Business

Marketing budget cuts harming north's tourism drive

Cuts in spending on tourism marketing will see fewer people visiting attractions like the Giants Causeway, argues Paul McErlean

I'VE a big southern cousin called Brian Collins. His mother, a McErlean and my Aunt Moya, married a great man, Jim Collins (RIP) from Limerick and they settled in Dublin.

Our two families are very close. Every August through the seventies, I escaped, refugee-like, from west Belfast and a spent wonderful week with the Collins' in Clontarf. Brian's younger brother Gerard is a month older than me and we were inseparable then and we're still great friends now.

All we ever did was play football in the back garden and Subbuteo in the living room, with trips to the sports department in Clery's to look at all the new gear and a movie at the Fairview cinema or the Savoy on O'Connell Street, as a special treat.

Gerard is in London with his family now but his older brother Brian still lives in Dublin. Brian's married to a Mayo woman and they've two lovely daughters.

I'm saying all this because I'd like to see them up here more. In tourism terms, Brian and his family are the perfect Irish short-breakers. Brian has a big job running an internet security firm and he travels all over the world on a regular basis but he does have time and the disposable income to come north. And when he does, they love it. He and Karen stayed in the Merchant last time they took a break here.

As he says himself, he normally doesn't like ‘namby -pamby, boutiquey places' but he was genuinely surprised and delighted with the Merchant. It's been a while though and indeed if you look at the tourism figures, we're losing southern visitors at quite a rate.

Although the island of Ireland is marketed beyond these shores as one destination there is no doubt that we are competing with the rest of the island for the time and money those visitors spend when they arrive here. We are also competing with the Republic for the market share of Irish people, north and south who take short breaks and holidays at home.

So, whilst Tourism Ireland deserves major credit for strong inflows which has seen welcome growth in visitor numbers here at around 2 per cent, the equivalent figure is 13.7 per cent growth in the Republic during the same period.

And while our performance has been impacted by unfavourable exchange rate movements over the past 12 months which has seen the visitor numbers from the Republic reduce by almost 30 per cent, I think our ability to attract southern visitors has no doubt also been impacted by the drastic reduction in Tourism NI's marketing budget.

Now, you might not be surprised that somebody who works in PR would blame a falling marketing budget for weaker performance but I'm not going to apologise for that, I'm pretty sure I'm right.

At the launch of Failte Ireland's Annual Review and Forecast for 2016 released last month, the importance of tourism was reflected with €55m (£42m) committed to new branding initiatives this year alone and another €100m (£76m) of capital investment in new product over the next five years.

Compare that to support for the tourism industry here. Last year saw Tourism NI's development and promotional budgets reduce to less than £5m and the 2016/17 budgets presented to the Assembly earlier this month projects the total Tourism NI budget to reduce by 8.6 per cent alongside a more modest 2 per cent reduction in its contribution to the Tourism Ireland budget.

Things aren't all bad of course. Brilliant attractions like Titanic Belfast, Crumlin Road Gaol, the Giants Causeway Visitor Centre and world class events such as the Irish Open and the Giro d'Italia have seen Belfast become a very popular short break destination.

This week Deti and Tourism NI commence the development of a new 10 Year Tourism Strategy for Northern Ireland beginning with a workshop today at the Armagh City Hotel. Over the next month they are seeking the views of the tourism industry on what they see as the key issues facing tourism over the next decade.

In a review of Tourism Structures in Northern Ireland completed last year by John Hunter, former permanent secretary at DFP, a number of interesting observations were made, the most significant being that whilst the executive has set objectives of having 4.5m visitors per annum with an annual spend of £1bn by 2020, it does not have an agreed strategy as to how those targets should be achieved.

One thing that must surely come from this work is a clear impetus for greater investment. We also badly need a supporting policy framework for instance to enhance air connectivity and reform archaic licensing legislation, something which industry body Hospitality Ulster has been pushing hard for.

The strategy also (obviously) needs to be customer focused and to do this, it must be marketed in a way that captures the imagination and appeals to those visitors who are interested in visiting the island of Ireland.

Belfast needs a clear brand which the visitor can connect with and a single marketing proposition needs to be developed for the rest of Northern Ireland to complement and compete with brands such as the Wild Atlantic Way being developed by Failte Ireland.

The strategy needs to be developed with and owned by the industry. It is the industry which develops and sells the products, not government and so it must play its part. The creation of Hospitality Ulster has definitely assisted with that, though everybody in the industry here recognises more needs to be done.

And our new councils need to be bought into and aligned with the new strategy also. And finally, in this increasingly digitally dominated world, our tourism businesses need to be able to transact business online and be visible in creative and compelling ways on the web. This will require substantial support from Tourism NI to get them to where they need to be.

So it is timely and right that a new strategy is being drawn up now, just before we get a new executive, a new Department for the Economy and a new Programme for Government.

Looking across the border shows what could be achieved with a supportive government and the proper investment in the future. And it might just mean that big cousin Brian, all 6'7” of him, and his family or his brother Gerard and his young family might make the trips from Dublin and London respectively, more often.

:: Paul McErlean (paul @mcepublicrelations.com) is managing director of MCE Public Relations Ltd.

:: Next week: Claire Aiken.

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