2022: A giant year for tourism
TOURISM, as a global industry, has undoubtedly been one of the bigger causalities of Covid. During those early days of the pandemic, when flights were grounded and restrictions imposed, tourism on the island effectively flatlined at a time when the sector was enjoying an uptick in overall activity.
2019, in particular, was an outstanding year on these shores, when Northern Ireland's ports welcomed a record 167 cruise ships and 280,000 visitors, while overnight trips peaked above five million.
All told, Northern Ireland tourism earned more than £1 billion in 2019 for the very first time. A truly incredible, record-breaking haul fuelled by the Game of Thrones and its enduring heritage here, as fans of the fantasy epic flocked to the Dark Hedges and Tollymore Forest to glimpse the real-world locations where Westeros came to life.
The outlook at the time was evidently rosy. But 2020, as we now know, had other plans in store. Almost overnight, visitor numbers and overseas spending slumped dramatically. Belfast's airports, which were two bustling hives of activity, pre-pandemic, were suddenly still, as monthly air passenger arrivals to the UK fell 98 per cent in the two months between February and April 2020.
It was eye-watering, unprecedented. Trapped beneath the weight of unavoidable Covid restrictions, the local tourism industry was temporarily placed on ice. Our travel ports and hubs shuttered under the order to stay at home.
Tourism, like so many industries, has been completely redefined in the pandemic era. Expectations have been redrawn, challenges overcome, and staycations unearthed that have helped kindle a newfound appreciation for the sights and scenery here on our doorstep.
Forced to spend exceedingly long stretches indoors, and with foreign travel an increasingly expensive and cost-prohibitive prospect, we chose instead to holiday at home whether through hotels, camping, caravanning, B&Bs, holiday parks and more. As local restrictions eased, tourism, like a coiled spring, reaped the rewards of a staycation boom which saw many southern visitors enjoying a voyage of discovery, exploring our amazing scenery and hospitality for the first time.
Great to see that the staycation momentum, from north and south, continued well into 2022, with almost three-quarters of Northern Ireland's holiday rental properties already booked up for the summer ahead
And that surge in demand has been strongly felt, helping to amplify our profile at home and overseas. Just last month, for instance, NI was ranked among the world's top 10 hiking destinations, after SportShoes.com research trawled 100 countries to pinpoint the very best paths to trail the countryside, with special mentions reserved for Slieve Donard and the Causeway Coast. Which, incidentally, also landed recognition of its own after being name the second most ‘Instagrammable' route in the UK for its wild and rugged vistas.
Our treasured areas of natural beauty, from Cuilcagh to Causeway, have endured, and provide a rock-solid foundation from which to recover. To rebound and indeed grow in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, planting the roots for a tourism sector that can be a force for good, and emerge resilient from the most difficult period the industry has faced in a generation.
With Northern Ireland's relatively small size comes an innate ability to adapt to a changing world, and already we've seen NI leading on sustainable tourism, after Belfast was ranked as one of the world's Top 20 sustainable destinations across 73 cities in 2021's Global Destinations Sustainability Index.
As we begin a new year, and all but the essential Covid restrictions are lifted, there is now a quiet sense of optimism percolating within Northern Ireland tourism. The next 10 months should be viewed as an opportunity for cross-industry and cross border collaboration as highlighted recently by Howard Hastings, tapping into the pent-up appetite for local tourism across all of our networks to showcase that natural, and unique NI allure.
As for the Game of Thrones, well it will continue to be an international draw and the vessel through which budding explorers discover Northern Ireland for the first time. Its immediate future here has been secured, not that there was ever any doubt, after the recent opening of a £40 million studio tour near Banbridge and plans already in place for a Game of Thrones festival to celebrate the show's Northern Ireland legacy.
Now is our time! And with that coiled spring and pent-up demand for local sights, scenery and hospitality, there is an opportunity for a concerted recovery that brings us that much closer to pre-pandemic levels of tourism activity. Let's collectively grab it with both hands.
:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken
:: Next week: Richard Ramsey