Tourism chief warns against cuts
Strides to boost tourism in Northern Ireland will be undermined if the sector is hit hard by Stormont funding cuts, the retiring head of the Tourist Board has warned.
In his last week in post, Alan Clarke also expressed concern that the Northern Ireland brand was not being given enough exposure by Tourism Ireland, the cross border body that promotes the island abroad.
Mr Clarke, who is stepping down after 13 years as chief executive of the board, believes tourism has established itself a main player in the region's economy - contributing more to GDP than agriculture - but that position will be threatened if spend is reduced.
Stormont departments are currently absorbing a £78 million round of cuts and are preparing themselves for more pain in October, when the Executive will consider how to deal with the £87 million that is set to be sliced off the block grant if UK government welfare reforms are not implemented.
Mr Clarke, 63, said he feared that tourism spend would not be considered a major priority when it came to allocating money.
"The big danger in terms of public sector cuts is that there will be, I guess, a desire from some people to say 'well tourism, you can just cut that budget for a couple of years'," he said.
"But if you cut it for a couple of years you can't just turn it on again, it's not that type of activity - you have to invest consistently through the cycle to get that return on all the capital investment that has gone in over the last number of years."
Mr Clarke has been at the helm as a number of notable successes have been delivered in recent years, including the opening of the landmark Titanic visitors' centre in Belfast and the staging of events such as the MTV Europe Music Awards, the Irish Open golf tournament, the start of the Giro d'Italia cycling race and Londonderry's year as the UK City of Culture.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) currently receives more than £20 million a year from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).
Aside from the pressure on its Stormont funding, the board is definitely set to lose £2 million of EU support next year - a sum that represents half of its marketing budget in the Republic of Ireland.
The health and education budgets were ring-fenced in the latest review of Stormont spending. Mr Clarke said he realised the importance of those sectors but insisted the importance of tourism, in terms of job creation and economic contribution, also had to be realised.
"I think you have got to look at where the wealth in the economy is going to come from in the longer term," he said.
"What's going to contribute jobs and wealth in the economy, and tourism is now seen as one of the drivers in the economy."
He added: "It's something every government department is working through at the moment and making its case (for more funds), and everyone to be truthful is totally sympathetic to things like health and education, we are all sympathetic to that.
"But where is the drive in the economy going to come from? And it's really important I think that Northern Ireland continues to look at where job creation comes from and tourism is one of those sectors of the economy that is already showing growth."
The outgoing chief executive noted the Dublin government had committed to spending more on tourism in the Republic of Ireland.
He said: "They are going to put more investment in, therefore if Northern Ireland doesn't invest over the next number of years the gap between north and south, which actually has been narrowing over the last number of years, people have been talking about us trying to catch up with the south and that gap has been narrowing, but if you turn the tap off then that gap is going to widen again."
There is a complex dynamic between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in terms of tourism. While both jurisdictions naturally compete against each other for visitors, in the overseas market the island is promoted as one entity by the Stormont/Dublin jointly-funded body Tourism Ireland.
Of Tourism Ireland's public funding, Stormont provides one third and the Dublin government the other two thirds.
Mr Clarke said his relationship with the cross-border body had been marked by "tension".
"I think to be truthful there has always been a tension there," he said.
He said there was a need for more "flexibility" within Tourism Ireland to enable Northern Ireland to sometimes be marketed as distinct from the rest of the island.
Mr Clarke said the issue was particularly important with the Great Britain market, where visitors usually come across the Irish Sea for only three or four days and therefore typically only visit one part of the island.
He said knowledge of destinations like Dublin, Cork and Kerry was already well developed in GB while the NI brand needed a bit more promotion.
"We (Northern Ireland) are putting a third of the money in (to Tourism Ireland) and we are get around 10/11% of the holiday makers coming to the island, so Northern Ireland is paying beyond its share, if you like, so therefore Northern Ireland needs to get a return on that, and that return needs a more flexible approach by Tourism Ireland in the marketplace," he said.
He explained that in certain campaigns Northern Ireland should take the lead in promotional activity, such as those that try to capitalise on the phenomenal recent success of the region's golfers.
