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Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB)

Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB)

Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB)

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The return of the new Executive should see a renewal of their commitment to maximise the contribution that tourism can make to economic development throughout Northern Ireland.

With plans to make tourism a £1bn industry by 2020, the sector has been set an ambitious agenda. From now to 2013, Northern Ireland will have a golden opportunity to capitalise on the fruition of a number of projects which have been in the making for more than five years.

“Real progress must be made over the next two years, a period which represents a tipping point, a once in a lifetime opportunity for Northern Ireland as the Titanic project, the new Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre, Derry City of Culture and the MTV Music Awards [come on stream]. These are all events which will animate the investment that has been poured in to bring Northern Ireland tourism to life,” says Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB).

Across Northern Ireland over the past 10 years, investment has been pumped into the industry to shake off the negative effect on tourism of years of conflict during the Troubles.

Trading conditions have been challenging so far this year, particularly for hotels. Yet falling consumer spending has given rise to the growing trend for ‘staycations’, with international visitor numbers down and short city breaks or visits from locals on the increase.

Aidan McCormack is a director of Belfast Tours which has been operating multilingual open-top bus trips in the city for the past eight years. “Business has been reasonably buoyant. We’ve found an increase from this time last year as the Icelandic volcano brought tourism to a halt in early 2010,” says Mr McCormack.

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He confirms there has been a shift towards staycations. “There has been a slight change in trends of people holidaying close to home on short breaks. Customers from the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain have increased, particularly taking short weekend breaks. We have also noticed a decline in American visitors but an increase in the group market for stag and hen parties and corporate trips away,” says Mr McCormack.

Hotels are also tailoring their offerings to appeal to the stay-at-home market. This year for example, at the upper end of the market, Hastings Hotels will |be running a series of events and offers to celebrate the Europa’s 40th anniversary. With the staycation market people are looking for value and all inclusive offers seem to meet a ready market.

Managing director Howard Hastings, who also serves as chairman of the NITB, said “another trend that seems to be growing, perhaps a fashion dictated by changing market conditions, is the ritual afternoon tea, so places like the Culloden and Europa have seen an upswing as this appeals to families and grannies, perhaps in place of Sunday lunches”.

Over the past 12 months, the National Trust has also been broadening its offering for both domestic and international visitors. “The Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge continue to predominantly attract overseas visitors, with up to 75% of their business coming from out-of-State markets. We are also seeing a growth in visitors from the Republic of Ireland market, in particular to our Co Fermanagh sites — Florence Court, Castle Coole and Crom, as well as the Co Down sites — Mount Stewart House and Gardens and Castle Ward,” says National Trust Marketing consultant, Gillian Little.

With extended opening hours and overall visitor numbers up 7% for the 2010/11 season on the previous year, Ms Little says the National Trust are optimistic for the season ahead and have worked hard to improve the overall visitor experience. This has included “developing new special-interest and family -friendly tours; telling our stories in innovative and creative ways; developing an annual events programme attractive to our key target segments such as musical events, gardening workshops, guided walks and seasonal events like Pumpkinfest, Enchanted Hallowe'en, or Santa's House”.

Fermanagh’s Belleek Pottery have also enjoyed a rise in visitor numbers. “Last year we attracted 161,196 visitors from all over the world [US, Canada, Australia, UK, France, Germany, Japan] compared to 152,573 in 2009 and 148,225 in 2008. This year Belleek hope to welcome upwards of 1,000 coaches to the pottery. We also work hard alongside NITB and Fermanagh Lakelands Trust to generate interest in the Fermanagh area as a whole through two for one promotions and discounts,” said Belleek’s operations director Arthur Goan.

In particular, it is the home market, Republic of Ireland and Great Britain that are identified by tour operators and the Tourist Board as vital for the long-term sustainability of Northern Ireland’s tourism industry. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board believe they can sustain 4.5 million visitors per year and 50,000 jobs.

Visitor feedback shows tourists regard NI as a safe and secure destination, enjoying the warm atmosphere, scenery, heritage and culture.

The the NITB’s Mr Clarke says: “We’ve... done exceptionally well to secure a budget in excess of £60m, most of which is ringfenced for the Titanic and the Giant’s Causeway. For the 2008/09 budget, tourism also received a public service agreement, making it a cross-government initiative and marking recognition that the Executive see tourism as key to future economic growth.”

Tourism also received a boost in the Jobs Plan policy document, launched in February by eight leading business organisations (NI Retail Trade Association, NI Food and Drink, Momentum [a grouping of hi-tech organisations], the Centre for Competitiveness, NI Chamber of Commerce, Construction Employers’ Federation, the CBI and the Institute of Directors).

Martin McCrossan’s Londonderry walking tours company, has seen a 15% increase in visitors compared to the same period in 2010.

He credits the NITB’s stay-at-home campaign for the growth. “I’m very excited for 2012 and 2013’s upcoming projects like the Titanic, Derry City of Culture, and the 400th anniversary of the building of the walls of Derry.”

For the tourism industry, the focus will now be on delivery and getting the message out. “The 2012 and 2013 upcoming events are Northern Ireland’s version of the Olympic Games,” says Mr Clarke.

Making sure they are properly resourced and capture the imagination of visitors, underpinned by delivering a quality visitor experience will be positive for the Northern Ireland brand and set the course for a sustainable tourism industry.”

While the weather and securing investment will always be a challenge, tourism is one area which offers substantial payback provided the investment and support is made.