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Tourist numbers rise, though Belfast continues to claim biggest slice


The Giant’s Causeway was one of the big visitor attractions

The Giant’s Causeway was one of the big visitor attractions

The Giant’s Causeway was one of the big visitor attractions

Belfast still dominates Northern Ireland's tourism industry with one in three trips taken in the city, according to the latest figures.

There were 1.5 million overnight trips taken to the city in 2016, 31% of all visitor numbers.

That's up from 1.36 million the previous year, figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) show.

And while more than 800,000 people visited the Causeway Coast, figures were down from a year earlier.

Belfast, along with Antrim & Newtownabbey, attracted the bulk of business trips, which accounted for around 16% of overnight trips to the two areas.

Nisra says around £851m was spent across Northern Ireland on overnight trips during 2016.

Around £334m of that was in Belfast, with the Causeway Coast and Glens on £138m.

As for hotels, some 43% of rooms sold were based in Belfast.

Breaking down visitor numbers for the city, 41% came from Great Britain, with 28% from elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

Overall, hotel occupancy rates stood at 70%. A total of two million rooms were sold across Northern Ireland during 2016.

But it is estimated that guest houses, bed and breakfasts and guest accommodation had average room occupancy of just 34% in Northern Ireland, while self-catering accommodation had average unit occupancy of 36%.

The Giant's Causeway remains our most popular tourist spot, with almost a million visitors a year. But while the overall number of trips here rose to 4.6 million, up marginally on the previous year, tourists stayed fewer nights than in 2015.

There was a drop of 2% in overall nights spent in Northern Ireland, falling to 15.2 million last year. The number of those coming to Northern Ireland on holiday increased by 10%.

The number of overnight trips from Northern Ireland residents fell by 11%. And that was attributed to a rise in the number of outgoing flights, in particular the return of Ryanair to Belfast.

While the number of visitors from the US and the rest of Europe rose, they made up just 16% of total overnight stays here.

Aside from the Giant's Causeway, Titanic Belfast was the next most popular tourist attraction, with 667,000 visitors in 2016.

Belfast Zoo saw numbers fall by 6%, to 223,000. The Ulster Museum had 460,000 visitors. Londonderry's Walls welcomed 403,000 visitors.

In 2016, 81 cruise ships docked in Belfast port, with five in Londonderry and seven vessels at other Northern Ireland ports.

Nisra said that 73% of overnight trips to Causeway Coast & Glens were for holiday purposes, while 72% of overnight trips to Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon were for visiting friends and relatives. Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, welcomed the increase in visitors and spend.

"Today's tourism statistics show the importance of the sector to Northern Ireland's economy and demonstrate not only how more tourists are visiting the region, but are also spending more money as the hospitality sector continues to grow and add value to the economy.

"In Belfast there was an increase of almost £60m in terms of tourism spend in 2016 compared to 2015."

The statistics also show that the district of Derry/Londonderry city and Strabane saw an increase of more than 60,000 overnight trips in the same period.

But Mr Neill added: "While the overall numbers are most certainly positive, they also show that there is more need for investment and promotion in regions of Northern Ireland that aren't as well established as tourist destinations, in order that the benefits of tourism and hospitality are more evenly spread."

Meanwhile, significant growth in the number of new hotels being built in Belfast is expected to bring changes to the tourism experience in the city.

Around 25 new hotels are in the planning system for the city, including a new hotel by Slieve Donard owners the Hastings Hotel Group. The company is opening the Grand Central Hotel in the city's Bedford Street, on the site of the former Windsor House.

Close by, Liverpool developer Lawrence Kenwright is to open a George Best themed hotel at the former Scottish Mutual Building, while Irish company Dalata Hotel Group is opening a Maldron Hotel off Bedford Street. In Clarendon Dock, hotel group Marriott will launch its first hotel in the city next year after work is completed at City Quays 2.

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