Time to spend more on 'new' attractions, says Northern Ireland tourism chief
More investment is needed in the tourist attractions of the future after spending hit almost £1 billion in 2017, it has been claimed.
The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) said there were 4.9 million trips during 2017 with spending of £900m, up 9% (£76m) on 2016.
And Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen said he expected the province to reach a target of £1bn spending this year or in 2019.
Next, there would be a focus on a draft tourism strategy for 2030 - but he said more investment would be needed in attractions. Last year, the Giant's Causeway was the top tourist draw.
"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," said Mr McGrillen.
"We also need a dispersal strategy to get them beyond Belfast and the Giant's Causeway."
But he added he believed Belfast needed "another big attraction" to anchor visitors, with a museum on the history of the city one possibility.
And he said further investment in locations along the Causeway Coast including Carrickfergus Castle would be necessary.
He also has no fears about there not being enough demand to fill the new hotels being built in Belfast. Around 20 are in the planning system, including extensions, with around four new venues opening in the first six months of the year. In total, room numbers are to grow from 8,000 to 10,000.
"The fact that we have greater accommodation is absolutely a good thing... Dublin would love to be in the position that we are in," he said.
"The fact that we have that stock is now giving us a competitive advantage as many of the tour operations are now looking to Belfast instead of Dublin."
Nisra's figures for 2017 also show that holidays taken by visitors from the Republic - a market that has been a major target of Tourism NI - were up nearly 50%, helped by a favourable exchange rate.
Overall visits from the Republic were up 6% to 482,000, while holiday trips were up 49% to 237,000.
There was growth from other markets including staycationers and from other overseas markets aside from the Republic. Of the 4.9m trips, there were 2.5m holiday trips taken, with major growth in each market and a significant increase of 18% in holidaying at home for the domestic market.
And travellers from overseas were also spending more, with their expenditure up 9%. Overseas markets performed well with a growth in spend of 9% to £248m.
More locals holidayed at home, with 1.5m deciding to remain - up 18% on 2016.
Their spending was also up 14% to £270m.
Mr McGrillen believes that the tourism industry will continue to grow this year. "2018 is already off to a positive start, with hotels achieving unprecedented sales," he added.