Northern Ireland tourism chiefs say 2018 could see 2.3m visitors
Northern Ireland could welcome more than 2.3 million visitors next year buoyed by growth from emerging markets such as China.
Tourism Ireland said 2.26m people will have visited Northern Ireland in 2017, up 6% on last year, and spent £586m.
It's predicting that next year there will be more than 2.3m visitors, who are expected to spend £623m.
Northern Ireland is attracting visitors from far afield, including China and the US, and tourism officials are pushing well-established attractions such as the Giant's Causeway, Titanic Belfast and Game Of Thrones filming locations, along with The Open golf tournament, which is coming to Royal Portrush in 2019.
"The key take for us is 2017 has been a very good year," Tourism Ireland chief executive Niall Gibbons said.
"The last four or five years, spending is up 40%."
According to Mr Gibbons, Titanic Belfast has welcomed a surge in visitors, with numbers up by around a third.
And he said the Giant's Causeway has welcomed an additional 22% of Chinese visitors, with 56,000 taking in Northern Ireland's most popular tourism destination.
Mr Gibbons said more Chinese tourists visit the Giant's Causeway than the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.
"It's one of the fastest growing markets - up 10%," he said.
Ireland is due to get a new direct flight from Dublin to Beijing, and already has a flight that connects through Dubai and Qatar.
"I only see it going from strength to strength," said Mr Gibbons. "I don't see any reason why we won't grow in double digits. There are around 160m Chinese people travelling, but only around five million come to Europe."
He said, across the board, the aim is to increase visitor spending in Northern Ireland by 6% in 2018.
"The economic climate is good overseas. There are a lot of new bedrooms coming on stream - around 2,000. That includes the new Titanic Hotel, the Grand Central and investment from Dalata Hotel Group," said Mr Gibbons.
Asked about areas in which Northern Ireland can improve, he said: "I think we have to continue to push the publicity story.
"There are still a couple of legacy issues, so PR is important.
"As demand increases, we still offer good value for money, and work closely with Tourism NI."
Part of the tourism push in 2018 includes targeting investment in Europe and North America, optimising investment in Australia and exploiting new access opportunities from Asia and the Middle East to grow business from emerging markets of high potential. "We will develop an inspiring new global advertising campaign to refresh and reinvigorate the presentation of Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland overseas, for roll-out in 2019 and beyond," Mr Gibbons said. "We are heading into 2018 in a position of some strength.
"Our aim is to position Northern Ireland as a year-round, 'must visit' destination and to ensure that the contribution of overseas tourism to the local economy continues to expand.
"We will implement the actions arising from our comprehensive reviews of the US and German markets.
"We will position Northern Ireland as a great staycation option in the GB market, highlighting the value for money."