Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

We have built it but there is no guarantee they will come

Difficult journey: Titanic Belfast on its own won't attract tourists; we need world-class hospitality too.

Easter and the Titanic centenary are over. Now it's time for a reality check. Nagging doubts remain in my mind as to whether we are really up to entering the promised 21st century land of tourism.

Those doubts centre on two issues. The ability to deliver the kind of welcome overseas visitors receive in other countries. And, secondly, whether the outside world has really got the message that Northern Ireland is open for business?

I hear what the Belfast visitors' bureau is saying about a 96% increase in inquiries compared to last year and the 30,000 people who went through the office in a fortnight.

My concern centres on what visitors found in terms of general customer care when they hailed their taxis, shopped in our stores, stayed in our hotels and guest houses, ate and drank in our bars and restaurants.

I hope that we are not prematurely congratulating ourselves that we have got it right, because deep down, I fear we have a long way to go.

We can spend millions on exhibitions, visitor centres and hotels, but if managers, or staff, fail to deliver the level of customer care which, for example, is commonplace in the United States, the tourist boom may prove only a short-term illusion.

I fear many people in Northern Ireland still have to recognise the value of tourism. Unfortunately, we are still emerging from a divided society in which one section saw no reason to promote the image of Northern Ireland, while another section worried that the outside world was against it.

'Our time. Our Place. 2012' is a great slogan, but will it really be our time, our place in the years ahead? The next time you encounter a sullen shop assistant, an unfriendly barman, or a poorly trained hotel, or restaurant, waiter, think of the potentially adverse impact on future tourist revenues.

I haven't been inside the new Titanic exhibition centre yet, but I have shown friends and family from outside Northern Ireland around the Titanic Quarter in the past six months.

I have tried to transmit to them something of the personal pride we should all feel about what was achieved in east Belfast all those decades ago.

On the Sunday afternoon after the official opening, I cycled down the Lagan to the Titanic centre. I expected to see hordes of sightseers out in their cars as is the wont of Northern Ireland on idle Sunday afternoons.

Instead, I found surprisingly few people about and the deserted docklands made me wonder if the local population was really as interested as the tourist chiefs believe they are? Or is there an element of familiarity breeding complacency - if not contempt?

What does the outside world think? I did my own straw poll last week in France, introducing the subject of Titanic at every opportunity to people I know from that country and from England and Scandinavia. Their responses were not encouraging.

My experience suggested that, while everyone knew the story of Titanic, few linked it to Belfast. Most of those I met had little, or no, interest in coming to Belfast.

Some questioned why the city should even be claiming the liner as its own, given its disastrous sinking. Dispiriting as it was, such reaction puts in perspective the task of attracting 450,000 visitors each year to the Titanic centre.

For all the media exposure, we still have to do an uphill selling job. I hope the long delays encountered during the opening days have been resolved and will not be repeated.

The controversy over Titanic's grand staircase is also more than a niggle.

Could you imagine visiting the Louvre and being debarred from viewing the Mona Lisa?

Where else in the world would such an expensive tourist attraction exclude from general public view such an iconic feature?

Northern Ireland has other upcoming challenges ahead on the tourist front, which it must get right: the opening of the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre, the Irish Open at Royal Portrush and Derry's City of Culture events.

These represent great opportunities, but they also require a step-up in public commitment to make all of them run smoothly and successfully and to avoid any embarrassing gaffes, or teething troubles.

Standing in front of the new Titanic exhibition centre, a delighted Arlene Foster proclaimed: "We've done it." The minister could not be faulted in her enthusiasm for the gleaming £97m structure, but finding the visitors to match the revenue projections is quite another matter.

The fact is Northern Ireland hasn't done it yet. We've only made a beginning. The hype is over. Now the hard questions have to be addressed.

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