Belfast Telegraph

A bright outlook for tourism industry

By Anne Madden

Tourism has the potential to boost the Northern Ireland economy and create thousands of new jobs over the next decade, if there is investment in marketing and better collaboration across government sectors.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) has launched a campaign calling for a united front across the whole industry, and various government departments, to maximise tourism to achieve its full potential by 2020.

The campaign sets out the argument for investment in marketing and reviewing legislation that hampers tourism ahead of the expected squeeze on budgets in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn.

In upbeat mood both NITB chief executive Alan Clarke and chairman Howard Hastings described how Northern Ireland is on the verge of reaping the economic benefits of a range of capital projects which are coming to fruition.

These include the Titanic Signature Building, the Giant’s Causeway Visitor centre, the Lyric Theatre, and the MAC arts centre in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. By 2012, almost £300 million will have been invested in tourist infrastructure, largely from the public sector.

The tourism chiefs argue that the next step is to invest in marketing these attractions, and Northern Ireland itself, as a destination to increase visitors and double the revenue |currently generated by tourists to a potential £1bn.

“In a tight comprehensive spending review, there will be a lot of emphasis on cost saving,” Mr Clarke said. “But we can show that for every £1 spent on marketing, £14 comes back into our economy.”

The NITB chief executive said there is a great opportunity to increase the number of tourists from the Republic of Ireland, in particular, which is |“a reasonably new market”.

“This is a market on our doorstep which has grown from 98,000 holiday-makers in 2004 to 212,000 in 2009,” he said.

NITB chairman, Howard Hastings, noted that tourism is not just helped by investment, but more ‘joined-up’ thinking of government policies, such as flexible planning and the facilitation of ‘on street’ cafe culture.

He explained, for example, how government policies preventing anti-social behaviour such as drinking in the street has prevented the development of ‘on street’ cafe |culture.

“There has been huge fragmentation between government departments in the past, on a whole range of issues, but we have been working very hard to address that,” Mr Hastings said.

Another example of the need for policy intervention is the difficulty the NITB has faced in designating a National Park in Northern Ireland.

“Scotland has designated two new national parks in the past year,” Mr Hastings said. “We could generate £20m per annum just by designating a national park in Northern Ireland, such as the Mournes area.”

Mr Hastings, who is also managing director of Hastings Hotels, said he believed the current slump in hotel room occupancy rates was temporary, and that growth will resume again.

“We were always told that we hadn’t enough hotel rooms in Northern Ireland,” Mr Hastings said. “I think we have achieved the right capacity, and that we are just going through an |overall cycle.”

The tourism chiefs insist Northern Ireland has a lot to be optimistic about, and properly supported the tourist industry could be a powerhouse for the local economy.

Belfast Telegraph