It's time to consider a hotel tax to boost north's tourism offer
I'VE just returned from a family holiday to Italy, a fantastic experience and one which we hope to repeat sometime in the not too distant future. Italy is a huge country and in our two-week period we probably just scratched the surface of what it has to offer, but we stored away some lifelong memories in that period.
We spent a few days in Rome, and what an amazing and inspirational time that was. We then moved on to Lucca, a town I had not heard of before this summer but which was absolutely beautiful, welcoming and tourist centred. Finally we had a more quiet week in the Tuscany mountains, chilling out and exploring the area from our rural base.
A summer holiday is the time of year where you try and set aside work and embrace family time, as I certainly did, even if the flow of emails doesn't really let up. I am probably guilty too of trying too hard to keep up to date with events at home and of course with the smartphone and social media that is all too easy to do. Its a double edged sword though because the smart device which enables a holiday maker to tune into GAA commentary on the radio while mastering the barbecue also throws up news, opinions and narratives which are dominating the news back home.
One of those stories which caught my attention was how well Belfast appears to be doing when it comes to attracting overseas tourists. Anecdotally the evidence is in front of our eyes; the queues we see at the tourist bus stops; the increasing number of cruise ships docking in Belfast; the level of planning applications for new hotels; the rise in the number of cranes on the horizon.
It is all good news and the increase in the role of tourism was confirmed earlier this month by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) which confirmed that Belfast is the clear driver of tourism in Northern Ireland with 1.5 million overnight stays in the city in 2016, that amounts to one third of overnight stays in the north.
While Belfast hotels sold just short of one million rooms in the course of last year, there is a note of caution in the fact that overnight visitor numbers fell by around 100,000 from 2015 to 810,000. The majority of visitors to Belfast come from Great Britain with, of course, NI residents who come to Belfast make up an important element of the overall number.
When The MAC hosted Ireland's only major exhibition of David Hockney's work last year it attracted 25,000 visitors, 54 per cent of whom came from outside Belfast, and significantly 25 per cent from outside Northern Ireland. It is telling that the average spend per visitor was £72.50, which rose to £149 for non-NI visitors. The influx of tourists from outside the state is huge for Belfast and for Northern Ireland.
If we want to keep attracting visitors, we need to continually re invest in our tourist offer. We need to give people a reason to come here. And that requires public subvention as well as continued private sector investment and that partnership approach is how economies are built and sustained.
When we stayed in Rome the bill for our accommodation was automatically increased to include a ‘city tax' or ‘room tax', which in our case was €4 per adult per night. A similar tax applied in Lucca and elsewhere, but with a lower rate applied. Naturally we paid, and as I heard other travellers checking into and out of guest houses and apartments, not a whisper of protest was raised. The public authorities stress that the funds raised go towards the upkeep of tourist infrastructure, to investing in tourist facilities and ensuring that Rome and other Italian cities are able to maintain their position as beacons for international tourism.
And there is absolutely no doubt that is exactly what they are. Yes, Belfast has made enormous progress as a tourist destination in the last decade, but we operate on a different scale than major international cities like Rome. On the night I read of the latest NISRA report we went to see the Trevi Fountain. It was a beautiful sight, lit up at night and up to a thousand visitors milling around, taking pictures, smiling, and importantly, spending money.
I know that Belfast isn't Rome and that our own tilting Albert Clock doesn't compare to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but we should have ambition and we should be investing in our tourism and arts facilities and if lack of resources is a barrier (it is), then let's seriously look at the option of a hotel tax.
Who would object? It is difficult to argue that such a small increase in a hotel bill would put off potential visitors, and any administrative downside would be offset by the increased revenue which could allow for some imaginative, innovative and strategic tourism focussed investment.
If we have one million bed nights sold in Belfast, even a £1 levy would yield a recurrent sum which could be re invested in our tourist infrastructure.
We don't yet have a focal point such as Trevi Fountain and we will never have a Coliseum, so we need to protect and foster what we do have - be that the natural beauty of the north coast and the Dark Hedges, or the arts and cultural offering in Belfast and beyond. That is what will keep the tourists coming back.
:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Conor Lambe