Why top produce should put us on tourist menus
It is said the way to a man's heart is through his stomach - and, in a nutshell, that is the essence of what 2016, the NI Year of Food and Drink, is all about.
We want to win the hearts of tourists. We want them to fall in love with this place and we know that our food and drink can play a key role in making that happen.
In many ways, our food and drink offering has been hidden in plain sight. It's only when you are away from this place that you realise just how lucky we are to have such a fantastic array of fresh ingredients and a wide range of eateries that turn those ingredients into something very special.
Now it's time to celebrate what we've got to offer, to whet the appetite of potential visitors from near and far and put Northern Ireland firmly on the tourists' menu.
More and more people are now choosing Northern Ireland as a business and tourism destination and we have continued to see the tourism sector grow, sustaining jobs and creating new business opportunities. We are well on course to reach the target of making tourism a £1bn industry by 2020.
I believe 2016 and the NI Year of Food and Drink has the potential to significantly build on this momentum.
Food and Drink is Northern Ireland's biggest manufacturing industry, employing around 100,000 people across the supply chain and exporting £1.3bn of products around the world. Plenty of our home-grown creations are classics - such as Armagh's Bramley apples, Comber's Early potatoes and Lough Neagh's eels, to name but a few, while our Glenarm Shorthorn beef is considered the best in the world and Bushmills whiskey is a global icon. Food is also a major reason why people come here, with tourists spending over £350m a year on food and drink alone.
Northern Ireland is a foodies' heaven and the Year of Food and Drink will see each month dedicated to celebrating a different part of our unique and diverse gastronomic landscape. To name but a few highlights, this month, for example, we will celebrate the most important meal of the day, breakfast. And in August, it is the turn of our meat producers, while in September the focus will be on everything that is great about bread and baking.
Having recently visited China, I have heard first hand the real enthusiasm for learning about and visiting Northern Ireland. When I spoke to travel agents in Shanghai, they told me their clients like to immerse themselves in all things Northern Ireland when they visit our shores, particularly the whole dining out experience. I believe this is true of the majority of tourists and the Year of Food and Drink will provide another big selling point for those promoting us as a visitor destination overseas.
Supported by Tourism Northern Ireland, 2016 will see a range of organisations, restaurants and producers coming together to organise a variety of events such as food markets, tasting menus, cookery demos, baking competitions, edible challenges, and pop-up tastings. Events such as these provide a unique opportunity for both locals and visitors alike to experience and learn about food and drink and appreciate and try food and drink that reflects different regions, food and drink culture, heritage or traditions.
I would encourage everyone to check what is happening in their area and across Northern Ireland and perhaps taste something new along with enjoying their traditional favourites.