Arlene Foster: It's time to sell ourselves to tourists
The fightback against the damage caused to Northern Ireland's image by the recent street protests linked to the Union flag dispute must start now, Executive Minister Arlene Foster has insisted.
The Tourism Minister said it was time to combat the 40 days of news coverage in Great Britain – Northern Ireland's biggest market for tourists.
She revealed it will be a further two months before full statistics are available which will show the level of success of last year's Our Time Our Place promotional campaign – the reason for the delay is that figures are still awaited from the Irish Republic.
Speaking to MLAs at Assembly Question Time, Ms Foster also struck an optimistic note over the forthcoming World Police and Fire Games which she revealed has already attracted around £2m in accommodation income.
The DUP minister hit out, however, after Alliance member Kieran McCarthy referred to people involved in Belfast street disorder last weekend over the flags protests as "clowns".
Mr McCarthy said it was "disgraceful" that an Irish League football match had to be cancelled "because of the activities of some clowns" and wondered whether it might have a knock-on effect on sportspeople coming for the Games event in August.
The minister replied: "I do not think that it is helpful at all to refer to people as 'clowns'.
"The figure for accommodation for the World Police and Fire Games has passed the £2m mark, which I very much welcome.
"Some competitors from the previous games were over, and, frankly, they had a very good time across Northern Ireland.
"They visited Fermanagh, the Mountains of Mourne, the north coast, and, of course, Belfast. They were singing the praises of this place as a destination."
Then, questioned by the SDLP's John Dallat, who argued the damage caused by the protests was not confined to Belfast, she said: "There is no doubt that damage was caused towards the end of last year, and we can all revisit why that was the case.
"In our biggest market – GB – we had 40 days of news coverage about Northern Ireland, so we really need to get the message out that Northern Ireland has the lowest crime level in Europe, which we should be very proud of.
"We need to say to people that, if you come to Belfast or anywhere else in Northern Ireland, you will get a very warm welcome, good food and good hospitality. Those are the key messages to get out."
The figures for overseas tourists are due to be released "within the next months", said Ms Foster.