Why these are among the best of times for Northern Ireland
Behind the often negative headlines, Northern Ireland is a place on the move and that should give us all grounds for optimism, argues businessman Gerald Steinberg
The poet Seamus Heaney once wrote, "Anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland can't be too optimistic!" Sometimes when I watch or read the news I know what our most famous Poet Laureate meant. We are fed a continual diet of negative stories even when it's obvious that we are in a much better place today than we were five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Change comes slowly in Northern Ireland, but change does come and no amount of negative headlines will prevent it.
My business life has mainly been centred in Northern Ireland, and Belfast is the place I am proud to call home. Next year will see the 50th anniversary of my company, Oasis, and as such I have witnessed the best of times and the worst of times. I can't help but think these days are amongst the best of times.
Belfast is a city going through a physical and social renaissance. We have witnessed huge changes in the development of a city which has spawned new life from dereliction and destruction. Titanic Quarter and its Visitor Centre have become a tourist hub not just for Belfast, but also for Northern Ireland. It's a mecca for tourists from across the globe. The Cathedral Quarter has transformed what was once a non-existent Belfast nightlife. We have Michelin-starred restaurants such as Deanes Eipic and award-winning museums. The infamously named Dome of Delight, aka City Hall, is architecturally by far one of the best, not only in Ireland, but also across the United Kingdom.
As a former President of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce I had the privilege of working with many of the entrepreneurs who made all of this change possible.
Credit too must be given to MLAs and their Ministers, particularly those from the devolved administrations, who had the vision to back many of the changes which are transforming our city.
I am particularly struck by the number of cruise ships now calling at Belfast Harbour and the increase in the number of tourists who disembark at the port. Full marks to Visit Belfast and Belfast Harbour for promoting Belfast so well. It's hard to believe that before 1996 no cruise ships berthed in Belfast at all and this year almost 90 cruise ships will arrive - 24 in the month of August alone. Many of the passengers head straight for Titanic Quarter, the Giant's Causeway and the Ulster Museum, but it's also heartening to hear the large variety of accents in Belfast city centre when the ships call.
What strikes me most, however, is how positive they feel about being here. I am strongly of the belief that change in Northern Ireland is not just driven from within, but also by those who visit here.
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The reported spend in Northern Ireland of £15m a year by cruise passengers is, pardon the pun, a mere drop in the ocean compared to the future spend that will be generated by our visitors who, by word of mouth, are the best marketing ambassadors we could possibly have by promoting longer stays and increasing visitor numbers.
In the past, many stars who played in concerts or plays loved to boast that they stayed in the Europa because it was the "most bombed hotel in Europe". No mention of the service or the welcome. Nowadays one suspects that tourists have an altogether different boast about their visit to Northern Ireland. They are simply enthralled by the quality of our tourism product and the genuineness of our hospitality industry.
The reputation of Northern Ireland as a location for making movies and TV serials such as Game of Thrones is also slowly transforming the perception of Northern Ireland. It is also encouraging the development of new digital media indigenous to Belfast, preventing the brain drain the Province suffered from during most of the Troubles when our young people opted to move away.
The exposure of tens of thousands of cruise visitors each year to Northern Ireland allows them to see the place outside of the lens of our troubled past. There is a place for so-called Troubles-related tourism, but Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, should not let itself be defined by it, especially given the quality of the alternatives.
The explosion of visitors who arrive here by cruise ship is nothing short of phenomenal when you look at the options they have for alternative cruise destinations and, as beautiful as Northern Ireland is, no one comes here for the weather.
Reading some of the comments left at the Belfast Welcome Centre it is obvious that Northern Ireland has much to offer and that it is equally appreciated.
These visitors, many of whom are from the USA and the Far East, are simply awestruck at the quality of our tourist products and are not shy about saying so.
The recent BBC production of The One Show from the Causeway Coast will have done much to sell Northern Ireland to audiences in other parts of the United Kingdom who may not have considered the province as an alternative to Kerry, Galway or Cornwall.
Everyone deserves credit for showcasing the kaleidoscope that is Northern Ireland, its architecture, tourist attractions and scenery, but most of all its people, because, as I said at the outset, these are amongst the best of times.
So let's make the most of it as I am sure that the late Seamus Heaney is now wryly smiling down upon us saying, maybe, just maybe, it's time to be more optimistic.
Gerald Steinberg is an entrepreneur and former President of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce