Partnership is key to underpin Northern Ireland's competitiveness as a destination

Tourism NI joined Tourism Ireland at the recent World Travel Market at the Excel Centre in London. Seated on the famous Iron Throne is Judy Hutton from the Game of Thrones Studio Tour near Banbridge, alongside David Wood from Tourism Ireland. Picture: Malcolm McNally
Ellvena Graham

I RECENTLY passed the 100-day mark in my role as chair of Tourism NI, and during that time I have taken the opportunity to meet many of the businesses and stakeholders who make up the tourism industry.

What I have found striking is the diversity and complexity of the sector, from large hotel chains and world class visitor attractions through to many small and micro-enterprises that provide unique experiences, all of whom attract visitors to these shores and set the destination apart.

I have also been struck by the resilience, positivity and agility that businesses have displayed in responding to the many challenges during the pandemic. They dealt with lengthy closures, restrictions and a collapse in consumer confidence in 2020 on top of losing half their customer base due to travel restrictions.

With support from Tourism NI the industry was able to innovate and quickly diversify to focus on the family market closer to home, and in particular the Republic of Ireland. The boom in staycations has seen visitors from the Republic double in two years with one in 10 Irish residents taking a short break or holiday here in 2022, quite an achievement given the wide choice on their own doorstep.

Recent data suggests that this trend will continue into 2023 and that the local tourism industry has emerged successfully from the pandemic, with hotel room sales this summer on a par with the record breaking year in 2019.

We need now to regain the business lost from Great Britain and the overseas markets. It was with that in mind that I travelled to World Travel Market earlier this month to join our Northern Ireland contingent on the Tourism Ireland stand at the Excel Centre in London.

With 100 countries exhibiting over 3000 destinations and 50,000 trade representatives, World Travel Market is the biggest of its kind in the world. The scale of investment by Governments and regions from across the globe in the exhibitions made it immediately clear just how competitive the global tourism industry is.

The Tourism Ireland stand was busy and impressive with Derry Girls and the Game of Thrones Studio Tour featuring strongly. The Northern Ireland representatives were all reporting brisk business and despite the economic woes there was a distinct air of optimism. A strong dollar and seat capacity on air routes into Dublin and Belfast both bode well for 2023.

The industry can also draw comfort from the fact that in a recent Tourism NI survey 80 per cent of people here and the Republic of Ireland do not intend to reduce their spending on holidays and short breaks. The question is how we respond to make sure they choose us.

While I believe Northern Ireland more than holds its own against other locations, it was clear from World Travel Market that to compete long term we need to continue to invest in new experiences and in marketing the region both at home and abroad.

Government, local councils and the private sector all have a vital role to play, and the tourism projects within the City and Growth Deal Programmes are important to secure our share of spend from international visitors to the island.

Belfast Stories, the Derry North Atlantic Museum, the extension to the Gobbins, the Mourne Gateway Project and the regeneration of Hillsborough will add to our portfolio of tourist attractions and complement favourites such as Titanic Belfast and the Giant's Causeway.

This investment will foster new experience providers and accommodation businesses creating accessible employment opportunities across Northern Ireland. Locally based jobs will in turn help to sustain local communities in our cities, towns and villages.

World Travel Market coincided with COP27 at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. It was clear from the many workshops in London that the global industry takes its role in tackling climate change and sustainability seriously to help deliver on the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals.

During my tenure I am keen that Tourism NI takes a leadership role on sustainability and supports the industry to deliver its contribution to our climate change targets. Firstly however our tourism enterprises must be financially sustainable and my priority for the months ahead is ensuring that we at Tourism NI provide support through our current economic challenges where we possibly can.

:: Ellvena Graham is chair of Tourism NI