The incessant rain of the past two summers has made most people in Northern Ireland yearn for a holiday in the sun, but it does not appear to have put off the many tourists coming to these shores.
Last year 2.1 million visitors came to the province, the highest number on record, providing us with a concrete peace dividend. There is no doubt that the worldwide publicity gained by the restoration of devolved government enticed many more people to experience what the province has to offer visitors and made the task of the tourism industry easier after decades of negative imagery.
There is no doubt what most of those who came to Northern Ireland wanted to see the Giant's Causeway, which retained its position at the top of the popularity poll.
The 712,714 visitors who passed through the Causeway Visitor Centre last year represented a whopping 29% increase on the previous year's figure, demonstrating the eternal appeal of the geolog
ical wonder. These figures alone demonstrate why it is important that a first-class visitor centre is constructed as soon as possible to add value to the World Heritage site.
We have an attraction which is famed throughout the world and yet provide visitors with second-class facilities when they arrive. That cannot be allowed to continue.
A visitor attraction which has gained an international reputation because of the quality of its products is Belleek Pottery. It recorded the largest increase in visitor numbers, up a stunning 46%. The
distinctive giftware produced by the pottery is known throughout the world and much sought after by collectors. That interest has created its own tourist industry. There is a lesson there for another international brand, the Titanic, which has been sadly neglected for almost a century. With interest in the doomed liner peaking as the centenary of its sinking approaches, there is still time to cash in on its visitor appeal, but we need to act quickly and innovatively.
The experience of Oxford Island National Nature Reserve and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum,
which both saw a drop in visitor numbers, shows that even popular tourist attractions cannot rest on their laurels. Both remain in the top ten attractions, but it is worrying that the total number of people visiting them fell at a time when more and more tourists were coming to the province. It has to be remembered that local tourist projects are in competition with each other as well as with attractions in other regions.
Given the recent downpours which have washed out this summer, it is something of a marvel that Northern Ireland, which has a minimum of high class indoor attractions, can attract record numbers of visitors. There is an enduring interest in the natural delights of the province and other facilities such as the folk parks and nature reserves. Northern Ireland must build on that heritage and continue to increase its tourism numbers which provide a huge boost to the local economy. It is good to see that, at last, there is a silver lining behind all those dark clouds.