Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's success rests on expanding must-see tourist attractions


Joanne Stuart of the NI Tourism Alliance
Joanne Stuart of the NI Tourism Alliance
John Simpson

By John Simpson

The tourism industry in Northern Ireland is a success story with the potential to become even more successful. The search for more tourists and for higher value tourism is now coming together with greater professional assistance through the creation of the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance (NITA) as a new business force adding to the efforts of the existing institutions such as Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland.

After careful preparation, NITA is offering a forceful voice bringing together the business skills and experience of an influential group of commercial interests and other relevant agencies such as local government councils.

NITA has a significant group of members, including accommodation providers (with major hotels), members of food and drink associations, providers of passenger transport (by air, sea, road and rail), tour guides and regional organisations (such as Visit Belfast, Visit Derry and Visit West Belfast).

NITA has also recruited as associate members 10 local councils, Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland, education and skills providers, and at least one of the local universities.

To lead this representative new organisation, NITA has appointed a full-time chief executive who brings a wealth of business experience to the role.

Joanne Stuart, a former senior manager at Catalyst, is reviewing activity in the tourism sector and assessing the strengths and weaknesses so that they can move towards setting agreed priorities for development.

Joanne has the advantage of a successful business career and, as a former chairman of the Institute of Directors (IoD), her network of business associates and colleagues is extensive.

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NITA will be a forceful new voice, supplementing the efforts that are already being made. In addition, it will be an additional source of expertise, advice, operational support and challenge to a tourism sector that is ready to enhance the vision of what local tourism could achieve.

In the debate about further strengthening tourism, NITA will be able to offer Tourism NI and the Department for the Economy well sourced advice and, where appropriate, critical comments. NITA is well aware of the tensions of different approaches.

Tourism should be a self-sustaining industry: tourists are encouraged to come to Northern Ireland because it offers tourist products which are good value for money.

But tourism will sometimes, selectively, need Government support to build up support where there might be market failure.

Projects which exploit and commercialise facilities or events drawing on cultural heritage and traditional festivals may merit launch aid, possibly on a one-off basis.

The local tourist industry will want to refresh and add to the available tourism product.

The Giant's Causeway, Titanic Quarter and the Mournes are already world renowned.

However, NITA will all be considering how to broaden the appeal, increase the length of the tourist season and look to other agencies to supplement their activities.

In the last decade, Northern Ireland has begun to build recurring festivals and events that attract visitors. Londonderry has a successful Halloween festival, Fermanagh has begun to commercialise leisure cruising on the lakes and across to the Shannon by-canal, Belfast has enjoyed business connected with its maritime heritage which can now add the attraction of HMS Caroline, East Antrim offers a unique experience through the Gobbins walkway.

So the list must go on... and grow.

NITA will set the scene for an ever-more ambitious agenda. Northern Ireland has begun to recognise where the potential for success lies.

Vision and delivery must come from the efforts of talented local entrepreneurs.

To broaden the potential tourist market, efforts are contemplated to increase the number of business visitors mixing business and pleasure.

Belfast and Londonderry have the capacity, if local councils and accommodation providers cooperate, to offer the range of facilities to attract large professional conferences.

A tourist sector which generates better, larger and more enduring activity lies within the grasp of a better focused local effort.

Belfast Telegraph