Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

We need to be smarter when it comes to attracting tourists

The Giant's Causeway on the north coast is a popular destination for holidaymakers
The Giant's Causeway on the north coast is a popular destination for holidaymakers

Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) have settled their plans for the 2011 season.

Tourism Ireland has marketing and budget responsibility for visitors from Great Britain and other countries round the world.

The NITB remit, along with responsibility to encourage tourism amenities and facilities in Northern Ireland, has a narrower geographic remit with a major responsibility to encourage tourists from the Republic of Ireland and ‘staycation’ leisure breaks by residents of Northern Ireland.

The irony of the divided responsibilities is that tourism providers within Northern Ireland are asked to relate to both marketing organisations.

Not surprisingly, the leverage of Tourism Ireland is the larger since the Great Britain market- place is the largest market from which visitors come to Ireland, north and south.

NITB exercises a marketing responsibility within the island alongside its role in the over- sight of the internal tourism infrastructure.

The various agencies still need to develop a single seamless operational agenda with NITB taking a wider role.

One consequence of the unusual shared responsibilities is that a comprehensive picture of all the changes in the impact of tourism in Northern Ireland is not readily available.

For example, the annual report of the NITB, which should be a landmark document, relates only to the direct actions of that board.

The report should give an overview of all key develop-ments along with a statistical review of main performance features. None of these are to be found within the 60 pages.

When launched, the recent NITB report on 2009-10 was given no specific publicity and makes no mention of any com- prehensive measures on tour- ism performance in 2009-10.

Other sources, including Tourism Ireland, show that the most recent year has been disappointing, but probably no more disappointing than might have been expected as a result of the overall economic recession. From an all-island perspective, an unwelcome feature in the last two years has been the severity of the financial and economic recession in the Republic of Ireland.

In 2009 and 2010, the combined impact of the collapse of property prices, the impact of Nama, along with some variability in the sterling-euro relationship, has hit tourism in the Republic.

As an indicator of changed conditions, Tourism Ireland has assessed the impact of the recent downturn by calculating the decrease in the number of opportunities for tourists to arrive by air to both southern and northern airports.

Its estimate is that from 2008 to 2010, the available ‘seats’ per week fell to 425,000 or by 15% at southern airports, and fell to 75,000 or by 25% at northern airports.

No surprise, therefore, that organisations interested in tourism are keen to maintain the capacity of the air links that support incoming tourism.

The Irish Government has recently reduced its air passenger tax to a more modest level. Arlene Foster, as minister with responsibility for tourism, is asking the UK Treasury to make a comparable change to the level of APT affecting Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland ministers also face a further problem with the proposal by BAA to increase by 50% the departure tax on people leaving Heathrow for Belfast (and other UK destinations).

Tourism has the potential to help grow the economy and offer useful revenue earning value-added. Now is an appropriate moment for Tourism Ireland and the NITB, separately and jointly, selectively to up their game.

Tourism facilities are in business to earn more and employ more people. Tourism is not a subsidised charitable action.

Is the Tourist Board ready, able and willing to play a more active interventionist role?

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