Joanne Stuart, Chief Executive NI Tourism Alliance
Tourism is an exciting and dynamic industry which is one of the success stories in Northern Ireland. Although starting from a low base, tourism has continued to grow and following a record breaking 2017, it is estimated that in 2018, tourism generated £1bn in revenues and employed almost 65,000 people, or 8.7% of total jobs in NI. Over 70% of revenue was generated from visitors from outside of NI, meaning that tourism brought in approximately £700m in additional revenues to the economy.
What is not so well known is the wider impact of tourism across our society. It supports a number of other sectors within the economy including transport, local food and drink producers, retail, artisan craft, construction, heritage, cultural and arts sectors. Local communities benefit through the development of tourism products and services, and it supports entrepreneurship and innovation, enabling local people to develop their own tourism businesses, building on their passions, culture and talents.
NI Tourism Alliance (NITA) is the single representative body for the tourism and hospitality industry in Northern Ireland.
Established in 2018, our role is to ensure the voice of industry is listened to, to shape the future growth of tourism and lobby at all levels of government and beyond to raise awareness of and contributing to the solution of major strategic issues affecting the industry.
In NI we have world class, high quality tourism products that incorporate our landscapes, heritage and culture that enable
visitors to have a personal, authentic and quality experience.
Tourism also builds on the success of other sectors to create tourism experiences in areas such as food and drink, golf and screen/film.
Through this a different narrative has been developed for Northern Ireland and this enables us to attract global events such as The Open which in turn generates more interest and reasons to visit NI.
But tourism is not just about leisure and recreation. Business tourism is a growing sector which brings in business travellers and plays a role to encourage more inward investment and the consideration of NI as an excellent location for business as well as delegates returning for a holiday.
Tourism NI have set a challenging and ambitious target to double the impact of tourism by 2030. An industry that will generate £2bn in revenues, with almost £1.5bn of revenues coming from outside of NI, an industry that will employ 90,000 people supporting growth across the wider economy, an industry that provides opportunities for all in our society across the whole of the region, an industry that provides opportunities for local people to develop their own tourism businesses, as well as providing flexible pathways for careers.
To drive this growth across NI, investment is required to develop world class products, services and attractions. In recent years there has been significant investment, both from government and the private sector, in attractions such as Titanic Belfast and The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, both of which have shown the positive impact world class and authentic products can have in attracting visitors.
Titanic Belfast has welcomed almost 6 million visitors since it opened in 2012 and in 2017 visitors to the Giant’s Causeway exceeded 1 million.
Following an investment of £22m, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens opened
to the public in April with 200,000 visitors expected before the end of the year. The success of the HBO series Game of Thrones has and continues to attract visitors across the region visiting the different film locations in NI.
The Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge will be the location for the new Game of Thrones studio tour, a world class attraction that will open in spring 2020 and will bring hundreds of thousands new visitors into the area as well as creating jobs.
All of these investments, including the plans within the Belfast Region City deal, approved in March, create the hooks that attract visitors and encourage them to travel around NI, and leverage investment by the private sector in product and service development.
One example is the significant investment by the hotel sector, a number of which are included in the Top 100. With £500m investment since 2016, today we have 142 registered hotels and 9,300 rooms. This is estimated to rise to 151 hotels providing over 10,000 rooms by 2020.
But there are major challenges facing tourism.
There has been no encompassing tourism strategy in place for over a decade, and with the collapse of the NI Executive in 2017, there has been a lack of political focus. This has meant decreasing budgets, outdated legislation in areas such as liquor licensing, regulation and certification, and no plan to tackle the increasing challenges around skills.
To maximise the opportunity and address the challenges, it is vital that government, in the absence of a NI Executive, develop a strategy for tourism in NI, in collaboration with industry.
This needs to include a properly funded, resourced and accountable implementation plan to support the development and growth of the industry.
Tourism is competitive and a relatively price-sensitive sector. NI is adversely impacted by the lower rates of VAT and zero Air Passenger Duty (APD) in the Republic. Due to APD and limited international routes flying direct to NI, an increasing number of visitors come through Dublin. Our airports must be supported to develop additional direct routes, particularly from our growth markets. For those arriving in Dublin it is critical that they are able to continue to access NI in a seamless manner across the border.
The increasing number of visitors will require continued investment in our transport infrastructure. This means a joined up approach to infrastructure investment and development of public transport. NI has a population of 1.87 million and we saw 2.26 million visitors come to NI in 2017. If we want to encourage visitors to travel around NI, then this has to be factored into our infrastructure and transport planning.
Tourism is an industry that can be transformational for Northern Ireland both economically and socially. It helps to change the narrative and perceptions of NI, it builds confidence and pride within our communities, supports local businesses, protects culture and heritage.
The benefits of improved infrastructure touch everybody, creating a better place to live, work and play.
The Titanic Belfast building is a world class tourist attraction
The Giant’s Causeway (above) and Carrick-a-rede rope bridge (left) are just two of the many popular attractions which bring thousands of visitors to the north coast every year
Simon Dougan, Yellow Door (left) and Barry Smyth (right) show off some of the produce served at Hillsborough Castle Café and Stable Yard Tea Room. They are joined by Gina George, Historic Royal Palaces retail director. The castle has been turned into a tourist attraction
The Throne Room at Hillsborough Castle
One of six Game of Thrones stained-glass windows installed to celebrate its final season