The battle to make Northern Ireland one of the world’s top tourism destinations, sitting alongside the likes of Prague and Paris in holiday brochures around the world, is hotting up.
More than 140 tour operators from across the globe were in Belfast yesterday as the cream of our hospitality industry promoted Northern Ireland’s many attractions.
Some companies at the event — the first international business gathering at Titanic Belfast — are putting the finishing touches to brochures for their home audience.
And the response of those businesses — from Germany, America and Australia, as well as less traditional markets like India, Japan and China — means Northern Ireland can look forward to being much more than a mere footnote.
In fact, many said they were in awe of how Belfast has changed in the course of just 12 months.
Chris Hagan from Superbreak in York said that after years of tagging Northern Ireland on to the end of UK or Ireland breaks, his firm is now marketing the province as a short break destination in its own right, alongside other chic European capitals.
“The difference between visiting this year and last year is huge,” he added.
“I think it started with the MTV awards; the whole atmosphere changed. The buzz about the Titanic in the media has been massive, you cannot pick up a paper or watch the news anywhere in the world without mention of it in the past few weeks.
“We used to include Northern Ireland as part of our UK or Ireland tours, but now we are marketing the province as a short break destination alongside the likes of Paris or Prague.
“The Titanic building alone is a huge draw for tourists. As an attraction there is nothing else like it in the UK, it is superb and really makes you feel part of the story. It is a landmark that will bring people to Belfast, and then once they are here they can see what the rest of Northern Ireland has to offer.” It was a first visit for some of the international tour operators, meaning the message about what the province has to offer will reach a far wider audience than ever before.
Heidi Burkhardt from Isle Inn Tours, which has been bringing visitors from the USA to Ireland and Scotland for 25 years, said that the feeling of excitement on the streets is palpable.
“We bring people who are interested in history and heritage and the tourism industry in Northern Ireland has really upped its game in terms of what it can deliver,” she said. “Even outside of Belfast the accommodation and restaurant provision and visitor attractions are so much better.
“A lot of Americans are still sceptical about travelling up north when they come to Ireland, but with what some of the traders are offering now, it will be so much easier to bring them here.”
Susie McCullough, director of marketing and events with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, said that more than 5,000 ‘appointments’ would be made between tour operators and traders during the event.
“Everybody has mentioned the buzz and the air of confidence in Northern Ireland. Those who have attended in the past have remarked on how there seems to be a change for the better,” she said.
“This event is not just about Belfast, there is also a huge interest in the Londonderry City of Culture events in 2013 and the opening of the new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre.
“We have been set the challenge to double tourism revenue by 2020 and when you see some of the connections which are being made between tour operators and traders at these events, it seems all the more achievable.”
Among the traders showing off the best of what Northern Ireland has to offer was Aileen Martin from Hastings Hotels.
“There is so much interest in what we have to offer. We aim to make at least 30 sales, and to make 30 sales in any other way would require phonecalls and meetings all over the world that would cost a fortune,” she said.
“The operators want to come here now and see it for themselves, and they seem genuinely impressed.”
Key facts about our tourism industry
1 Overseas visitor numbers to Northern Ireland rose by 6% to 1.2m in the first nine months of 2011 compared with 2010. Tourism income rose by 20% to £291m.
2 Last year Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster outlined plans to increase the income earned from tourism to £1bn by 2020.
3 Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are currently in India with Arlene Foster to promote Northern Ireland. The trio have also visited Dubai and Canada in recent weeks and plan to visit China before the end of the year.
4 Belfast Welcome Centre has just recorded its most successful two weeks in terms of visitor numbers and tourist enquiries. Total walk-in visits by tourists at its key city centre location at Donegall Place jumped by 96% in the first 14 days of April compared with the same period last year, while phone enquiries increased by 163%.
5 Last month a tourism conference was told that potential visitors from North America are confused about Northern Ireland because they don’t understand that there is a border.
6 The NI 2012 — Our Time, Our Place advertising campaign from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is costing an estimated £2m and includes television and cinema adverts, online videos and billboards.
7 Last year low cost holiday comparison site TripAdvisor announced that Belfast was the best value UK city for tourists.
8 Belfast was recently voted one of the world's top destinations for 2012 by The National Geographic Traveller magazine. The magazine called the city a “treasure” with an “incredible atmosphere”.
