Belfast Telegraph

Why Northern Ireland's just the ticket in coming months

Here's the chance to seize imagination of jaded travellers searching for a new holiday experience, says Simon Calder

Reasons to be cheerful? In much of the travel industry, they're hard to find.

At a peak booking time, when travel agencies would normally expect to have queues of expectant customers, and holiday call-centres to be working flat out, the evidence is that hard-pressed families are waiting to see what happens to the world - and their personal circumstances - before committing.

On Friday, Peter Long, chief executive of TUI Travel, said: "Customers in some source markets are booking later than usual". The industry of human happiness is looking dismal. Which, remarkably, is excellent news for Northern Ireland.

Forgive me, for a moment, talking about London and South-east England. It is still the richest travel market in Europe, and the worldwide hub of aviation - no other city can match the 130m passengers who flew to, from or through the capital's airports last year. And yet hardly anyone who lives there has, hitherto, considered Northern Ireland as a tourist destination.

The average Londoner is deluged with sales messages about trains to Paris, boats to Amsterdam and planes to Barcelona. Despite the best efforts of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the natural choice for a weekend away is a Continental city, and, for a summer holiday, a Mediterranean beach.

Could 2012 be the year that changes, when English, Welsh and Scots travellers turn their gaze from south and east to north and west? The omens are good - indeed, this could prove to be make-or-break year for tourism in Northern Ireland. It must seize the imagination of jaded travellers in a year when just about everything is pointing in the right direction.

In travel, as in literature and film: story is king. And this year Northern Ireland has a better yarn to spin than ever. The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic will strike some as a macabre anniversary upon which to pin hopes of a tourism dividend, but I cannot fault the way that Titanic Belfast is meeting the extraordinary public appetite for this disaster.

The world still needs a single, prime location where the whole tragic story of heroism, incompetence and despair can be properly documented for future generations. And if - as seems feasible - Titanic Belfast rises to that challenge, the dividends will be reaped for years to come.

If that sounds unlikely, please consider another mighty city with a proud shipbuilding tradition that fell on hard times but whose fortunes were turned around by a tourist attraction: Bilbao in northern Spain. The Guggenheim Museum put the Basque capital on the map. And because the city has first-rate hotels, fascinating religious heritage and welcoming bars (sounds familiar?), it rapidly joined Europe's premier league.

I can't promise that the new Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre will become such an immediate success, not least because of what appears to be a cunning plan to open it after the vast majority of tourists to the wild and wonderful Antrim coast have gone home.

It won't always be an easy year. With so much economic uncertainty, the appetite for short breaks may diminish. Ever higher Air Passenger Duty rates from April will exacerbate the unfair punishment of travellers to and from Northern Ireland (though I am urging anyone I meet to break their journey to New York in Belfast and benefit from the tax break negotiated for transatlantic flights from Aldergrove). But increased ferry competition from Scotland, and the chance to travel from Loch Ryan on a shiny new Stena ship, is bound to help.

Add in the fact that Northern Ireland is one of few places - along with Gibraltar, the Falklands and South Georgia - where the British pound is still worth a pound, and 2012 is set to be an interesting year.

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