After Titanic and Derry City of Culture, tourism needs strong lead from those at the top
Minister Arlene Foster has 'opened the box'. Tourism arrangements are to be reviewed. Arguably, the minister has been too gentle. Strategic policy questions merit reconsideration.
For the last two summer seasons, local tourism providers have had major opportunities to build their business, share in increasing tourist activity, and possibly register an improved level of profitability. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board had the marketing leverage of a successful branding image: Our time, our place, NI 2012.
In addition, the marketing effort was able to draw on the added attraction of the centenary of the Titanic linked to the opening of the iconic new Titanic building. Adding further to the marketing agenda, the new Giant's Causeway visitor centre was another attractive facility.
For promotional purposes, the proximity of the Giant's Causeway with the oldest Irish distillery offering the 'Old Bushmills' brand always offers a distinctive dual combination.
Then in recent months during 2013, the Londonderry UK City of Culture has earned incalculably valuable publicity. There are few urban centres that can combine the attractions of a walled city along with a contrasting history of differing cultural traditions.
Into this overview of the tourism perspective there should be added the less easily quantified impact of the World Police and Fire Games.
Perhaps there would (or should) be an acceptance that the Northern Ireland tourist sector has benefited from a period of major public investment and, coming as recessionary forces are easing, must now face the challenges of how to grow and meet the ambitions of the Programme for Government.
As plans are now evolving for strategy and operational interventions affecting 2014 and further ahead, there is a critical need for a stronger lead from the top. Leading participants in the sector, public and private, must reconsider their priorities to enhance the tourism sector.
Currently, the Tourist Board has adopted a new series of priorities for visitors in 2014. These include offering the visitors a unique and high quality tourist offering, high quality service, a vibrant economy, easy access and convenient transport, a clean and green natural environment and authentic communities. These are commendable sentiments. The board would accept that, simply as sentiments, they still fall short of a considered operational strategy.
In the recent past, there was a commitment to devise an omnibus tourism strategy. There have been reports of new thinking under discussion at the NI Executive. Developing a tourism strategy is a formidable task which should now be tackled.
Current tourism policy can be criticised as being either too traditional or uninspiring. Is the objective simply to count the number of visitors and if the number is up, that is success, or if down, that is a failure?
A tourism strategy must ask where more tourists can be found who will add most to the income generation in the local economy. Thousands of one/two day visitors for a single event who briefly stretch the capacity for their accommodation or facilities are less likely to generate sustainable incomes than a more even flow of visitors creating a better use of capacity.
An improved tourism strategy is overdue. There is a temptation to link tourism policies to the debate about air passenger duty and lower VAT on hotels and restaurants. That is too narrow an agenda.
Where are the 'best' tourists to be found? What services will they want to buy? What is our policy on encouraging investment in hotels and accommodation? How much should be encouraged and in what locations? How do we get more tourist friendly regulation of the airports? Should Government assisted major commercial projects be required to add a tourism development levy to their access charges?
Selected tourism policies, carefully targeted, could be critical. Seeking more for the sake of simply attracting more people is unlikely to generate this advancing sector in this more affluent corner of western Europe.