Belfast Telegraph

Tourism trade boosted by surge in hotel room sales

By Clare Weir

Booming hotel room sales in Northern Ireland bode well for the tourism industry in the months ahead with major events set to attract even more visitors to these shores, according to tourism experts.

Room sales in Northern Ireland's hotels were 11% higher this June compared to last year, according to new figures from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and overall occupancy levels reached 78% - up from 70% last year.

Fresh from the opening of the Titanic museum in late March - which has welcomed over 350,000 visitors since it opened its doors - there were 178,000 rooms sold in hotels in Northern Ireland in June and guest houses and bed and breakfasts reported that the number of rooms sold was up 15% over the year.

Hotels in the mid-price range with rooms priced between £50 and £60 saw occupancy drop, but those below £50 and those above £60 saw occupancy increase.

Looking at quarterly changes, the second quarter of 2012 has shown record hotel room occupancy with 73% for Northern Ireland and 84% for Belfast in particular - higher than the previous record set in 2007 at 72% and 81% respectively.

Richard Ramsey, chief economist in Northern Ireland with Ulster Bank, who has analysed the figures, said that 2007 was previously a record year for visitor numbers and tourism spend.

"The fact that Belfast and Northern Ireland are posting record hotel occupancy rates in the second quarter of 2012 bodes well for the tourism industry later this year," he said, pointing to the fact that 2013 will see Londonderry host events connected to its status of City of Culture and that the World Police and Fire Games will be coming to the region.

"Quarter two seems to be making up for a below-average first quarter of 52% for Northern Ireland and 61% for Belfast which was well below the 2006 and 2007 record highs," he added.

Shorter-term gains are also expected due to Portrush hosting the Irish Open golf tournament and the opening of the new Giant's Causeway visitor centre.

During January to June 2012, all hotels regardless of size experienced an increase in room occupancy - while hotel room occupancy in the north west showed a decrease of 1%, all other areas showed increases.

On the downside, there were less overseas visitors and less money was spent over the period.

During January-June 2012, an estimated 440,000 overseas visitors stayed at least one night in Northern Ireland and exited through a Northern Ireland port, a decrease of 5% compared with the same period in 2011.

An estimated £103m was spent, a decrease of 16% when compared with the same period in 2011.

Janice Gault of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation said that anecdotally, figures for July are already looking impressive.

"Overall 2012 has been a good news story for Northern Ireland and a number of events have been hosted which have attracted bulk tourism numbers," she said.

"We are hoping that there will be a legacy built on that, we are on the news in our target markets for the right reasons and we hope that will continue."

Meanwhile it has also emerged that Belfast outshone Dublin according to a report on hotel occupancy in the Republic's capital.

Advisory firm Deloitte said that occupancy levels were up 2.1% on the same period last year and the average daily rate was up 7.8%.

However the occupancy rate for the second quarter was 79.2%.

Industry investment is now paying dividends

By Gerry Lennon

The statistics demonstrate a steady return to growth for the city's hoteliers. June was particularly strong, with room occupancy at a level we have not seen since 2007, when, at that time, we had far fewer rooms to fill.

We're also seeing similar growth in visitor numbers to the Belfast Welcome Centre and in the level of enquiries handled.

In the first six months of 2012, we have welcomed more than 140,000 visitors to the city, up 32% on the same period last year, while overall enquiries from those seeking more information about what to see and do in Belfast and Northern Ireland were up 41%.

Northern Ireland and Belfast are benefiting from the solid investment made in the tourism industry in recent years and a concerted marketing effort to drive visitor numbers is showing positive results and we look forward to building on this strong base in the years ahead.

Case study: Gavin Carroll, general manager of The Merchant Hotel, Belfast

In line with the latest figures from DETI, we have seen an increase in occupancy rates at The Merchant Hotel throughout the summer of 2012.

Whilst the DETI statistics bulletin also indicates that passenger numbers through ports and airports are down during the same period, the opposite has been our experience at The Merchant - with our increased occupancy stemming from the overseas tourist market.

Being a five-star city centre hotel we have always attracted an international audience and, not surprisingly due to overseas interest in Titanic, visitor numbers from the US and Canada are up by almost 70% on last year. These guests are spending longer in the city, with increased bed nights.

Previously when North American markets were visiting Ireland they may only have allocated a single day to visiting the North of the island where as now it can be two or even three days.

Further increases have been seen in the new emerging markets of India, China and the Emirate States, with much of this growth being driven by NI's increasing reputation as a top global golf destination.

We have had sales managers on the ground in those countries for the past two years now to forge relations with tour operators and we are seeing substantial reward in 2012/2013 for our efforts.

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