Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Constructive review of Northern Ireland tourism sector lays out plan to boost visitor numbers

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster, as Minister for the Economy, presides over a range of tourism responsibilities. Interesting ideas for improvements are on the agenda — and 2014 could be the moment when both policies and institutions gain fresh momentum.

Recently a thoughtful and constructive review of the Tourist Board and the wider tourism structures was commissioned from former senior civil servant John Hunter.

It offers the minister some pertinent advice. Not all the recommendations are comfortable for the Tourist Board but, in general, they merit early implementation.

There is an apparent contradiction in the current assessments of the recent degree of success in attracting more visitors and the open acknowledgement that current policies are not ambitious enough.

The headline statistics point to the increased number of visitors and the amount of visitor spending which fit well against the targets set in the Programme for Government: 4.2m visitors generating turnover revenue of £676m up to December 2014.

The existing targets are modest.

The minister is keen to acknowledge the recent achievements. However, she does have greater ambitions. There are serious questions to consider on the focus of visitor attraction policies alongside serious questions on the institutional arrangements.

John Hunter draws attention to the frustrations caused by the absence of an agreed strategic plan for tourism. A draft strategic plan was sent to the NI Executive in 2010 and, as John Hunter puts it, “approval by the NI Executive is long overdue”. He suggests that the absence of an agreed strategy has inhibited the development of collaborative partnerships which could be the building blocks for future progress and has also caused a degree of confusion over the roles of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and the Tourist Board.

Now, in the continuing absence of an agreed strategy for, or from, the Executive, we are being consulted on the proposals from John Hunter on improving the institutional arrangements in so far as they lie within the remit of the Executive.

The 33 recommendations in the Hunter review build up from a competent review of many of the individual tourist development functions across the whole range of relevant agencies. In a persuasive logical sequence, the functions are examined and conclusions reached. The analysis builds to reach critical conclusions.

The last three recommendations, in reverse order, are:

  • The Tourist Board name should be changed in order to signal the scale of the envisaged transformation
  • The board should engage in an organisation development and culture change programme to embed the transformation on the client
  • The new chief executive should assume early responsibility for the development of the new organisation structure

The suggestion is that the organisation might be named ‘Visit NI’ or, alternatively, ‘Discover NI’. In terms of language, the ambition is to attract more visitors, rather than using the term tourists.

With the changing nature of the visitor market, including business visits, conferences, holiday stays and welcoming returning family and friends, the term ‘visitor’ seems more comprehensive than ‘tourist’.

John Hunter, diplomatically, spells out the need for a clearer organisation of the current board staffing. The organisation needs to be reshaped to focus more clearly on the ‘destination areas and experience pillars’ that are central to the core of visitor promotion. Equally, this reshaping should facilitate the new relationships with the 11 new local government authorities with their delegated community planning responsibilities. Care is needed for a complete rethink without trying to fudge the current structures alongside the new.

The Hunter report leaves one significant issue which merits reconsideration. There is a crucial need for better delivery of co-operative professional work with the (all-island) Tourism Ireland.

The present but necessary legal separation between the Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland needs to be enhanced by greater mutually supporting efforts.

This island is too small a destination to allow these sensitivities to damage the possible results.

This official consultation offers an improved prospectus on how to attract more visitors.

Company report: McLaughlin &  Harvey

McLaughlin and Harvey is one of Northern Ireland’s largest construction companies. The registered accounts also consolidate the results for its smaller subsidiaries in property development and wholesale distribution.

Business turnover at nearly £158m in 2013 improved on the previous year but was still well below the higher total of £198m in 2011.

Turnover improved in 2013 but the competitive margins were still demanding and both operating and pre-tax profit were lower than other recent years. The company reports that at the end of 2013 tender inquiries had increased and the order book was much stronger than a year earlier.

The company’s strategic report includes not only a statement of the financial results but also contains an extensive review of its actions in respect of health and safety, environmental policy, quality measures and sustainability measures.

The wider range of policy statements is emphasised by reference to a number of industry standard accreditations, including OHSAS 18001 for health and safety, ISO 14001 on environmental standards and ISO 9001 on quality.

In a list of awards, the group takes particular credit from a ‘most considerate site’ 2013 where it took first place from over 9,000 sites across the UK.

The company also gained excellence awards in sustainability criteria and in recognition of efforts to show corporate responsibility.

Average employment in the group rose to 382 people in 2013, still well below the numbers five years ago but now recovering as the order book improves.

A reflection of changed trading conditions is to be found in decisions to vary the level of dividend payments. They fell to just under £0.14m in 2008 and £0.1m in 2009. In 2013 dividend payments of £1.3m improved on the recent much lower levels.

The balance sheet value of shareholders’ funds increased at the end of 2013 to just over £40m continuing the improvement of each recent year. Ken Cheevers is the group chairman.

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