Visit Belfast celebrates two decades of tourism revitalisation as city flourishes

Visit Belfast chair Michael Williamson (left), chief executive Gerry Lennon (right) and outgoing chair Dr Howard Hastings (who will remain on the board)
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE new chair of Visit Belfast has heralded the tourism industry as one of the city's key success stories after two decades of virtually unbroken growth.

But he cautioned that continuing this trend is not necessarily guaranteed “because the environment we operate in is as volatile as it has ever been”.

Michael Williamson, director of ASM Chartered Accountants, was speaking at Visit Belfast's 20th annual general meeting, where he took on the chair role from hotelier Howard Hastings.

He said indications are that 2019 is shaping up to be another successful year for the city and region (which contributes 44 per cent of the entire visitor spend in the north).

“In the first nine months of this year, more than a million hotel rooms were sold in Belfast - that's up 7 per cent up on last year - and over 6 million air passengers have travelled through our airports.

“Visit Belfast will continue its commitment to partnership and collaboration, supporting the city's ambition to be a top-ranking international tourism destination for both leisure and business visitors.”

Since Belfast's official destination marketing organisation was set up in 1999 by Belfast City Council and Tourism NI, the city's tourism economy has grown four-fold, now contributing an annual £395 million to the city economy and supporting more than 19,000 jobs.

The public-private partnership organisation, which represents more than 500 tourism businesses and services, reported that its sales, marketing and visitor servicing activity had contributed £131 million to the economy in 2018-19, delivering a return of £33 for every £1 invested.

Some of the parallels between 1998 and 2018 are stark, according to figures revealed by Visit Belfast (formerly Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau).

In those two decades, for instance, the number of cruise ships docking in Belfast has risen from just two, carrying a total of 1,149 passengers, to 115, carrying 189,036 passengers. The cumulative passenger figure over the period is just shy of 1.3 million.

Tourism jobs in the city have risen fivefold from 4,213 to 19,226, while over the period the total number of overnight trips to Belfast has been 17.5 million, creating 63.4 million bed nights and leading to a total spend of £3.58 billion.

Visit Belfast chief executive Gerry Lennon said: “It's been an incredibly exciting and busy two decades for Belfast, and tourism is no longer a Cinderella industry, but established as a key contributor to the city's social and economic fabric.

“Our organisation continues to promote Belfast as an exciting city break, group tour, conference, day trip and cruise destination, and our activity is focused on driving visitor demand and delivering a mix of customers balanced throughout the week and throughout the year.

“Last year alone, our efforts delivered a series of targeted marketing campaigns in the UK, Republic of Ireland and Europe, which generated £48 million to the city economy and secured 112 conference wins worth an estimated £52 million.”

Comparisons between 1999 and 2018

• Overnight trips to Belfast - 526,400 v 1,693,985

• Bed nights - 2,271,600 v 5,224,269

• Overnight spend - £79.7m v £395m

• Tourism jobs - 4,213 v 19,226

• Hotel rooms - 2,862 v 4,935

• Hotel room sales - 374,274 v 1,341,978

• Cruise ships - 2 v 115

• Cruise visitors - 1,149 v 189,036

• Visitor enquiries handled - 152,483 v 847,624

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