Holiday numbers up - but tourism growth hardly spectacular
OVERNIGHT trips to Northern Ireland Ireland by external visitors - or "real tourists" - grew by 5 per cent last year to a record 2.3 million, according to latest official tourism data.
The spending generated by those trips also grew by 5 per cent to £541m - or roughly £235 per person.
But tourism in the north still has a long way to go to achieve its stated aim of being a "billion pound industry" by 2020.
People coming from Britain accounted for most of the external visitor number growth, though the spending spurt was driven by tourists from mainland Europe, figures from the NI Statistics & Research Agency show.
But what will surely concern tourism authorities - and new minister Simon Hamilton - is the haemorrhaging of visitors from the Republic, where numbers have slumped by 25 per cent in just three years.
At a headline level, there were 4.5 million overnight trips to Northern Ireland in 2015 (this includes both trips by all external visitors and domestic trips taken by local residents).
That was exactly the same number as in 2014, while the expenditure associated with these trips was up just one per cent to £760m.
Overseas visits to the north rose by 10 per cent, with numbers from GB up 10 per cent, mainland Europe up 17 per cent, North America up 1 per cent and the rest of the world up 6 per cent.
During 2015 there were 17.5 million visits to local visitor attractions (similar to the previous 12 months), with the most popular destinations including the Giant’s Causeway (851,000 visits - up 8 per cent), Titanic Belfast (622,000 visits - down 2 per cent) and the Ulster Museum (465,000 visits - no change).
There was a 23 per cent increase in high-spending business visitors (which could be boosted by the newly-opened conference facilities at the Waterfront Hall).
Tourism now represents 5.2 per cent of the north gross domestic product and supports 5.4 per cent of all jobs in the workforce (a total of 58,000).
Hotel room occupancy stood at 67 per cent (an increase of 2 percentage points from 2014) and a total of 1.9 million hotel room nights were sold.
And the figures revealed that 67 cruise ships docked at Northern Ireland's ports last year (similar to 2014), with a combined 123,000 passengers/crew on board.
Tourism Ireland chief executive Niall Gibbons said he was "determined" to ensure that tourism growth continues, and said there was an extensive programme of promotions throughout 2016 to highlight Northern Ireland around the world.
"Our activity includes a major focus on this special Year of Food and Drink. And once again we have joined forces with Game of Thrones creators HBO this spring, leveraging the huge popularity of the TV series to showcase Northern Ireland," he said.
"We are also highlighting the Gobbins Cliff Path, while continuing to place a major focus on other iconic experiences like Titanic Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway and our unique National Trust properties. We continue to target people of Ulster-Scots descent and promote Northern Ireland as a top golf and business tourism destination.”
Minister Simon Hamilton said: “Tourism is now recognised as a key economic driver for Northern Ireland and the potential for growth is huge.
"I will bring forward a new tourism strategy for the next 10 years to drive growth and want to work across government and with the industry to build an internationally competitive and inspiring destination of which we are all proud.”