The whole world wants to come and see 'our place'
It has been a great year for tourism and the image of Northern Ireland. Next year, though, can be even better, says Alan Clarke
It's been a whirlwind 12 months for Northern Ireland tourism, a year when the world spotlight has shone on everything from our industrial and maritime heritage, to our music, our golfing credentials, our unique stories and breathtaking scenery.
Initial tourism estimates for the year indicate that the main urban centres have performed well, borne out by high hotel occupancy and a good level of day trips from the Republic of Ireland to Belfast in particular.
NI2012 was designed to increase tourism, change global perceptions, build civic pride and provide a platform to reposition Northern Ireland not only as a positive place to visit, but as a great place to live, work, study and invest in.
Our aim is to create a firm foundation for the future, for tourism to employ 10,000 more people than today and contribute £1bn to our economy. Realistically that will take to at least 2020.
In the meantime we should focus on the positive milestones. Titanic Belfast smashed its visitor targets so far this year with 615,000 people passing through the doors to date. Visitors came from 111 countries.
The opening of the new Giants' Causeway visitor centre was also hugely significant for the ni2012 campaign. It has already welcomed over 300,000 visitors.
On the back of this year's success, 2013 is already shaping up to be an exciting year with G8, World Police and Fire Games and UK City of Culture. Belfast has been voted one of the world's top destinations for 2012 by the National Geographic Traveller magazine, Trip Advisor has said Belfast is the best value UK city break and the Lonely Planet has described the city as 'buzzing'.
Our domestic tourism market is performing well with our own residents taking an estimated 1.2m overnight trips in January to August this year spending £122m which is a 3% increase on last year's spend.
Unfortunately, the total fall in trips during the first nine months of the year continues to be driven largely by the GB market, which is our largest tourism market. The global economic landscape has been challenging for the tourism industry and over the past six years outbound travel from GB to all destinations has declined by over 18%.
In addition the UK experienced the second wettest summer on record since the summer of 1912, which encouraged those who are travelling to sunnier climates.
These external factors shouldn't lessen the achievements of this unique year. What is clear is that the image of Northern Ireland as a tourist destination has undergone a transformation. Great goodwill and curiosity about our place has been built up around the world.
In the context of Derry-Londonderry's City of Culture year and just ahead of the World Police and Fire Games in August 2013, the G8 spotlight can only help us build on the successes of the ni2012 campaign.
Our Time, Our Place was also celebratory. It was designed to promote pride in 'Our Place' and change perceptions and drive visitor numbers to generate economic impact.
Survey data from the Tier 1 events in the programme is recording elevated senses of civic pride among those who attended and very high levels of satisfaction from visitors.
It shows Northern Ireland has real appeal as a destination and that we have raised the bar on spectacle, excitement, entertainment and the feelgood factor. In 2012 Titanic Belfast was probably the world's biggest tourism story.
In 2013 we have another massive tourism story and a host of attractive experiences to offer with Derry-Londonderry and the World Police and Fire Games.
This year has shown we can do world class events. We can do MTV, we can do major golf tournaments and we can do them very well.
In addition the industry has never been as united on the need to harness our potential as a tourism destination and deliver an excellent launch pad for further growth.