Visitor numbers vary but tourism in Northern Ireland is always world-class
Tourism NI CEO John McGrillen explains why overnight numbers from the Republic of Ireland were down last year... and how his body plans to attract people back
There always has been - and always will be - ups and downs in the flow of people between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Fluctuations in everything from consumers to commuters, from trade to traffic and from outgoing and incoming visitor numbers are part of life on this island - and part of what defines any international boundary with different currencies.
However, when total overnight visitors to Northern Ireland from the Republic are down - as they were last year - and the numbers are not moving the way we would want, Tourism NI takes it very seriously.
Myriad reasons have contributed to this situation. Independent research, conducted on behalf of Tourism NI, shows that the substantial reduction in the value of the Euro over the past two years has been the biggest barrier to Republic of Ireland residents coming here on a leisure break.
But the big VAT differential, the loss of European funding to support Tourism NI's marketing activity in the Republic, an improving Irish economy that may have encouraged people to take holidays in the Eurozone, and more, are all part of the complicated picture.
Relatively minor incidents in Northern Ireland can give an easy headline and thus attract exaggerated negative coverage in the Republic of Ireland market - and, indeed, here.
Although they are far from being a major factor, there are still some perception issues that remain due to the past. But these incidents have all but disappeared and we all hope they will not be returning.
I believe, therefore, that it's far too simplistic to say southern visitors are put off coming here because of negative publicity.
The record shows that when exchange rates are more favourable, they do visit - and in substantial numbers.
In fact, business trips and spend by business visitors from the Republic were up last year, and visitor data from attractions such as Titanic Belfast show that overall visitor numbers from the Republic held steady. But it appears those visitors took more day trips and fewer stayed overnight, mainly because of the weak Euro.
Tourism NI can be proud of its achievements over the last decade. It has driven the transformation of tourism here, invested heavily in products and invested in and supported the delivery of world-class events, which have improved the image of Northern Ireland in the eyes of the world. This has helped deliver stronger growth than any other sector of the local economy.
It has been this investment on the ground that has helped grow visitor numbers from across the globe and has encouraged our visitors to spend more money and contribute to our economy when they are here. Last year, this transformed tourism landscape attracted the highest number of visitors from outside Northern Ireland on record, with the total number of overnight stays reaching 2.3 million - an increase of 5%.
The uplift in GB and overseas visitor numbers within these figures is due both to the excellent work of Tourism Ireland and to all the recent and continued investment by Tourism NI.
What has been a record year for tourism in Northern Ireland should not be overshadowed because of the drop in overnight visitors from the Republic.
Rather than seeing the Republic of Ireland market as a problem, I prefer to regard it as an untapped opportunity - a market where there is potential for substantial growth in the future.
It is unrealistic to assume that this opportunity can be exploited overnight. However, the longer-term opportunity is immense, and that is why Tourism NI has set up a taskforce to look at the Republic of Ireland market in forensic detail.
It is considering everything, from motivators to a visit, perceived barriers, the industry's capability to sell to the Republic and the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns.
I am confident that this work will lead to long-term, sustainable growth in the number of holidaymakers from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland and, in doing so, contribute to our economy and create jobs for our local communities.
We also hope that, come the autumn, the minister will announce a new strategy for Northern Ireland tourism, which will set out our wider ambitions and the direction of travel for the next decade.
From The Gobbins, to Titanic Belfast, the Causeway, the Walled City, the Mournes, the Fermanagh lakelands, top-class hotels, a remarkable food and drink offering and a host of visitor experiences, Northern Ireland has a sophisticated and vibrant tourism product to market to the world.
Tourism NI will be focusing on helping the industry to develop the exciting and unique experiences on the ground that will capture the attention, the numbers and the spending power of visitors from the Republic and elsewhere.
Despite last year's drop in overnight visitors from the Republic, in 2015 Northern Ireland attracted a record 2.1 million Great Britain and overseas visitors, delivering revenue of around £454m and supporting 43,000 jobs.
Tourism remains a significant part of the new Northern Ireland and its economy. Our most important role is to help the industry become more innovative, productive and profitable in all of our key markets.