Single body for Northern Ireland tourism sector launched as revenues near the £1bn mark
A new organisation has been formed to promote the tourism industry and help it tackle issues such as Brexit as the sector edges closer to a target of £1bn in revenue.
The Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance, led by Doreen McKenzie, said it will be "a single, strong body" to push tourism higher up the Government's agenda and improve its chances of success.
And one of its first moves will be to respond to a UK Government consultation on the potential reduction of VAT and air passenger duty (APD) in Northern Ireland.
The NITA will be launched tonight in the first big corporate gathering at Belfast's new £53m Grand Central Hotel in Bedford Street.
It is led by the private sector, with leading figures including British Airways partnership manager Brenda Morgan.
But membership also includes councils, tourist information centres and major attractions.
According to the latest figures from Tourism NI, the sector generated £926m in revenue during 2017, bringing it close to a target of £1bn set by the now suspended Executive at Stormont.
Ms McKenzie, whose agency Knock Travel merged with Oasis Travel last year, said: "After a decade of fast-paced development, tourism last year contributed a record-breaking £926m to the Northern Ireland economy and, despite inevitable challenges, that upward trajectory seems set to continue, making this initiative as timely as it is important."
Tourism consultant Don Wilmont, a former chief executive of the Causeway Coast and Glens Tourism Partnership, is the vice-chairman of NITA.
He said: "As a mature industry, we have earned the right to be listened to… and we now have the vehicle we need to make our opinions count on major strategic issues, which will include everything from the UK's exit from the EU and the ongoing uncertainty of the economic climate to the industry's overall competitiveness.
"This is a two-way street for communications and progress.
"Having one credible voice for tourism means that we can more powerfully claim the attention of our key audiences, notably within Government.
"But Government will also find it much easier to speak to tourism providers now that there is a single representative body."
Speaking after the publication of figures covering the sector in 2017, Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen said he expected spending to hit the target of £1bn either this year or next year.
But he added that more investment would be required in attractions.
"About six years ago we had investment in Titanic Belfast and Derry's City Walls, so we will need another wave of that to give people more reasons to come, spend longer and spend more money," Mr McGrillen explained.
"We also need a dispersal strategy to get them beyond Belfast and the Giant's Causeway."
Nisra said there had been 4.9 million trips in Northern Ireland during 2017, with spending of £926m - up 9% on 2016.