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Time Northern Ireland tourism learned some home truths from abroad


Visitors walk along the basalt rocks at the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland

Visitors walk along the basalt rocks at the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland

Visitors walk along the basalt rocks at the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland

An old joke in the tourism business was about the man complaining how hard it was to sell Northern Ireland overseas. The answer was that he shouldn't bother. Instead, he should try giving it away, though there was no guarantee that would work, either.

Leaving aside the self-deprecating humour, which should be part of our sales pitch, David McNarry MLA's comments about promoting tourism are to be welcomed, because we all should be thinking about attracting more visitors and how to go about it.

There can be scarcely a soul in the province who doesn't think that increased tourism for Northern Ireland is worthwhile.

We'll take that for granted.

So let us talk and argue about inward tourism, rather than about some of the topics which have engaged us, nay, obsessed us for ages.

Notwithstanding his unionist credentials, David McNarry helps make the point that borders are not good for tourism -- something the Scots should think about when voting in the independence referendum in September, since tourism is a significant contribution to their wealth and a goodly number of those tourists reach Scotland through England.

Not long ago, we travelled on a Belfast Telegraph holiday week-long trip to Croatia and the Dalmatian coast. Since the disastrous and bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, the territory is criss-crossed with borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia.

Croatia has extraordinary borders, with Bosnia taking a 20-mile corridor to the sea north of Dubrovnik, cutting off a corner of the country from the rest. Croatia is shaped like a boomerang with a separated broken tip.

The queues at the borders and the multiple currencies detracted from what was otherwise a delightful and still-recommended holiday. There are those who go to Dubrovnik and stay there because of the hassle with currencies alone. We should, therefore, not be surprised if the same applies to overseas visitors landing in Dublin. We can tell them that the border with Northern Ireland is scarcely discernible nowadays, but they will need to be told they have to change their money and, while any tourism pitch can downgrade this as a problem, it is not possible to eradicate it.

Consequently, a quick dart in a coach with a packed lunch to the Giant's Causeway from over the border seems as attractive to the overseas visitor as it is unappealing to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. The quick dart is possible because Northern Ireland is small; there is no escaping this fact.

Size does matter. For many visitors to the Republic, Ireland is an island which is not large and Northern Ireland for them is a small corner which they might like to include, if time allows. It won't be a deal-breaker if time and circumstances do not allow.

Small wonder that there is a perception that the promotion of Northern Ireland from Dublin is not as vigorous as many would like. Realistically, there are market constraints.

However, much the same constraints apply to David McNarry's preferred solution of having Northern Ireland marketed from London and other UK capitals.

Most tourists to the UK are going to land in London, or on the south coast of England. For them, Northern Ireland is at the other end of the country and, more seriously, is on the other side of yet another sea.

We can point to the multiple means of reaching us, to the golf, the walking, the cycling, the scenery, the culture, the bonhomie, the same currency and the superb coastline, but overseas tourists will look at the added expense and effort in crossing the sea -- and all-too-often decide to remain within Great Britain's borders, where there are more than enough attractions.

And let's be honest. The tourist-promoting authorities over there will inevitably apply the same vigour to selling Northern Ireland as does Dublin, perhaps even less.

For everywhere else on these islands, we are a place apart and it is possible that all partners will disappoint. The UK air passenger tax means Dublin is a cheaper entry and exit point to the island for many people.

This is not the counsel of despair. We have a viable tourism product, which is improving. The new visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway and the Titanic attraction in Belfast alone are evidence. So is the burgeoning hotel and restaurant sector.

Accept that we are on the northern outskirts of the European continent and this imposes limits upon reasonable expectation. The answer to promoting ourselves must surely be to accept help from wherever we can. Let Dublin, London, Cardiff and Glasgow all promote us. Paris and Berlin, too, if we can talk them into it.

One last point worth emphasising again and again: try asking an internet search engine for images of Northern Ireland. You will receive wonderful pictures, but dotted among them are images of riots and flag protests. If you think they don't impact, suggest a trip to Egypt to the next person you meet.

We don't make things easy for anyone promoting Northern Ireland as a carefree destination -- including David McNarry.

* Don Anderson is a broadcaster, author and commentator