Why visitors hold the key to future economic success
On the eve of the Sixth Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, Lord Mayor Naomi Long praises the vital role tourism plays in our economy
What a wonderful example of a sister city relationship delivering positive results. Belfast's twinning with Nashville has opened the door to many cultural tourism ventures, providing massive transatlantic benefits.
As First Citizen of our great city, I feel really proud to watch this festival develop over the years and contribute even more to the great diversity of our tourism opportunities here.
The theme of my term in office is 'Belfast without barriers' and our successes in promoting this city to an international audience perfectly illustrate that ethos.
Tourism plays a key role within Belfast's economy. In 2008, we received 7.1m visitors to the city, including 1.6m staying visitors. This generated a £437m spend in the city, supporting 10,000 jobs.
While 2009 figures are still being collated, early indications are that they remain buoyant - boosted by the 800,000 visitors to the Tall Ships event in August.
The growth in visitor numbers to the city has seen a rise in both private and public-sector confidence in the city.
Investments planned, or under way, in the city centre amount to £1bn. Projects include the reopening of the City Hall, the refurbishment of the Ulster Museum, the Ulster Hall, the Lyric, the Old Museum Arts Centre, Victoria Square, plans for Royal Exchange, and the opening of six new hotels.
Best of all, there is real proof of partnership working, with Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board developing an integrated tourism framework.
Some of the themes identified within this work include: maximising developments around Titanic and the 2012 centenary, further developing our tourism infrastructure to ensure continued investment and telling the Belfast Story - our cultural figures past and present, our unique role in Ireland's maritime and industrial heritage as well as our contemporary history.
While strategies and themes give direction, I believe the most effective way for Belfast to grow as a tourism destination is by delivering through partnerships.
In 1999, Belfast City Council and NITB established the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau as a public/private-sector partnership to drive forward the marketing and promotion of the city.
The success of this partnership is reflected in the growth of tourism we have seen across the city. In spite of the downward trend in many other cities, Belfast has continued to deliver growth.
I believe that Belfast is a city that offers more than simply curiosity appeal; Belfast is a city that people must visit - and, having done so, will want to revisit many times.
This city has seen much change in the last 10 years. Its economy has blossomed and its physical appearance has been reshaped and reimaged for a new generation.
It is now more perfectly placed to perform its role as Northern Ireland's regional driver than has been the case at any time in its post-industrial history.
Belfast is an attractive conference destination. Since it opened in 1997, the Waterfront Hall has welcomed more than 5.5m visitors, hosted more than 2,400 national and international conferences and attracted more than 100,000 overseas delegates.
Belfast is compact, and easily accessible, with 400 flights-per-week to Britain and Europe.
Visitors are discovering our thriving cultural scene, with a vibrant creative arts and music offering combined with a unique heritage.
We have a superb range of hotels - 27 in the city centre alone - and an array of award-winning restaurants in a city transformed by astonishing levels of investment over the last few years from both the public and private sector.
That investment is indicative of my confidence, passion and belief in this city which, I hope, all residents and visitors can share.