Is this view of Northern Ireland what we want cruise ship tourists to see?
Passengers welcomed by industrial sites and rubbish tips... but still they're arriving on our shores in record numbers
Published 21/08/2014 | 12:00
Northern Ireland has enjoyed a record year for cruise ships - but calls are growing for more to be done to welcome the thousands of visitors.
With more than 80 calling into our ports, the vast majority have either already come into Belfast or set sail for the city, with others calling into Londonderry, Bangor and Portrush.
Warrenpoint has also joined the prestigious cruise ship roster, hosting its first last month – the 449-passenger Saga Pearl II, which was on its way back to Britain from Iceland.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, said there was always room for improvement to give tourists a "world-class experience".
He said: "We should never be in a position where we stand still.
"It's always about how we can improve and give people off the cruise ships a world-class reception.
"It's a constant process of looking to see how we can improve and offer something different, distinctive, and ultimately with the aim of giving the tourist a really good experience."
Belfast will host the most by far with 62 due in 2014, followed by Derry, where five are due. Portrush has seen five cruise ships in the last year, with another due to call on September 2, while Bangor has hosted one so far this year – the Hebridean Princess.
These ships are bringing almost 150,000 visitors into Northern Ireland.
With Failte Ireland estimating the worth of each cruise ship passenger to the local economy as £55, passengers are expected to bring in more than £8m to the economy as a whole.
August has been one of the busiest months in Belfast with 20 liners. The Rotterdam – which has a capacity of more than 1,000 passengers – was docked in Belfast yesterday, and the Seven Seas Voyager is due today.
Tony McAuley of Belfast Harbour said the city was now firmly on the map for cruise ships.
He pointed out that one of the largest liners in the world, the Ruby Princess, which can hold more than 4,000 passengers, is due to call into Belfast several times this month.
"This has been another excellent year for Belfast Harbour with almost 110,000 cruise visitors calling courtesy of some of the world's best-known cruise lines," he said .
Belfast Harbour is in the process of building a new facility for cruise ships at Alexandra Dock on the Co Down side of the lough. Cruise ships currently dock at Stormont Wharf on the Co Antrim side. The new facility is set to include a 2.5-acre marshalling area for coaches and a new welcome centre.
Visit Belfast chief Gerry Lennon said the city has come a long way since 1999 when just two cruise ships called.
This year Belfast Harbour will welcome almost 110,000 cruise visitors, including some ships which are calling at Belfast for the first time. They include several stops by the enormous Ruby Princess which can hold 4,000 passengers.
Belfast Harbour estimates that cruise ships brought £5m into the economy last year.
Failte Ireland says that each cruise ship passengers spends £55, so this year's it's estimated that passengers will spend £8m in Northern Ireland.
Ways to buoy our offering
1. Improve what visitors see as they arrive in Belfast: The approach to Belfast by sea is largely industrial with Kilroot power station one of the first sights before sailing closer and viewing defunct industrial sites and rubbish tips.
2. Extend shop opening hours: Cruise passengers have been spotted wandering forlornly around Belfast city centre on Sunday mornings, peering into closed shop windows. Our trading hour restrictions mean that shops in, for example, the Victoria Centre cannot open until 1pm on Sunday, and close at 6pm.
3. Licensing hours: While the rest of Europe allows bars to stay open into the early hours, most of our bars must close between 11pm and 1am depending on their licence.
4. Deeper ports: Belfast is one of the few ports with deep enough waters to accommodate larger cruise ships. Lough Foyle is too shallow to welcome in any larger ships. A spokeswoman for Visit Derry told the Belfast Telegraph that the cost of dredging Lough Foyle would be significant, but that it was a long-term aspiration.
5. Revamp some of our beautiful old buildings: The Cathedral Quarter in Belfast has seen a resurgence in recent years with the Merchant Hotel in particular bringing new life to the old bank on Skipper Street. But there are scores of other old buildings tourists could enjoy which are currently crumbling.
6. Purpose-built facilities: Cruise ships in Belfast dock at Stormont wharf in Co Antrim, a long way from the city centre. However, plans are under way to create a new facility at Alexandra dock close to attractions Titanic Belfast and HMS Caroline.