Mr Clarke said competition with other parts of the island was healthy.
"You have to be allowed that freedom to play on the pitch to enable you to compete and I think Northern Ireland has done so much in the last number of years in terms of investment that it needs to be able to breathe and allowed to actually have its own standing within the Ireland brand," he added.
The retiring tourism chief's last years in post have also witnessed a number of serious outbreaks of public disorder in Northern Ireland - images of violence that have often spread around the world.
But he said the impact of the negative publicity is mostly felt closer to home.
"It (the impact) varies market to market," he said.
"In the southern market it probably is there a bit longer because it just reinforces stereotypes. Other markets probably bounce back quicker. It also varies by age - young people tend to be a bit more resilient of these things, older people maybe have more memories of the Troubles and it reinforces their stereotype."
He added: "If you are going to grow the Republic of Ireland market then a peaceful normal society in Northern Ireland is a key message to get out.
"There are a lot of good things happening in Northern Ireland and it's important that everyone works together to get those positive messages into the market place.
"Tourism is everyone's business, not just the business of the Tourist Board. Every single person, from a politician to a taxi driver, we are all involved in enhancing the reputation of this place and therefore the more we work together and put out really positive messages about Northern Ireland the better it is for all aspects, whether it's tourism, inward investment, whatever it might be."
Looking to the future, Mr Clarke has identified a number of key challenges. These include improving air connectivity, a greater focus on business tourism and developing a more joined-up approach with government and educators to develop the skills required for the industry.
He said there is also a real need for an over-arching tourism strategy at Stormont.
"If tourism is going to be a long term part of the economy you need a vision of where tourism is going, you need all those government departments to sign up to it, because we (NITB) work with about seven or eight government departments," he said.
"You need all those government departments, plus the private sector, aligned to one focus and one direction - and that needs a strategy."
But that will be for the next, as yet not appointed, chief executive to lobby for.
Personally, Mr Clarke is going to take a bit of a break before considering his next move.
"I am going to take the philosophy of take three to six months out, to think about what I want to do," he said.
"People have given me really great advice - which is don't rush into things."
In response to Mr Clarke's comments, Tourism Ireland said all recent growth in Northern Ireland had been driven by visitors from overseas.
"The most recent NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) figures show that overseas visitors to Northern Ireland increased by 4% in the first quarter of 2014, compared with the same three-month period in 2013," said a spokeswoman.
"This growth came on top of a 9% increase in overseas visitors to Northern Ireland in 2013 - or 140,000 additional overseas visitors.
"Throughout 2013, we rolled out our 'GB Path to Growth' strategy, to boost travel from that market, so we were particularly pleased to see that strategy clearly working, with a 15% increase in holiday visitors and 11% growth in business or conference visitors from GB, in the first quarter of this year.
"Visitor numbers from North America for the first quarter were also very encouraging - 37% increase in all North American visitors and 37% in holidaymakers. I was also delighted to see growth in revenue for the Northern Ireland economy from all overseas visitors (6%).
"We have an extensive promotional programme in place throughout 2014, showcasing Northern Ireland around the world to prospective holidaymakers.
"Tourism Ireland's focus in the early part of this year was on highlighting the Grande Partenza of the Giro d'Italia. And in a ground-breaking initiative, Tourism Ireland joined forces with Game Of Thrones creators HBO, on an advertising and social media campaign in nine markets, leveraging the incredible success of Game Of Thrones and its strong associations with Northern Ireland, where much of the filming takes place.
"We continue to highlight the Causeway Coastal Route and driving holidays to Northern Ireland, and iconic experiences all over Northern Ireland - including Titanic Belfast, the Giant's Causeway and our unique National Trust properties - are also being promoted widely.
"It has been an extraordinary few months for Northern Ireland golf - with Rory McIlroy's recent successes placing golf in Northern Ireland, once more, to the forefront of everyone's mind.
"He is such a terrific ambassador for golf and for Northern Ireland, and Tourism Ireland is working hard to capitalise on this in GB, the United States and in our other golf markets around the world - inviting golf enthusiasts and potential holidaymakers to come and visit the 'home of champions'."