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Foster expresses doubt over 'falling' tourist numbers

New figures suggesting a significant fall in the number of tourists coming to Northern Ireland are being challenged by the Tourism Minister and industry experts.

Statistics provided to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research and Agency (NISRA) reveal, between January and September, around 1m overseas visitors stayed at least one night in Northern Ireland, a decrease of 12% compared with the same period in 2011.

The period of time covered by the figures coincided with the NI2012: Our Time, Our Place major marketing campaign.

The official figures also reveal visitors from Great Britain and the rest of Europe are down 15% and 20% respectively, while visitors from America are up 18%, and hotel room occupancy rates are up 11%. Michael Williamson, director of hotel, tourism and leisure consulting at ASM Chartered Accountants, said there has been an upswing for bedroom accommodation so far this year, but the other statistics "are not consistent with the feedback" he is getting.

"I cannot believe there has been a substantial drop in out-of-state visitors, from GB in particular," Mr Williamson said. "A drop in out-of-state visitors and an increase in hotel demand suggests rooms could be only filled from the domestic market and this is not what the industry is telling me."

DETI says figures for the first nine months of this year are provisional and only provide part of the overall picture.

And speaking to Radio Ulster yesterday, Tourism Minister, Arlene Foster, said: "The most interesting thing for me in the statistics that the companies give to me - both the National Trust and Titanic Belfast - is that over 60% of those people are from outside of Northern Ireland.

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"There is something wrong there, because NISRA are telling me that we have a fall of 12% in our visitors from outside of state, whereas I look to Titanic Belfast and I look to the Giant's Causeway, and they're telling me that 60% of their visitors are from out of state. So, what is going on in relation to these statistics?"