Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Blots on horizon for health of NI tourism

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

Editor's Viewpoint

Tourism is a growth area in the Northern Ireland economy and in 2017 brought in almost £1bn. Indeed, Northern Ireland is the third most popular destination within the island after Dublin and the south west, proof of the enduring appeal of its natural and man-made attractions.

But North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr believes the province should be doing even better. In typically robust fashion, he urged tourism bodies here to be more aggressive in their marketing and bring the fight for visitors across the border.

While his language may have been intemperate - even off-putting to some influential tourism figures - he did raise important issues.

If, as he suggested, Dublin Airport spends 70% of its budget trying to woo tourists from Northern Ireland, then there is no reason why the province's tourism bodies should not seek to attract visitors across the border from the Republic.

It also brings into focus the role of Tourism Ireland, the single body charged with bringing visitors to the island. Is its expenditure and marketing proportionate to each part of the island? It would be naive to expect both parts of the island to get equal expenditure but they should certainly get equal exposure in the tourism marketplace.

Mr Paisley is entitled to ask if the province is getting good value from this joint marketing initiative.

However, it can be pointed out that the number of visitors coming to Northern Ireland has shown a steady increase in the past decade.

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One particular growth area has been in the number of cruise liners docking in Northern Ireland ports - up from 33 in 2011 to 112 in 2017. These are high-wealth visitors and can be important ambassadors for the industry when they return to their home countries.

Perhaps one of the strongest indicators of the rude health of tourism in the province is the growth in the number of hotel beds available, particularly in Belfast, and occupancy remains high at 73%.

But there are a couple of blots on the horizon. The continued absence of a devolved government at Stormont means that the local tourism strategy is years out-of-date.

And Brexit also casts an unwelcome shadow. Already a couple of conferences have pulled out of Belfast because of uncertainty, and fears that there yet could be a hard border if no deal is agreed would severely hamper the flow of tourists throughout the island.

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