Why we’re growing as a tourism destination

Flashback to The Open at Royal Portrush in July 2019
The staging of the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in 2019 enhanced our reputation as a golf destination

The return of the Assembly and the appointment of an Executive on February 3 was good news for the business community in Northern Ireland and not least for the tourism sector. For the past two years leaders from within the business community have been emphasising the importance of political stability in securing foreign direct investment and growing our economy.

That argument equally applies to the tourism sector and the efforts of tourism agencies such as Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland who have had the additional challenge of rebuilding Northern Ireland’s image as a tourism destination in a post-Covid world.

Whilst the focus of the business media is already beginning to focus on our dual market access status and the potential for increased foreign direct investment, and despite the political uncertainty, there is an unprecedented wave of international investment taking place in our tourism industry that could never have been envisaged a few short years ago.

This recent wave of investment began when Mick Boyle, a highly successful Australian businessman returned on a family visit to the place of his birth in South Armagh and decided to purchase a derelict ruin, Killeavy Castle. Through his huge personal commitment he has turned this into a wonderful 4-star hotel on the slopes of Slieve Gullion.

The staging of the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in 2019 and our growing reputation as a golf destination led to an announcement by the Dallas based Links Collection in June 2020, that it planned to invest £16.5m in Dunluce Lodge, a new 35 room, luxury 5 star property overlooking the 4th fairway of Royal Portrush Golf Club which will open later this year in advance of the return of The Open next July.

Hot on the heels of the Texans came the Nashville based real estate investors AJ Capital Partners, who in November 2021, announced the acquisition of the Slieve Donard Resort to add to its portfolio of prestigious properties that make up the Marine and Lawn Group with adjacent to some of the world’s greatest links golf courses in St Andrews, Troon, North Berwick and Dornoch. The total investment is reported to be around £50m including a recent £16m refurbishment of the property.

A year later and AJ Capital had also acquired the Adelphi Hotel in Portrush making it the sixth property in the Marine and Lawn portfolio. The Adelphi is currently undergoing an extensive refurbishment and will re-open later this year.

It is not only the Americans who are investing in hotel stock here. The Swedish Hotel Group Pandox AB purchased the Hilton Hotel in Belfast last year for a reported £40m and the Cork based INua Collection recently acquired the Radisson Blu in the Gasworks.

Dublin’s Press Up Group and the London based JMK Group have announced plans for new builds in Bedford Street and Titanic Quarter and further exciting acquisitions by high profile accommodation providers in the Republic of Ireland are expected in the coming weeks.

This external investment has been matched by major investment from local businesses like the Duddy Group, Andras House, McKeever Group, Hastings Group and Ebrington Hotel Limited in the development, acquisition and major upgrading of a number of high profile properties across Northern Ireland.

This activity is a clear indication that, despite the political logjam, the investment community has huge confidence in Northern Ireland as a growing tourism destination. That includes Belfast.

John McGrillen
John McGrillen John McGrillen

There has been a number of high-profile individuals voicing an opinion in the media in recent weeks that Belfast is no longer an attractive destination.

Of course, the city has its challenges that needs to be addressed, every city has, but the suggestion that Belfast is no longer attractive to the visitor does not stand up to scrutiny. The recent inward investment in the city and beyond from these local and international investors is testimony to that.

  • John McGrillen is chief executive of Tourism NI