Michael's legacy is Colin Glen as a serious tourist attraction

The Skytrek at Colin Glen
The Skytrek at Colin Glen

THERE'S a big roundabout in west Belfast which many people pass through to take the back road to the airport or to get to Twinbrook and Lisburn. Unusually, it has a name: Michael Ferguson Roundabout.

As the years progress, fewer and fewer people will remember him, but Mickey Ferguson leaves a serious legacy in that part of the city. As a Sinn Fein councillor in Lisburn, he had to fight his corner nearly every time he walked into the Council chamber. But his unwavering commitment to his local community and integrity in the delivery of that commitment won him respect and friends in some unlikely corners, first in Lisburn and then later as an MLA in Stormont.

I had the pleasure of serving on the board of the Colin Glen Trust with him for about five years - he was a real innovator and a master at leveraging monies from different sources to help his community and in doing so, he helped to set the foundations for what the Trust is doing now.

For anybody reading this who hasn’t walked the Colin Glen (there is a lovely path that runs along the Colin River) or taken their kids or grandkids to use some of the Forest Park’s play or sports facilities, including the best golf driving range in Ireland, led by one of the best golf coaches in Ireland, Peter Martin, go take a look. You won’t be disappointed.

When I was growing up there, the idea that Colin Glen would become a tourist attraction was laughable. Now, it’s one of our most popular tourist attractions and the Trust is a £1.2 million turnover social enterprise employing over 50 people. Mickey would be very proud of how far the Trust’s offer has come and the role of tourism in creating employment and building the economy of the local area.

People often underestimate the value of tourism to the economy here, but the numbers speak for themselves. Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, the sector experienced a growth of 46 per cent in visitor spend in the five years between 2014 and 2019 and a 22 per cent increase in employment, creating jobs at twice the rate of the rest of the economic sectors sectors here.

Tourism remains one of the largest, locally owned, internationally traded sectors of our local economy. It is also one of the most geographically and socially dispersed sectors of the economy. In 2019, it accounted for 1 in 11 jobs here, with 70 per cent of those roles being created outside of Belfast.

Tourism is also unique in that it provides a route from school leaver to management and leadership. It supports more jobs per £1m of output than any other sector, providing employment opportunities for young people, those seeking to return to work, those with or without qualifications, the economically inactive and people from all sections of society.

Just before Covid in 2019 we broke through £1 billion in overnight visitor expenditure, a growth of 52 per cent since 2012. And of that £1bn tourism spend, £731m (70 per cent) can be classified as export earnings, even though so many of the businesses generating that value were small or micro-sized.

Believe it or not, there are around 5,500 tourism related businesses registered. The total number of jobs stands at 70,800 in 2019 (9 per cent of all employee jobs here) with an estimated 12,800 new jobs (+22 per cent) created between 2013 and 2019.

This represented double the growth in jobs experienced in the non-tourism related sectors here over the same period. And over half (56 per cent) of employee jobs are part-time and include jobs in food & beverage serving activities, transport, sporting & recreational activities, and accommodation for visitors.

This year and going forward, that growth should continue with economic projections from EY estimating that employment within the sector will see an increase of 6,600 jobs in comparison with 2019 levels, by 2025.

Back in 2010, Colin Glen looked to be in trouble, but it has been transformed under the leadership of its board and its chief executive Colin O’Neill. Well over £3m has been invested in a 3G indoor sports dome, an unbelievable toboggan run, the tracker technology driving range, the longest zip line in Ireland, the Gruffalo trail and about 10 other attractions which I haven’t got the space to list here. It now has 250,000 paying visitors per year and another 100,000 park users and has any amount of awards and accreditations.

Mickey Ferguson may be best remembered for his roundabout. But the work done by Colin and his team to make Colin Glen a serious tourist attraction, alongside so much other progress in tourism in Belfast and beyond, often at a community level, would make him very proud and happy too, no doubt.

:: Paul McErlean is managing director of MCE Public Relations