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Tourism in Northern Ireland is facing new challenges

John McGrillen

Following its first conference in two years, Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen outlines progress to date and challenges ahead


The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club

The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club

The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club

Over the last two years resilience and collaboration has been the bedrock on which the recovery of our tourism industry has been built.

Working together, the councils, the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation, Hospitality Ulster, Visit Derry, Visit Belfast, NI Tourism Alliance, Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI have all played their part in helping to deliver much needed support to our beleaguered industry and to make sure the voice of tourism has been heard.

Innovation has also helped to drive us as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.

We have adapted to new ways of working, embedded an exciting new brand for Northern Ireland — Embrace a Giant Spirit and created a very successful new call to action, A Small Step to a Giant Adventure.

The recently launched, world class Game of Thrones Studio Tour in Banbridge, the revamped W5 at the Odyssey and new experiences and activities right across the country supported through our experience development programme have also helped us achieve real cut-through in the market place, particularly in the Republic.

We know that last summer was a very positive one with visitor spend in hotels, bars, eating places and attractions up by a quarter compared to the same period in 2019.

Spend by RoI residents more than doubled during the same time period, while domestic spend grew by almost one third and GB spend rose by 10%.

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The online reviews left by visitors here for the second half of 2021 showed that our visitors had a very positive visitor experience.

Our consumer research indicates that approximately half of RoI visitors to Northern Ireland during 2021 were first time leisure visitors, with two out of every three saying they intend to return to Northern Ireland again.

Industry data also tells us that hotel forward bookings for 2022 paint a positive outlook, particularly for weekends, and tour operators also indicate strong order books going forward. 

Our consumer surveys suggest around one fifth of people on the island of Ireland intend to take a short break here over the late spring and summer period and around one in seven are considering a longer break.

We are also seeing the return of events and conferences and Cruise Belfast has already welcomed cruise ships into Belfast in the past month, with a positive outlook for the rest of the year.

The return of air access to the island of Ireland is crucial, as is maintaining and enhancing our domestic and international air connectivity.

By the summer of 2022 it is anticipated that 92% of the 2019 seat capacity onto the island of Ireland will have returned with seat capacity into Northern Ireland sitting closer to 75%. 

Flybe’s return to the George Best Belfast City Airport is both an indication that the conditions required for recovery and future growth are encouraging, as well as a vote of confidence in Belfast being announced as its second base.

Having come out of the pandemic we are however now facing a new set of challenges.

We are seeing a dramatic increase in energy, raw material, food and labour costs and of course an unwelcome return to a 20% Vat rate.

All of these factors are impacting upon businesses’ bottom line.

These costs are of course also impacting on customers as disposable income levels are reduced.

Whilst demand in the short term is buoyant, it is important that we remain competitive and continue to be perceived as a value for money destination.

The task for 2022 is therefore going to be managing costs whilst providing value for money and retaining the customer satisfaction levels achieved in 2021.

Covid has brought with it unexpected consequences.

Many people have re-evaluated their lifestyles and have left the workplace in what has become known as Great Resignation.

This has had an acute impact upon the tourism and hospitality sector, exacerbating the labour shortages the industry was already facing in the aftermath of Brexit.

Simultaneously we are witnessing increasing numbers of young people in the 16-24 age group joining the ranks of the economically inactive.

History has shown us that the impact of people of this age not entering the workplace becomes a generational problem with life-long consequences.

The tourism and hospitality sector across the UK provides 50% of young people of this age with their first ever job and provides them with the employability skills to progress up the employment ladder.

Given the right support many of our young people could find long term employment opportunities within our vibrant tourism and hospitality businesses.

Earlier this year, Tourism NI and the Hospitality and Tourism Skills network (HATS) launched a widespread, heavyweight tactical recruitment campaign across NI from January.

The results are very impressive and has shown the huge potential to place many people in employment as things get tougher for households here.

The year 2019 saw us welcome the 148th Open to Portrush and achieve a record breaking £1bn in revenue. It is due to return in 2025.

There may be bumps along the road to recovery but I am confident that the resilience, innovation and collaboration we have witnessed over the past two years will see us match that £1bn spend by 2025 and set us on a positive growth trajectory to the end of the decade and beyond.

John McGrillen is chief executive of Tourism NI