Belfast Telegraph

We'll make The Open a triumph: Can Northern Ireland handle its biggest-ever sporting event?

The local hospitality industry says bring it on...

By Rebecca Black

Northern Ireland has become "the home of events" after its recent record of high-profile successes and is fully equipped to handle The Open golf tournament.

That's the message coming from the hospitality industry as it was revealed that big-spending golf visitors are already clamouring for tailor-made packages during the tournament.

The return of The Open to Portrush after almost 70 years is expected to bring in a cash bonanza in excess of £20m for local traders. And hosting the tournament is expected to become a regular event, as Portrush is expected to be added to the rota for future tournaments after 2019.

Local golf heroes Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke had previously called for The Open to return to Portrush. Two-time Major winner Rory said winning The Open at Portrush would be the pinnacle of his career.

Melita Williams, director of tourism firm Bespoke Ireland, said that Northern Ireland was fully equipped to handle The Open after its record of recent successes.

"Northern Ireland truly has become the home of events," she said. "The world has seen how Northern Ireland staged events like the City of Culture and the Irish Open, not to mention the Giro d'Italia having the most well- organised start in its history, and the World Police and Fire Games being voted the friendliest ever.

"For Northern Ireland the timing is good; we have top-of-the-range restaurants opening all the time and our five-star properties are up there with the best in the world. We also have the five-star Bushmills Dunes Golf resort and Spa set to open in June."

Ms Williams said that she has already had an American customer contact her about the 2019 event and said that Northern Ireland will be ready to embrace the big spenders.

"The hospitality industry has already proven it can not only cope with, but excels when hosting major events and as we already have what we call 'bucket list courses' – the types of clientele coming for the event will be nothing new," she said.

"This type of client is used to travelling, so they won't be limited to just the north coast. For Northern Ireland that means that wealth is spread along a wider area. Visitors on a corporate trip, such as for a Major golf tournament, will spend on average nearly three times that of a leisure visitor.

"I am 100% per cent confident we can build on our success and we are up to the task."

Accommodation was at a premium during the Irish Open – it's rumoured that one enterprising Portrush householder rented out his home to a top golfer for £5,000 – and is expected to be in even greater demand for The Open in 2019.

Economist John Simpson has queried whether Portrush has the infrastructure to support the huge tournament.

"We won't have enough hotel beds for this competition for that one week when we would need them," he said. "In terms of major conferences or sporting events, Northern Ireland can't really cope with more than 3,000 people looking for bedrooms.

"So, in terms of some of the international events that happen, Northern Ireland is not in the marketplace. Dublin is in the marketplace. A proportion of the benefit from this will actually spill over into Dublin."

Mr Simpson said the event will not only bring in millions while it is running, but there will also be a long-term yield.

"In terms of figures, you can talk about it being worth around £6m to the local economy while the competition is on, and the long-term effects are the number of people who will visit Northern Ireland who might not have otherwise. That might give you around £20m."

Political parties have welcomed the return of The Open to Portrush.

Former Stormont minister Michael McGimpsey said it was "fantastic news for the north coast in particular and Northern Ireland in general".

"The television coverage of The Open will ensure that our wonderful north coast scenery is beamed to a massive audience, and the event itself will attract tens of thousands of visitors and provide another golden opportunity to showcase all that is good about Northern Ireland," he said.

SDLP MLA Karen McKevitt said the news was a "game- changer" for local businesses.

"This is fantastic news, not only for the Portrush and the north coast but for the region," she said.

NI Conservatives' co-chair Trevor Ringland said it was "wonderful news for Northern Ireland and another example of local sport leading the way".

Factfile

After successfully hosting the Irish Open in 2012, Portrush will welcome The Open in 2019. The official announcement is expected to be made by Tourism Minister Arlene Foster on Monday when the Royal and Ancient, which organises The Open, has confirmed it will hold a Press conference at Royal Portrush. Northern Ireland last hosted The Open in 1951 at Portrush.

Success story 1: G8 summit of world leaders

The world's most influential leaders came together at the Lough Erne Resort in June 2013. Northern Ireland grasped the opportunity to promote local produce, with menus consisting of items from Comber spuds to Kilkeel crabs. Around 8,000 police officers were drafted in for the event, although with only two arrests made, the Northern Ireland G8 was declared the most peaceful to date.

Success story 2: Giro d'Italia cycle race

More than 140,000 visitors attended as Northern Ireland hosted one of the world's great cycling races in style. As 200 cyclists from more than 30 countries began the race in Belfast, the event was broadcast in 174 countries, reaching 125m households and a global audience of about 775m people. More than a billion unique users on websites across the world followed the 2013 Giro.

Success story 3: MTV Europe Music Awards

The world's leading music stars came to Belfast for the glitzy MTV Europe Music Awards in 2011. Around 1.2bn people around the world watched the awards, which generated over £20m for the local economy. MTV booked more than 8,000 room nights for crew, guests and artists across 40 hotels. Lady Gaga dominated the night with a show-stopping spot in Belfast's Odyssey.

Success story 4: World Police & Fire Games

The 2013 World Police and Fire Games in Belfast were declared the "friendliest games ever" after 6,700 athletes from 67 countries competed in events at more than 40 venues with the support of 3,500 dedicated volunteers. The games opened with 16,500 people packing the King's Hall to see athletes from all corners of the globe parading during a colourful and noisy celebration.

Success story 5: Irish Open golf tournament

Hosting the Irish Open north of the border for the first time in over 60 years, Royal Portrush proved a huge success as it boasted the first-ever sold-out event on the European Tour. More than 130,000 people attended over the four-day event in 2012, leading to the decision to return the competition to Northern Ireland next year at Newcastle's Royal County Down Golf Club.

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