravan park refurbishments at Six Mile Water.
Outdoor activity tourism has been boosted at Todd’s Leap in County Tyrone with over £100,000 of NITB finance enabling the addition of new facilities to help tourists engage with everything from paintballing to body zorbing to clay pigeon shooting.
While in Fermanagh, £22,500 helped develop a series of captivating story trails that feature local story-tellers revealing the tales, myths and legends, past and present, of the lake-land county.
As part of the investment towards the Causeway Coastal Route, £379,000 of NITB funding went towards a public realm project at Ballycastle to regenerate visitor sites and neighbouring villages in the Moyle area including Rathlin Island.
Aside from improving the necessary car park improvements, novel street furniture and other tourism infrastructure improvements in the area, the funds enabled artists to create two iconic sculptures to be installed at Ballycastle Harbour and seafront.
One sculpture entitled the “Leap of Faith” depicts various species of fish found in local waters and the other portrays the four swans from the “Children of Lir” legend.
“This kind of public art contributes to the holiday ambiance and visual attractiveness of the area,” said Kerrie McGonigle, Tourism Development Officer with Moyle District Council. “But just as importantly it engages visitors, and encourages them to uncover the rich character, culture, history and story of our area.
“Feedback tells us that it makes a real difference and that our visitors love it,” she added.
Siobhan McCauley explained: “Northern Ireland has joined up the dots between our most significant assets, the infrastructure on the ground and the experiences, stories, history and culture unique to us that can be shared with our visitors.
“Alongside the investment, the efforts of the industry over the last seven years have been absolutely immense and the result is that our tourism landscape has evolved beyond recognition,” she added.
“Visitors now have fantastic reasons to choose Northern Ireland, to stay longer and to spend more, all of which is fundamental to achieving our ambitious tourism growth targets.
“The time is right to appreciate what has physically been achieved and develop our sense of civic pride. It’s an exciting time for Northern Ireland tourism,” concluded Siobhan.