Northern Ireland hotels enjoy record rise in number of visitors from the Republic
But more international growth is needed, says industry chief
Hoteliers in Northern Ireland enjoyed a record-breaking increase in visitors from the Republic of Ireland last year - although some believe there is still room for more growth.
The increase in visitors to Northern Ireland from the south grew by 23% last year. Some owners of local hotels said Tourism NI campaigns helped bolster that increase in visitors, who are exploring beyond Belfast, heading to coastal areas and off the beaten track.
According to figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, visitors from the Republic made a "record-breaking" 591,000 trips here in 2018, spending £108m.
The cash flow has been welcomed by the burgeoning hotel scene here, which has seen a 19% increase in room numbers over the past two years.
Hastings Hotels, which has seven hotels in Northern Ireland, said the growth in tourists from the south has translated into overnight stays.
Marketing director Julie Hastings revealed the group had appointed an agency in Dublin to further grow that guest list.
She said: "The tourist board have been encouraging us to do marketing in the south and we chose to do that in Dublin, because that's where the largest population is. We've also been doing a lot of digital work and taken on an ad PR agency."
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She said special events have proven even more lucrative with the southern Irish market, with an Art in the Garden event proving of particular interest.
The event, running to July 1 at the Culloden Hotel, showcases art from some of the world's most celebrated artists.
It features the biggest collection of Salvador Dali's work ever seen in Ireland.
"It does help to have more to offer like a special event and a theme and we really see the increase when we put on something special," said Ms Hastings.
"Game of Thrones has really helped, because you don't have that offering anywhere else and the benefits of that go as far as Ballygally Castle Hotel, where we can offer themed packages."
Ciaran O'Neill, managing director of Bishop's Gate Hotel in Londonderry, said he has witnessed the growth in numbers from the south.
He said: "We can see a significant increase of visitors from the RoI market in the last 12 months, which is good news for the sector. The Derry-Londonderry market as a whole is also seeing year-on-year growth.
"Bishop's Gate has been included in the prestigious Ireland's Blue Book and this has been a key driver for us.
"Working in partnership is critically important.
"A group of hotels have worked with Tourism NI, Visit Derry and the NI Hotels Federation (NIHF) to create and deliver marketing campaigns such as 'Say Hello to More' and this has proven to be successful in raising the destination of Derry and leading to more short breaks from southern visitors.
"We are very positive about this market moving forward, with so many people from the Republic still to sample the Northern Ireland offering."
Northern Ireland Hotel Federation chief executive Janice Gault said the figures are "moving in the right direction" but said more international growth was needed to fill the influx of new hotel rooms on the market.
"Hotels have invested heavily and room numbers have increased.
"In simple terms, we need more visitors to fill them," she said. "Figures from other destinations show a growth in trips.
"However, there has been a fall in number of nights and a reduction in spend. This is disappointing.
"Anecdotal reports from within the hotel sector suggest that the international market, particularly North America, has performed well.
"We need to see more international growth, as these visitors tend to stay longer and spend more.
"Hotels are by far their accommodation product of choice."
Ms Gault said support must be given to the tourism sector here if its target of becoming a £2bn industry by 2030 is to be realised.
"What the figures reinforce is the important role of tourism, and as such the industry must receive appropriate levels of support to realise its ambition."
Ms Hastings is optimistic that growth in visitors from other regions is on the horizon.
She said: "I think things happen in small steps.
"We get a lot of international guests through the tours we bring in and we are seeing a lot more Chinese guests. Every year, it builds and builds."