Why world needs to know about jewel in our crown
Exciting tourism activities over the next two years can help revitalise Northern Ireland, argues Howard Hastings
The start of what promises to be a momentous period for Northern Ireland, especially for our tourism industry, is now just a few weeks away.
Driving the exciting NI2012 Our Time, Our Place programme of events is a tourist industry united as never before and determined that Northern Ireland will shine on the global stage. It will be the beginning of a Titanic turnaround for tourism throughout the province.
It will be our time for our place to sharpen our international image, to create thousands of new employment opportunities across a very broad range of industries, including hospitality, and to showcase Northern Ireland as an immensely attractive investment location.
The industry is united and working towards agreed and challenging targets in terms of tourism revenue and, of course, employment.
More than 100 organisations in tourism, other industries, education and public bodies are now part of the unique Campaigning for Tourism - One Voice, One Team collaboration that was established last year and has already agreed a comprehensive action plan to ensure that Northern Ireland achieves its undoubted potential as a global tourist destination.
What we now want to see is the entire community embracing this unprecedented campaign. We must do everything we can to seize the opportunities that will develop from the carefully shaped campaign of tourism activities over the next few years.
There simply won't be a better time for Northern Ireland - or for the local economy. This community must champion tourism with one strong voice.
Market research shows that next year's events, including the Titanic Festival, the Peace One Day Concert and the opening of the Giant's Causeway visitor centre in Co Antrim, could attract an additional 150,000 visitors, create more than 600 new employment opportunities and provide £24m of additional revenue into an economy which desperately needs an injection of both funds and confidence.
The campaign and the new business opportunities will continue into 2013, when Londonderry will be the UK City of Culture and Northern Ireland will host the prestigious World Police and Fire Games.
We've already seen how the MTV European Music Awards in Belfast has transformed our international profile and benefited the economy. International publications, like National Geographic, have labelled us a must-see destination.
Tourism, I am convinced, can help the Executive to achieve a key Programme for Government (PfG) target of promoting up to 25,000 new jobs.
Our aim is to transform tourism - and the economy - into a £1bn business, generated by 4.5 million visitors, a progressive industry that will employ 50,000 people throughout Northern Ireland by 2020.
In 2010, 1.8 million tourists visited Northern Ireland, generating £336m for the local economy and helping to sustain more than 40,000 jobs.
Tourism, furthermore, is probably the only industry which has the potential to exert a positive impact on every part of Northern Ireland, in every constituency and at every skill-level.
It's also an industry investing in the future. Some 200 publicly funded projects have leveraged new capital investment of £300m. As a result of this investment, by both public and private sectors, Northern Ireland now has a critical mass of interesting things for visitors, as well as local people, to see and do.
The challenge for everyone here is to ensure that Northern Ireland is an attractive and welcoming place for all those who will visit us. We can do it. We must do it.