Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

We need a reality check if tourism is to achieve lift-off

Behind the razzmatazz of Our Time, Our Place, we are squandering our untapped tourist potential, says Kathryn Johnston

It's our time to shine, according to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, which says this year will be "the tipping point for Northern Ireland and a real chance to change perceptions".

Tell that to the National Trust, which included a creationist display at the Giant's Causeway visitor centre.

Was that the message tourist chiefs wanted to go out across the world the very week that 21st century science announced the discovery of the Higgs boson?

The National Trust claims that "Northern Ireland has a wealth of treasures to share." Not in its backyard.

On the eve of the Irish Open in Portrush, it announced a judicial review of the planned £100m Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort and Spa.

As the area's MP, Ian Paisley Jnr, said: "Their timing stinks."

He added: "Thanks, National Trust. At a time of economic depression, you put the two fingers up to everyone in Northern Ireland and say you're going to try to hurt rather than help the economy."

But the Trust had other plans for the north coast - a coastline installation of more than 100 flags, red on one side and yellow on the other. According to Cian Smyth, of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which shared the £150,000 cost with the NITB, the artist was "having a conversation with the rocks themselves".

At least we know the £8.50 entrance fee to the visitor centre at the Causeway is being well spent.

The artist, Hans Peter Kuhn, claimed that the flags "emanated a quiet, contemplative power perfectly compatible with the surrounding landscape".

Now there's a good line for the Parades Commission.

At least we have Titanic, the world's second-biggest brand after Coca-Cola, to count on.

Or do we?

Before it opened, the Northern Ireland Audit Office warned that the Titanic Centre, which had £60m of public money spent on it, could be "one of the most expensive relative to the number of visitors it expects to attract".

First Minister Peter Robinson had a point when he described the planned new conflict resolution centre on the site of the former Maze prison as a potential "Mecca for tourists", though it's a pity, we're only starting on it now.

Perhaps, by the time it is completed, tourists could even travel on to the John Lewis store at Sprucefield, which has been stuck in the planning pipeline for years.

Robinson's colleague, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, chose the summer to launch a public consultation on the reform of liquor licensing legislation.

As James Joyce said: "Ireland sober is Ireland stiff". Tourists often complain that our nightlife closes too soon. We can deny that, but we risk sounding like Stalin when he insisted that, "Gaiety is among the most outstanding features of the Soviet Union."

Stalin may not have been a bundle of laughs, but at least he got the trains to run on time, which is more than you could say for Translink, which closed the railway line between Coleraine and Derry for "improvements" in July.

Tourists wanting to go to City of Culture events in 2013 will have to take a bus from Coleraine until next April.

Back in Belfast, middle-class killjoys wanted to turn the music down at the Foo Fighters gig at Tennents Vital in August.

Scores of householders contacted Belfast City Council to complain, with some even claiming they could hear the concert from as far away as Comber, 14 miles from the site of the gig.

They must really suffer on the Twelfth.

If NITB is serious about growing our tourist numbers to 4.5 million by 2020, they have to take a reality check.

There is no doubt that we have vast, untapped potential for building our visitor base, but on this year's evidence, we're not a Land of Giants - we're a Land of Pygmies.

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