The tourists are coming - but it could be so much better with a functioning government

Belfast and the Causeway Coast were named the number one region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet, coming ahead of places like Alaska, the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France and the Aeolian islands in Italy. Nóirín Hegarty, Lonely Planet’s operations director in Ireland, is pictured with Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland (centre) and John McGrillen, CEO of Tourism NI. Photo: Darren Kidd/PressEye

DO you recognise the place described by these words - “this city has has put its troubled past behind it and is a city transformed, its streets packed with buzzing bars and great stories, while the coastline beyond boasts spectacular scenery and plenty of great diversions.”

You probably know by now that is the renowned Lonely Planet travel guide description of Northern Ireland which it lists as the top region in the world to visit in 2018. Belfast and the Causeway Coast tops a list that includes Alaska, Languedoc (France), Bahia in Brazil and the Dominican Republic's Los Haitises National Park.

The cynical heads out there may thumb their noses at the description and the potential impact of the accolade. But Lonely Planet is undoubtedly the major travel publication in the world, and has moved beyond an annual publication to a have a comprehensive web presence, targeted monthly journals and even a number of television series around the world.

Each year it lists ‘top 10' destinations according to city, which this year has Canberra at number one, countries (Chile), ‘best value' which rates Tallin in Estonia as the top destination and of course region, which is where we come in.

The head of Tourism NI, John McGrillen recognised the significance of the accolade.

He said: "This is a game changer for Belfast and the Causeway Coastal Route and indeed the rest of Northern Ireland. We are thrilled and excited to read words like ‘unforgettable', ‘unmissable', ‘sensation' and ‘extravaganza' in Lonely Planet's praise of our tourism gems.”

As this news emerged it also came to light that in the first six months of 2017 Northern Ireland has had its best half-year period to date for tourism numbers, an increase of 10 per cent to two million visitors coming here in that period and a huge 23 per cent increase of visitors from the Republic of Ireland.

Those numbers are hugely significant and match the anecdotal evidence we can all see as we work in and traverse our city. The number of cruise ships calling to our harbour is higher than ever.We can see the queues at the hop on/ hop off buses, and at times there is a vibrancy in Belfast which really was unimaginable 20 years ago.

A quick Google search shows that Lonely Planet description of Belfast and the Causeway Coast has made worldwide news, from the Washington Post and the New York Times to Australian and Indian news websites and beyond. Many of those stories focus on our link with Game of Thrones and the worldwide impact which that show has been is a happy convergence for us here.

Never having watched an episode of that show (and with very little interest in ever doing so), I can't comment on the actual content of Game of Thrones, but believe me I am delighted that so many millions of people do watch it, and many of them do so with the kind of fanaticism that makes them want to explore the sets and the locations where it is filmed. Long may that be the case.

In searching for news of Belfast and Northern Ireland online I also saw the Washington Post story on the flags dispute at Cantrell Close and the threat to Catholic families living there. How depressing that is and we have to acknowledge too that the story was picked up far and wide online and in the international print media.

For every positive impact of the Lonely Planet story we are dragged down by the negative impact of the bad news stories and it is hard to call where the overall balance falls. But when political deadlock and manufacturing job losses are what represents Northern Ireland in the media abroad, there is no way to argue that as helpful or positive.

As I write this it is patently clear that there is no deal in sight to restore our devolved government, clear too that the public in general have switched off from the prospect of either a lasting political stalemate or the return of direct rule.

As hospital waiting lists grow and local projects are stalled due to having no ministers in place, there is a degree of frustration among the public but there are no marches in the streets, no rallies at City Hall, and little prospect of a shift in the voting patterns which have led to the current situation.

Certainly the business community simply wants some clarity and some leadership when it comes to making decisions. If that means the Secretary of State appointing a suite of Westminster Ministers, the feeling is - so be it.

The worst outcome of the current talks process will be a halfway house between no devolution and no direct rule. Unfortunately that seems to the most likely outcome as James Brokenshire, who will introduce a budget from Westminster, is likely to stop there and create some more space for the politicians to continue talking.

So while the tourists are coming and we can expect more on the back of the recent praise and publicity, it is in spite of the actions of our political leadership and not because of it.

Imagine if we did have the kind of joined-up committed Government, the kind of which was promised under the Fresh Start agreement just two years ago, to take advantage of our undoubted strengths. Now that would be a real game-changer.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Conor Lambe

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