Belfast Telegraph

Tourism Northern Ireland need to wake up and appreciate North West 200, insists race boss Whyte

By Jim Gracey

Aggreived North West 200 race director Mervyn Whyte has strongly criticised the absence of top-level Tourism NI representatives from last week's hugely successful motorcycle racing event and festival.

Mr Whyte also voiced his disappointment in general at what he feels is an ambivalent attitude by the tourism body towards Northern Ireland's biggest outdoor sporting event.

The NW200 was officially calculated in 2017 to be worth £9.8m annually to the north coast economy and that is expected to be higher this year, with last week's warm weather attracting upwards of 80,000 visitors over race week.

Mr Whyte believes there is also a potential future tourism spin-off for the area from a worldwide TV audience, numbered in millions, tuning in to watch the racing against a backdrop of spectacular north coast scenery.

Despite that, Mr Whyte pointed out that the North West, a largely free show, receives 'minimal' financial support from Tourism NI in comparison to other events.

He added: "It is particularly disappointing that no-one from the top brass of the main tourism promotion organisation attended last week's event. There was no goodwill message, not even a phone call.

"Causeway Coast and Glens council invited senior figures from the Tourist Board to Saturday's hospitality event, but they did not attend.

"Tourism NI need to wake up to the value of the North West to the tourism economy, year in and out.

"They are paying lip service to the North West, yet this time next year, they will be flocking to The Open golf at Royal Portrush in their droves.

"I have no issue with other event organisers receiving funding. What dismays me is the lack of financial support for the North West, in comparison to major one-off events, and an apparent lack of appreciation for what we are doing on an annual basis.

"Compared to what we are putting into the tourism economy, we are getting a minimal amount back in terms of support from Tourism NI.

"In contrast, we enjoy tremendous support from our local Causeway Coast and Glens council, both financial and in kind.

"Through their chief executive David Jackson, the council was particularly helpful this year with the course construction.

"The council recognises the event's worth and we are grateful for that.

"The North West costs £1m a year to run and the vast majority of those 80,000 spectators do not pay an admission fee.

"If it wasn't for the council, our headline sponsors, Vauxhall, and our individual race sponsors, the event would not take place and the biggest financial hit would be felt by the local tourism economy."

An economic impact survey, undertaken by Sheffield Hallam University at the 2017 event, found the direct economic benefit to local tourism was £9.8m, of which £9.1m was spent in Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine.

The survey also found that 22,354 overnight visitors spent £2,049,568 on accommodation.

Among those visitors this year were a group of 120 fans of top Austrian rider, Horst Saiger, who was unable to compete due to a broken hand suffered in a racing accident last week, but he and his followers still turned up as planned.

"They had their travel and accommodation booked and rather than cancel, they all came to enjoy the races," said Mr Whyte.

"The event, the local area and its many side attractions are the reason so many fans from around the world return to us, year after year.

"Our tourist organisation needs to recognise that."

A spokesperson for Tourism NI said: "The North West 200 is Northern Ireland's largest outdoor sporting event, attracting thousands of visitors, both internationally and locally for a spectacular festival of racing.

"The event is key for Northern Ireland tourism in its contribution to the local economy through hospitality and overnight stays and in providing high profile international media coverage, showcasing the Causeway Coast.

"As a long-standing key partner of the North West 200, Tourism NI has offered substantial financial support to this year's event, through the International Tourism Events Fund and representatives have been in attendance to support the annual programme of racing."

She added that one of the organisation's directors was at the NW200 on an official capacity and liaising about follow-ups after the event and further activity with Tourism NI.

Rider ‘in good spirits’ after Superbike crash

The North West 200 boss has visited Dutch rider Johan Fredriks, who is recuperating in hospital following a crash on the track last week.

Event director Mervyn Whyte attended the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast yesterday to spend time with the 33-year-old.

He said he “found him in good spirits” despite wearing a neck-brace and having pins inserted in his ankle.

“Johan crashed at University Corner during Tuesday’s practice session and sustained ankle, wrist and collar bone injuries,” a NW200 Tweet read.

“He is making a good recovery.”

Fredriks, who comes from the town of Goes in the south west of the Netherlands, was treated at the scene by the medical team from the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland following the crash during the Superbike trials.

The track had been wet after showers.

It was only Fredriks’ second time competing in the event.

His best result was a 12th place finish in one of the Superbike races in 2017.

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