Ian Paisley: Without aggressive strategy we'll always be second best
Make no mistake about it, Northern Ireland's tourism reach is a success story. We have seen the massive increase in numbers of inbound tourists steadily climb with the Giant's Causeway and Titanic museum annually competing for top visitor attraction. Around the world Belfast has become the cool destination to visit, and event-driven tourism has been a success story all of its own.
Indeed, this year The Open will take place and is already in advance the most successful in terms of sales ever. This augers well for The Open to return on a regular basis. It is fantastic for Portrush and the coastal area and a real tribute to the Royal Portrush Golf Club that made it happen when the Civil Service scoffed at the suggestion. I know - I was there.
Sport-driven tourism is an opportunity we should not miss. I currently chair the NI Motorsport Taskforce and I've been amazed at the opportunities available to develop motorsport-driven tourism events. The WRC is the Formula 1 of rally sport and NI is purpose-built for WRC. We need a decision taken immediately by the Government to secure the WRC UK round for NI. This would bring in tens of thousands of visitors and project NI on the world stage in such a positive manner. It would be spread both to the east and west of the province and to Belfast catering for all needs. I'd encourage the Government to get a grip of this.
But NI needs and deserves much more. The fact is, Dublin Airport and the all-Ireland nature of tourism marketing has stolen a march in NI, frankly, to keep us in second place. That's not acceptable. We can and must do more. An aggressive marketing strategy that buys up the advertising opportunities around Dublin Airport and its surrounds and unashamedly points people who arrive there to head north.
If every Irish American is looking for the romance of Danny Boy when they arrive in Dublin, they are at the wrong airport. We need a strategy that says to tourists NI is only an hour away and promote our north Antrim coast over the Republic, and the Titanic and Game Of Thrones over everything the Republic has. Without such a drive we will always be in second place in the marketing strategy and in the tourism take.
Government, too, can do more, removing airport passenger duty - the £30 tax you pay the Chancellor for simply flying to London - altogether. Also, VAT on tourism products such as hospitality at hotels and restaurants should be zero-rated. This would increase the tourism economy by millions each year. If NI is a special case then it should be for the right reasons. Policy should encourage the entrepreneurial spirit and drive the economy.
We have the opportunity, too, to encourage a real public-private partnership by developing the local skills base of future employees in the industry. If school-leavers see tourism as a clear-cut career pathway, and an infrastructure around training of chefs and staff for the industry is in place,it will reap its own rewards.
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I've always been encouraged by the work of the Visit Belfast office in the city. Its staff are vivacious and delightful. They give a great welcome in our capital to all visitors. We must capitalise on that skill of our people and develop it further. There is so much to play for and without an Assembly this can't wait. The Secretary of State could make good on much of this by telling the Civil Service to cut the restraints and get on with delivering such a strategy.
Ian Paisley is MP for North Antrim