Weekends opening hours must change to make us a tourism leader: expert
Trading times must be extended if Northern Ireland expects to be taken seriously as a world class visitor destination, it has been claimed.
International and European guests often complain there is little to do across the province on Sundays – particularly in the morning – due to our limited opening hours for many retail and tourist attractions.
One tourism expert has warned that action is needed now, ahead of the Giro d'Italia, which will attract a huge influx of competitors, support team members and spectators from across the world from May 8-11.
Northern Ireland Tourist Board has estimated that the extra business stimulated by the event – second only to the Tour de France in world cycling prestige – will generate £2.5m for the economy, together with some £10m worth of international media coverage. But Dr Peter Bolan, director of International Tourism Management Studies at the University of Ulster, says the economic benefit could be so much more if managed properly.
"Opening hours in Northern Ireland need to be more flexible to meet the needs of visitors from other countries and cultures," said Dr Bolan. "They have certain expectations and we must be careful they're not disappointed by what we have to offer when they come here, especially for high-profile events like the Giro.
"We don't always have great weather so we must make sure our tourist offering doesn't fall short by not having alternative retail or visitor opportunities that are actually open to the public.
"Some of our flagship attractions are shut on Sundays, or they open too late and close too early, and that's something that needs to change."
For capital cities elsewhere it's business as usual all weekend for shops, restaurants and tourist activities, but here it's a different story.
Many outlets in Belfast don't open until the late morning or early afternoon on Sundays – and some don't open at all.
While Titanic Belfast opens at 9am and the Ulster Museum at 10am on a Sunday, others, such as the Crumlin Road Gaol, don't open until the afternoon.
A Department for Social Development spokeswoman said there were no plans to extend retail Sunday opening hours following a consultation.
Lauren Vandel (37), who moved to Northern Ireland from Yorkshire in 2012, said she was surprised at the lack of things to do here on Sundays.
"I like the outdoors but there's not much to do on a rainy day. I'll often suggest going to a nice cafe but forget they're shut," she said.
"If I was back in England I would go to a cafe, or nice shops or a museum on a Sunday, but here those sort of places tend to open much later. Belfast seems to be in suspended animation until after lunchtime."
Established Coffee, on Belfast's Hill Street, is one of a small number of cafes which currently open on Sundays. Its owner Mark Ashbridge said it was a risk for him to open and he added that trade was still quiet on Sunday mornings.
"Some people just don't want to take the risk in the current economic climate; you're taking a risk every time you open your doors," he said. "It's tough especially for a small business like mine because I have to be here seven days a week, and although we get people coming in when we open at 9am on a Sunday, there's not a lot of trade until things pick up around 11am."
When St George's Market opened on Sunday for the first time in June 2010 there was a small protest from members of the Free Presbyterian Church. However, there have been changes in recent years, with a variety of attractions opening on Sundays.