PAUL McERLEAN: Serious tourism investment and increased marketing spend must continue

The Open at Royal Portrush in 2019 delivered an £80 million boost to the north's economy from the golfers and 237,750 spectators from around the world who attended
The Open at Royal Portrush in 2019 delivered an £80 million boost to the north's economy from the golfers and 237,750 spectators from around the world who attended

AT a university reunion in England in May, one of my former basketball team mates, who is from the US, asked my advice on where to visit during his trip to Ireland this August. He had previously been to Dublin, Kerry and Galway but had never travelled north.

Needless to say, I told him, with some force, that he had to come to Belfast. To be fair to big Matt (he’s 6’5’’ and a former US Navy officer, you wouldn’t mess with him), he accepted the advice in good spirits, trusted my judgment and brought his party of five adults straight from Dublin airport last week.

Fair dues to him and his group, they squeezed a lot in. And I believed him when he told me that they loved it all. They drank Guinness in nearly every good pub in Belfast, did a black taxi tour which surprised and fascinated them and they got a brilliant guided tour of Titanic Belfast.

I think sometimes we under-estimate just how good Titanic Belfast is. I’m betting a lot of people reading this have never been there, even though it’s on our doorstep. I recommend you make the effort and go. Some 611,000 people visited in 2022, a 173 per cent increase on 2021.

This year is looking very strong also, probably surpassing or at least equalling, pre-Covid levels. I’ve been a few times recently and the £3 million upgrade, including the detailed retelling of Bob Ballard’s discovery of the wreck and its other top secret objectives (no spoilers here), is really class. The drama of the completely overhauled final gallery has to be seen to be appreciated, I loved the music, the lighting and everything about it. Matt and his party did too. It’s a truly world-class attraction.

After Belfast, Matt and his gang headed to Ballycastle and the Salthouse Hotel. On the way, they did some Game of Thrones must-sees including Ballintoy Harbour and the Dark Hedges, along with the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle. With Royal Portrush booked for golf on the Tuesday, we played a bit of a warm up at Ballycastle Golf course on the Monday evening. The wind was up but the evening sun was out and the views of Rathlin, Fairhead and Ballycastle beach from the golf course could have been taken from picture-perfect postcards.

The following day was Royal Portrush and a major treat for Matt and his brother-in-law, Dan. Maybe among the global golfing community there is a full appreciation of how good the famous Dunluce course at Royal Portrush is, but again, I think it is under-estimated by the rest of us.

Royal Portrush (and Royal County Down) are regularly listed in the top 20 golf courses in the world. For a relatively tiny place like this, that’s some going. My golf is nowhere near good enough to do it justice so I only walked the course with the lads and let my son, Rory, take on (and beat) allcomers. He even shot two birdies at the 5th and the 15th. They were great moments, especially the 15th when he sank a difficult 10 foot putt for a three. If only I could play golf like that. I never will!

Golf tourism is big business now and Royal Portrush, particularly since The Open in 2019, has become a huge driver of tourism revenues here. Golf’s governing body, the Royal & Ancient, reported that The Open delivered an £80 million boost to the local economy from the golfers and the 237,750 spectators from around the world who attended.

Overall, the figures show that in 2022, there were 762,575 bookings made by visitors at the 75 golf clubs in Northern Ireland. This is compared to 587,199 bookings made in 2019 – a 30 per cent increase on pre-Covid levels. And almost £2.6m was generated last year by those travelling from the south to play golf, a 237 per cent increase on 2019. There was also a sizeable jump in bookings from Scotland, with £681,000 generated in green fees at clubs in 2022, an increase of 216 per cent on 2019.

In global terms, visitor green fee revenue increased by 153 per cent in 2022 compared to 2019 as international travel bounced back and clubs reverted to full pricing. Golf is big business here, and it will only grow as the word spreads.

Part of Matt’s trip (well, the loose justification for it) was the Navy v Notre Dame American football game in the Aviva in Dublin this weekend past. Last Tuesday at Royal Portrush, we had our Navy caps on but we were outnumbered by a coach load of Notre Dame people, all of whom had booked on to Royal Portrush also.

I found out after that it was a tour group of 75 Americans who had come into Belfast for three nights ahead of the big game in Dublin. Among the group were ABC57 News and ABC Kick Off host Allison Hayes and Levon Whitt and a few NFL legends, including Mike Golic, Irv Smith Snr, Anthony Fasano and Shaun Wood. The pictures from that trip will have been beemed back by to the States, painting a hugely positive picture of this place for tourism.

After Portrush, Matt headed for a great night in Derry and a tour through Donegal before he headed to Dublin for the big game. If I’m honest, I was proud of this place and its ability to show a group led by Matt and his wife Kerri such a good time.

Serious investment has been made in the tourism product here and that needs to continue, along with increased (not decreased) marketing spend to promote it, because in the absence of a working government here, it is one of the few really positive things we can point to, knowing that it compares favourably with competing regions on these islands and around the world.

:: Paul McErlean is chief executive of MCE Public Relations