Belfast is never going to be London, Paris or Rome. Yet it is being pitched as the new ‘must-see’ city break destination.
The Stormont Executive has ambitious plans to double tourism-generated income from £536m to £1bn and increase visitor numbers from 3.2m to 4.5m by 2020.
And it is hoped a new drive to market Belfast as a weekend getaway will help achieve these aims.
“We can grow as a cosmopolitan destination,” said Michael McCormick, head of marketing at the Belfast Visitor Convention |Bureau. “We will never be a London or a Paris and we should not try to be. We should be unique to ourselves.
“We have a really good product which has a good quality range of accommodation from modern and new international chains like Holiday Inn, Ibis and Hilton Hotels to local, iconic brands like the Fitzwilliam, the Merchant and Hastings.
“We have a good retail experience in Belfast and that’s a critical component for a cosmopolitan city. There is also a quality range of events and festivals. And, Belfast also has more than its fair share of pubs.
“However, we need to keep evolving our tourist offering.”
Lonely Planet says Belfast has pulled off a “remarkable transformation from a bombs-and-bullets pariah” alongside destinations like Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia, to a “hip-hotels-and-hedonism party town”.
It is now a must on the tourist trail and has 3,125 hotel beds to accommodate visitors.
However, our troubled history is a big draw with black taxi tour operators reporting a surge in the number of people requesting to see the peace lines and political murals.
Significant investment in buildings such as the £90m Titanic Signature Project, the new Lyric Theatre (£18m) and the multi-million pound Metropolitan Arts Centre will provide good reasons to visit and encourage year-round tourism. However, against a backdrop of 30 years of very limited growth and investment, it is widely recognised there is still much more to do.
New figures from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment show that 60% of out-of-state visitors come from Britain, but Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has described the performance so far in reaping the benefits of this particular market as “disappointing”.
Belfast has not been as successful as competitor destinations in persuading visitors to spend money; it has not yet exploited the opportunities provided by events or local food and drink, and it has work to do to develop the potential of business tourism.
Mr McCormick added: “No doubt when there is trouble there is a very immediate impact on business. There was a knock-on |effect from last summer’s rioting. We need to have a product that goes right through the year so we see no slump. It is a difficult enough marketplace with our competitors without the additional negative problems.
“We are on a journey but we are not at the end goal.”
Cathy Martin, organiser of Belfast Fashion Week, one of the city’s 55 festivals, said: “I love to think that events and festivals like ours and the Queen’s Festival, Belsonic and even the food festivals at Botanic Gardens, all contribute not just to visitor numbers but also to quality and variety of life for those who live here.
“There’s not much I don’t like about the city, apart from the sometimes crazy licensing laws. Plus the lack of good outdoor areas in our restaurants, pubs and clubs. It’s getting better but it’s not there yet.”
Tom Hartley, a Belfast councillor and historian, said the city has many hidden gems. “All over Belfast there are places of historical interest,” he said. “There are so many aspects of our city that lie hidden. For example Garfield Street is dilapidated but there are beautiful buildings if you look up. Twenty-five years ago our tourist season lasted for two weeks in August; now every day I see people at the mural wall on the Falls Road.”
Roisin McDonagh, Arts Council chief executive, said: “We are at a critical moment.
“We can either continue to invest in our defining assets as a city or we can choose to penny-pinch and risk our deserved place on the international map as a proud city which confidently proclaims its rich artistic and cultural achievements.”