9 Travel guide Lonely Planet said this year that Belfast has shed its troubled past and been transformed into a “hip and hedonistic party town”.
10 Fodor’s Ireland — which sells around 50,000 copies annually — also named Belfast as one of the top 21 places in the world to visit in its new edition.
ANTRIM COAST AND GLENS
The long-awaited new visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site, is due to open in July. Visitors can also take in the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Whitepark Bay and the ruins of Dunluce Castle. Sports fans will also thrill to the sight of the world’s best golfers taking part in the Irish Open, which will be staged at Royal Portrush for the first time since 1947 from June 28 to July 1. Fantasy fans could also be enticed to the area thanks to the county playing host to filming locations for hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
History is at the heart of tourism in Co Armagh. Alongside Co Down, the area’s links to Saint Patrick are a major selling point, with two Cathedrals named after him (St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral left) and the Saint Patrick's Trian Visitor Complex. The Navan Centre comprises an ancient fort and an interactive audio-visual show telling of the myths and legends of the Ulster Cycle. Armagh also boasts an observatory, several National Trust properties, a museum and Armagh Gaol, which played a prominent role in Northern Ireland’s history. And, of course, fans of the country’s most famous snack can visit Tayto Castle. Walkers can also visit Gosford Forest Park outside Markethill, and Slieve Gullion Forest Park.
As well as the opening of the already hugely successful Titanic Belfast building, which has attracted visitors from around the world, there are plenty of other attractions to entice visitors to Northern Ireland’s capital city. Music is a big draw, with venues like Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Arena, home of the 2011 MTV Music Awards. Big festivals this year include Tennent’s Vital and Belsonic in the city centre this summer. Arts fans will enjoy visiting the new MAC arts centre, which opens this week, while there is also the newly refurbished Ulster Museum, the City Hall, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and Botanic Gardens to see. Belfast will host the World Police and Fire Games in August 2013.
2013 will see Londonderry become the UK City of Culture. This year the Cultural Olympiad will see events staged in the city before the Olympic and Paralympic Games. A major concert, Peace One Day, will also take place at the former Ebrington Barracks. The Clipper Round The World Yacht Race will finish in the city in July 2012 with a festival to mark the final transatlantic stage of the 40,000-mile race. In 2013 Derry will also host the Turner Prize, the most important event in the UK's contemporary art calendar.
One of the biggest draws to this area are the Mournes, some of the best-known mountains in Ireland. An area of Outstanding Natural Beauty immortalised by Percy French’s song ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ in 1896, it is said to be the inspiration for the writer CS Lewis's Narnia. Slieve Donard, at 2,796ft, is the highest peak in Ulster. As well as climbing and walking, the area is also well known for horse riding, fishing and golf and is also a wildlife hotspot. Visitors can also enjoy a trip to Newcastle and nearby beaches and the St Patrick centre, Down Cathedral and the saint’s grave in Downpatrick. There are large forest parks at Tollymore and Castlewellan.
The Fermanagh lakelands have always been a big draw to staycationers — people who holiday at home — but now the drive is on to showcase this corner of Northern Ireland to the world. The county is also hoping to capitalise on the public love affair with period costume dramas, after news that a new BBC comedy starring Jennifer Saunders and Timothy Spall has started filming at Crom estate. Blandings is based on the celebrated stories by PG Wodehouse and will be transmitted in the autumn after 40 days of filming. The area also has a growing reputation for fine dining with cookery schools at Belle Isle and The Kitchen Academy, while history fans will lap up Enniskillen Balfour and Tully castles as well as some of Northern Ireland’s best stately homes, Florencecourt and Castle Coole.
The Sperrins in Co Tyrone play host to hill walking festivals, mountain biking and also attract gold prospectors, archaeologists and even gliders. The Ulster American Folk Park, where visitors can trace the story of emigration across the Atlantic, is also a big draw for those seeking their roots. Visitors can follow the emigrant trail and journey from the thatched cottages of Ulster, aboard a full scale emigrant sailing ship leading to the log cabins of the American Frontier. The Alley Arts and Conference Centre in Strabane is garnering a reputation as a leading venue for entertainment in the west. Stone circles and historic castles could also prove a draw.