After a surge in trips from the Republic in 2021, John McGrillen of Tourism NI tells Margaret Canning that the market has more to give
For many people living in Northern Ireland, taking a trip across the border for a short holiday or day out is second nature.
But John McGrillen, chief executive of the organisation responsible for enticing residents of the Republic to take a trip here, says the feeling often isn’t mutual.
When he became Tourism NI boss nearly seven years ago, under 5% of holidays taken by people living in the Republic on the island of Ireland were in NI.
Marketing campaigns including its ‘Small Step towards a Giant Adventure’ have helped change things. But more significantly, travel restrictions which limited overseas holidays for most of us last year led more people in the Republic to take a trip north.
Periods where hotels and bars were open in NI while still shut in the Republic also drew an influx of visitors.
Between June and September, Tourism NI said total tourism Republic of Ireland cardholder spend was up 151% on 2019, while hotel spending using cards was up by the same level.
And online review data from RoI visitors had also dramatically increased, Tourism NI said, while their spending in bars and restaurants had also tripled.
Despite the success of last year, John feels the southern market has still not been exploited to the full although some stubborn challenges have been overcome.
“When I took this role up, one of the first things I did in 2016 was to put a working group together to examine some of the challenges that existed in the Republic and why we weren’t getting visitor numbers that one would have anticipated getting.
“So there were some core reasons — firstly there was a hangover from social unrest here. A very substantial number, over 50%, had never spent a night in Northern Ireland at that point.
“There was a sense that we were a rather conservative place where perhaps what we had on offer did not match what existed in the Republic, so that whatever you experienced here, you would get better in the Republic.
“There was a complete lack of understanding about the geography of Northern Ireland, and in fact a lack of understanding about the geography of the island north of Navan.
“People in the greater Dublin area people would not have been familiar with the Donegal, Cavan, Sligo, Louth counties.
“There was a sense that everybody either went west, south west or south on holiday. So there was this sort of issue around people’s perceptions of Belfast and NI being far away and difficult to reach.’
Tourism NI started spending more on marketing NI in the Republic, and whenever it held a major campaign, hotels and other venues would be supported with grants to have their own campaigns in tandem.
And it worked. “Between 2016 and 2019 we saw visitor numbers increase by something like 70%. But more importantly, spend from visitors in the Republic more than doubled in that period from around £50m to £51m to around £108m.”
While exact visitor numbers for last year aren’t available, John says the data on spend by cardholders indicates visits in 2021 were double what they were in 2019.
“We had been securing somewhere in the region of less than 5% of all breaks taken by visitors from the Republic of Ireland on the island of Ireland.
“Just 1 out of 20 trips were being taken here but that has changed quite dramatically.
“We had a target of 5% but based on 2019 figures, that was sitting at around 7%, and our target would be to increase that to 10% so that one trip in 10 would be to NI.”
Tourism NI is also responsible for encouraging Northern Ireland people to holiday at home. The industry had been anticipating a fillip from a proposed £2m holiday at home scheme, which would have given a £100 discount off a hotel stay, or a £20 visit off a visit to a tourist attraction.
But according to Economy Minister Gordon Lyons last month, the Department of Finance and the Executive would not give the scheme the go-ahead as it was not felt to give value for money.
John says he is disappointed the scheme will not go ahead but that the body has now been given an extra £1.5m for marketing, which will have to be spent by the end of the financial year on March 31.
“We put a huge amount of effort in to seek to make that (the scheme) happen but we couldn’t for whatever reason convince the Executive that it was something we should do. But as an alternative, the Minister (Gordon Lyons) has given us additional money for marketing both at home and in the Republic of Ireland.”
But he says he is concerned in case restrictions limit how effective any spending can be. “Again, we’re going to have to be very flexible in next few weeks as we cannot be seen to be spending money on marketing if things are not open.
“We’ll take decisions on a week by week basis… however, depending on how the next 12 weeks could pan out, we could potentially put that £1.5m to very good use.”
Meanwhile, the work goes on to give greater visibility to hotels and other places here so that residents over the border can be convinced that what NI has is comparable to anything in the south.
John cites the success story of the Galgorm Resort & Spa outside Ballymena for its owner, Galgorm Collection. “Colin Johnston (managing director) at Galgorm would say he’s seen a significant build-up in his business from the Republic of Ireland over the last two to three years.”
However, he says there are some holes in our accommodation offer. “I think that apart from the Bushmills Inn, we don’t have any five star accommodation on the north coast. The amount of four star is quite limited as well so there is an opportunity to build on the accommodation offer in some places.”
But despite the challenges which have faced the industry during the pandemic, he thinks there are other positive signs — including the sale of the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Co Down, to US player AJ Capital Partners.
The venue, formerly the jewel in the crown of the Hastings Hotels Group, was sold for an estimated £40m.
John says: “I think it will open up the Slieve Donard to a potentially wider audience and it brings a major international player into the Northern Ireland marketplace, so from that perspective I think it’s very, very good news.”