Tourism plea as Northern Ireland to host major events
Northern Ireland is set to host a range of big-ticket tourist events this year, from pop extravaganza Belsonic in Belfast to the Irish Open golf tournament at Royal County Down.
But a commentator has urged tourism providers - from hotels and restaurants to tour guides - to make tourism sustainable all year round and not just dependent on big events. Rohit Talwar was addressing Friday's tourism summit in Belfast, organised by the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation.
Mr Talwar, whose consultancy Fast Future advises global firms on how to develop and plan for the future, said: "It's really important that Northern Ireland keeps its own tourism identity and doesn't end up like every other city." He added: "The key thing is that providers need to come together - leisure attractions, restaurants - and start creating their own packages."
Doing so would help attract repeat visitors. "If you are a hotel you have to sell rooms every single day all across the year, and not just during the big events," said Mr Talwar. "It's all about being creative in how you partner with other attractions to create specialised offerings."
Such packages could target foodies or people with an interest in Irish history - and he said Northern Ireland's dolmens, which are scattered in locations like Loughinisland, Slieve Gullion and Ballylumford, could attract tourists on a quest for spirituality. He said that while he was saddened that Queen's University was withdrawing funding for its eponymous arts festival, it could present an opportunity to focus on growing smaller festivals.
Smaller festivals include Sunflower Fest near Hillsborough and Feile an Phobail in west Belfast, which take place in July and August.
Big events, such as the Tall Ships Races this July, were important, but he added: "It's about thinking about big events as a platform for smaller events rather than just the big event itself."
In addition, budget cuts could eat into money available for big tourism promotions, making sustainable tourism even more crucial.
The Executive aims to make tourism a £1bn industry by 2020. Around £756m was spent on overnight trips in Northern Ireland between October 2013 and September 2014. Speaking at the summit at Belfast's Hilton Hotel, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said tourism should be brought to "the next level".
The minister said: "The past few years have been unprecedented in terms of opportunities to give Northern Ireland a positive starring role on the global stage, with the world's media spotlight focused on our tourism product.
"I want this momentum to continue and it is important that we look at ways to take Northern Ireland tourism to the next level."