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John Simpson

Time to show imagination in how we grow tourism in Northern Ireland

John Simpson


Titanic Belfast is already a tourism success

Titanic Belfast is already a tourism success

Titanic Belfast is already a tourism success

A growing tourism industry is a natural strength for Northern Ireland. The all-island qualities of the environment, an attractive, unspoilt and uncrowded landscape as well as its location on an offshore island, all make Ireland a convenient but unique place to attract large numbers of tourists.

Northern Ireland is a distinctive part of that tourist product.

It has, in recent years, been successful in building up a sustainable and viable tourism economy.

The next stages in the evolution of the tourism sector will depend on a more selective strategy to prioritise expansion in ways which enhance its contribution to the economy, ensure that development is orientated to sustainable outcomes and recognise possible competing (and conflicting) outcomes.

Northern Ireland can usually rely on a favourable international tourism image. The Giant's Causeway, Titanic Quarter and the Fermanagh Lakes are often on display.

Now we have a new image, through the artistic presentation of 'Embrace a Giant Spirit', sponsored by Tourism NI.

The recent successes for tourism must be acknowledged but there is now a need to change the strategy and to enhance Northern Ireland's position in a sector where competition is international and increasing.

The current emphasis on the number of visitors and the global level of spending are understandable but must now be widened into a more diverse series of objectives.

Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland are well established agencies operating with modest government-provided budgets.

Their remit is overdue for reconsideration. Should they play a more active role in not only marketing this island but in identifying a more ambitious, but selective, tourism agenda?

In parallel, what are the activities that might usefully be supported by the agencies that directly benefit from a stronger tourism performance whether from the private sector or other public agencies?

Sponsorship and other forms of development support have a part to play.

A discussion of a stronger ambition for tourism must recognise that this will lead into a matrix of possible policy changes which target more selective mechanisms to add to the profitability, viability and sustainability of the tourism sector.

This will examine more carefully the 'value added' to the economy and, if necessary, move away from bigger 'volumes' to identify the most desirable outcomes.

An important stimulus to shaping the new agenda lies with the recently established NI Tourism Alliance ,whose chief executive Dr Joanne Stuart has recently been appointed to the UK Tourism Industry Council.

The alliance is a broadly based group including private sector and local government operators involved in tourism development.

The Tourism Alliance is developing an agenda of policy themes, including:

  • Ensuring no new tourist travel impediments, post-Brexit;
  • Enhancing competitiveness through improved connectivity;
  • Planning to have enough people with the skills that will be needed;
  • Ensuring that tourism development is environmentally sustainable.

Each of these policy areas sub-divides into a series of specific actions.

The Tourism Alliance is aware that the post-Brexit arrangements need to be managed to demonstrate that Northern Ireland is an easily accessible part of these islands with administrative arrangements which emphasise the benefits for NI of the common travel area which includes the UK and Ireland.

To enhance the value of connectivity, the alliance is arguing for the establishment of a route development fund to encourage the launch of new air routes. Critically the alliance repeats the arguments for the abolition of APD (air passenger duty).

On the emerging problems of ensuring that tourism businesses can access people with the right skills, the alliance points to the need for some 5,000 new employees each year (to meet the growth targets) and also the need for specific Northern Ireland immigration quotas within the UK new immigration reforms.

The agenda for a new dynamic in tourism policies emphasises the value of a specific NI tourism sector deal.

This can be an unavoidable bonus in the emerging environment.

Will such a deal get Executive endorsement?

Belfast Telegraph