Belfast footfall higher than pre-pandemic levels after new UU campus opens

The opening of Ulster University's new York Street campus brought thousands of people into the city centre in the final quarter of 2022. Picture by Mal McCann.

FOOT traffic in Belfast is significantly up on pre-pandemic levels, new analysis suggests.

The latest footfall monitor from the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) found activity in the city centre during the final five weeks of 2022 was 9.3 per cent higher than the same period from 2019.

Footfall in the city centre was boosted in the final quarter of 2022 by the opening of Ulster University’s new York Street campus and the reopening of Primark’s Bank Buildings store.

The analysis, produced with insights specialist Sensormatic IQ, covered the November 27 – December 31 period.

Overall, it found the north’s high streets and shopping centres were recovering better than all other regions of the UK towards the end of last year.

Although Northern Ireland as a whole did not fully recover to 2019 levels, footfall for the peak Christmas shopping window was just 3 per cent down on three years ago.

That put the north well ahead of England (-8.7 per cent), Wales (-9.6 per cent) and Scotland (-9.9 per cent).

The recovery was weaker at the north’s shopping centres, with December footfall down by 5.8 per cent on 2019 levels.

But it was a different story in Belfast. The NIRC said its 9.3 per cent growth on 2019 levels made it the best performing UK city in the five-week period assessed.

Manchester was the only other city to register an improvement on Christmas 2019.

Footfall in Belfast did take a substantial hit in the immediate aftermath of the August 2018 Primark fire. And partial restrictions on footfall around the key thoroughfares of Royal Avenue and Castle Street remained in place until just before Primark’s reopening on November 1.

Shoppers hit the streets of Belfast during December. Picture by Hugh Russell.

NIRC spokesperson David Lonsdale said the figures represented an encouraging end to 2022, noting that it also marked the best results since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020.

“Compared with pre-pandemic times, December saw the best monthly performance of 2022 with Northern Ireland recording the best results of the 13 parts of the UK which were surveyed.

“All retail destinations benefitted with Belfast turning in by far its best foot-traffic results of last year, indeed it was one of only two UK cities in the survey to see footfall levels above that experienced during pre-Covid times.

“Overall, this was a timely lift during what is traditionally the busiest trading month of the year.”

Mr Lonsdale said the report also showed a stark improvement on December 2021

“However, this figure is flattered greatly against a weak comparable given fresh concerns back then over the Covid Omicron variant,” he said.

“Despite the welcome and more upbeat results, sustaining the improvement and turning browsing into actual buying will be tricky given the ongoing cost-of-living crunch.

“With overall visits to stores still below pre-pandemic levels government should assist the industry to keep costs down, which is why the mooted increase to the business rate in Northern Ireland should be ruled out.”