Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland is making up for years of missing the boat on highly lucrative business

By Claire McNeilly

Sumptuous cabins, fabulous facilities, a myriad of bars and restaurants catering for your every need - why would you want to leave the floating palaces which regularly glide into Belfast Lough?

That is one of the challenges facing the movers and shakers in Northern Ireland's cruise tourism promotion industry.

Over 150,000 people - comprising of around 40 different nationalities - are now being brought into the city by these majestic leviathans every year.

Cruise ship passengers are among those most coveted by the tourist board because they habitually spend the most money.

However, a Stormont committee heard last year that 33% of these people don't bother getting off the multi-deck vessels to explore Belfast.

That figure is disputed by Belfast Harbour bosses, who insist it's closer to 15%.

Notwithstanding that, the long-term forecast is for further growth in Northern Ireland's cruise ship market, which has already made staggering gains in the last two decades.

This year, for instance, we will welcome 101 of the luxury vessels to our shores, 92 docking in Belfast and the rest in Londonderry.

Back in 1999 - the year construction started on the Azamara Journey, which invited me on board last Tuesday - only two cruise ships made it this far.

There was no Titanic Belfast in those early post-Troubles years, but now, because of where they moor, it's something tourists can see even before they disembark.

Some may even appreciate the irony of gazing over at a place commemorating the legendary demise of what was, after all, an ill-fated forerunner of all large luxury ships.

A pattern appears to be emerging where passengers - the majority of whom hail from North America - take in the hugely popular Titanic Belfast prior to sampling other attractions such as Crumlin Road Gaol and City Hall.

Although most prefer to go in groups, a growing number of internet-savvy travellers are organising their own sightseeing trips in advance, often using local taxis.

Many stay within the city, but some use their available hours to visit the north coast, Mournes or even one of our world-famous golf courses. Game Of Thrones-themed tours and food and pub tours are becoming increasingly popular.

Visit Belfast and the Harbour, under the umbrella name Cruise Belfast, work together on promoting the local attractions and providing information through a cruise co-ordinator and other on-board staff.

Persuading those reluctant to forsake the ship - where everything is 'free' as part of all-inclusive packages - for dry land remains the primary goal.

Planning permission for Cruise Wharf - a purpose-built facility at Airport Road West on the Co Down side of the port - was recently resubmitted by Harbour bosses, who are confident that historical environmental concerns will be overcome.

Cruise Ireland chairman and Belfast Harbour commercial director Joe O'Neill said his aim is to see the new £14m terminal in operation within the next 18 months.

"With a fair wind and hopefully without any objections we're hoping to have a physical facility towards the end of 2018 or start of 2019," he said.

Mr O'Neill said the proposed 47-acre development, beside the RSPB sanctuary, is a location "with significant advantages" for welcoming cruise tourists.

"It's the first berth coming into the port so it's very accessible and easy for ships to navigate in, turn and sit alongside the new quay that we're going to build," he said.

Although Mr O'Neill stressed that no cruise lines had complained about the dock's current location, he agreed that it was a bit of an eyesore.

"Because of necessity in terms of depth of water and length of quay we have no alternative but to bring ships into that location," he said.

"We accept that's in the middle of our working port but from the new site visitors will be looking at open lough and the adjoining 32-acre RSPB sanctuary.

"Across the lough they'll see Black Mountain and Belfast Castle so it's a very different vista. It's not industrial; there won't be coal shipments, coal mines or animal feeds facilities beside them."

Despite the obvious surge in cruise ship business, Belfast can accommodate much more.

Mr O'Neill said the city can easily handle three full-size vessels on a daily basis.

At present there are 15 days in the season when two cruise ships dock on the same day - and only two days when three of them come.

The ships range in size; the 181m Azamara Journey, for instance, is 30,277 tonnes, can carry 694 passengers and 390 crew.

This is hardly small, but is dwarfed by the Caribbean Princess, which is 290m long, 112,000 tonnes and carries over 3,000 passengers and 1,200 crew.

It is becoming a familiar sight in Belfast Lough; indeed, by the time this cruising season is over this particular ship will have made a dozen visits to Northern Ireland.

Some 24 cruise ship operators, including most of the major European firms, now have Belfast on their itinerary, but the next decade should bring even more.

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