LAST week was a landmark week for tourism in Northern Ireland. Titanic Belfast celebrated its 10th birthday with a programme of events including a get together for all of those who played a role in the creation of the attraction which has become the iconic image of the modern, confident and vibrant city that Belfast has become over the past decade.
As a visitor attraction, it has exceeded all expectations. Since opening its doors on March 31 2012, it has welcomed over 6.5 million visitors from 145 countries and helped propel the Northern Ireland tourism industry to become a £1 billion industry in 2019.
Over the past decade huge cruise ships have also become part of the Belfast cityscape and April 1 saw the first of the 130 vessels expected to arrive in the city bringing 340,000 visitors which are expected to come ashore this year and spend millions in local attractions and businesses in 2022.
What didn’t grab the headlines but probably more important than both of these events last week was the return of international tour operators to our shores for the first time in three years to participate in Tourism NI’s flagship annual business to business event.
Meet the Buyer, which is organised by Tourism NI in partnership with Tourism Ireland, saw 145 of the world’s leading tour operators from 16 countries travel the length and breadth of the country over three days to get a taste of fantastic array of experiences which they can offer to customers who are considering a trip to Ireland in 2022 and 2023. Last Tuesday those businesses took part in over 3000 sales appointments with over 140 local tourism attractions, activity providers and hoteliers in ICC Belfast making it the largest ever business to business networking platform held in Northern Ireland.
The high attendance was down to the hard work of our local tourism industry, who have shown incredible resilience to survive the Covid pandemic, as well as the efforts of our own team at Tourism NI and our colleagues in Tourism Ireland who have ensured that Northern Ireland remains on tour operators’ itineraries despite being unable to visit us over the past two years.
Our international markets are crucial to the recovery and the long term growth of our tourism industry. In 2019 visitors from beyond the island of Ireland spent almost £550m in the local economy supporting over 65,000 jobs across every part of the region. Given that by the summer, air seat capacity to the island of Ireland is expected to be back to 88 per cent of the record levels of 2019 and the interest shown by international tour operators last week, we can be cautiously optimistic that tourism business from overseas will fully recover by 2024.
Whilst we rebuild that business from overseas, the market that is closest to home, the Republic of Ireland, offers still further potential for growth. Over the past two years, in the absence of business from overseas, our industry has been dependent upon the staycation market and visitors from the Republic to survive the devastating impact of Covid-19.
I am exceptionally proud of the recent success that Tourism NI and our partners have had in securing new business from south of the border. In 2016, of all the short breaks taken by Republic of Ireland residents here in Ireland, less than 3 in every 100 were taken north of the border. By 2019 that figure had grown to 5 in every 100 and by the Summer of 2021 we saw 1 in 10 ROI residents take a short break or a holiday here.
During June-September 2021 data collated by Tourism NI showed spend in hotels, bars, eating places and attractions had increased by one quarter compared to the same period in 2019. More impressively, spend by Republic of Ireland residents more than doubled during that same time period.
Tourism NI’s consumer research indicates that approximately half of Republic of Ireland visitors to Northern Ireland during 2021, and the first two months of 2022, were first time visitors. Furthermore online reviews left by Republic of Ireland visitors indicate the majority of tourists from south of the border felt that their trip north met or exceeded their expectations. The same study found that 23 per cent of Republic of Ireland residents were considering taking a short break in Northern Ireland over the next 3-4 months with Easter promising to be a busy period for local tourism providers.
These positive indicators would suggest a step change in the level of business coming from the Republic and Tourism NI will continue to work with our local industry to encourage them to invest in their marketing activity in the Republic of Ireland market in the short, medium and longer term.
The pandemic has fundamentally altered the travel landscape for the foreseeable future. Consumer concerns about climate change means that sustainable travel is here to stay with many people re-evaluating the impact of their travel choices. Covid has also led to consumers wishing to spend more time with family and friends and developing a greater understanding and appreciation of the attractions and activities on offer close to home.
They want to engage with local communities and in activities which impact positively on their mental and physical health wellbeing.
In Northern Ireland we have a vast array of ‘giant experiences’ – our culture assets, myths and legends, our cities and rural landscapes and our food and drink - that will continue to attract and inspire visitors from both the Republic of Ireland and further afield over the next decade.
John McGrillen is chief executive of Tourism NI