Posted on Wednesday 31 March 2010 by Ulster Business

Carrick-a-rede rope bridge has been a consistent draw for tourists to these shores.

Tourism has developed in Northern Ireland at a blistering pace over the last few years but where next? Economist John Simpson addresses Tourism Minister Arlene Foster on Northern Ireland’s tourism strategy.

Minister, the ambitions for the tourism industry are too modest and the leverage to get better results is inadequate. Now there is a need, a necessity and an opportunity to make a difference. Unfortunately, the newly published consultation document on a draft Tourism Strategy for Northern Ireland to 2020 does not set out an agenda and methodology to adequately drive the expansion of the industry. Tourism ought to be the source of a large and growing contribution to the Northern Ireland economy. The consultative document, sensibly, gives an improved definition of what we mean by ‘tourism’. It does not analyse the extent to which this is a self-sustaining industry that should, largely, be left to the enterprise of people running tourist businesses or, if not, to identify where any other input should be added and where it should come from? 79 action points: hundreds of stakeholders The new consultation invites everyone with an interest in the sector to play a full part in assisting its growth. The problem is that it reads as an ‘all kinds of everything’ agenda. The document lists 79 action points, links these with over 20 lead partners and then further expands the remit through a huge matrix of interconnected links which rely on a shared sense of common purpose. There is no ‘who does what and when’ agenda. Whilst the institutional arrangements might have been radically reshaped, the document implicitly leaves the Tourist Board (or a successor) in much the same quiescent relationship with the key stakeholders. Tourism is a sector with little market failure in providing accommodation but with major market failure in developing the assets and facilities to support the wider sector. Measuring the impact of tourism is usually based on simple measures of activity, such as the level of spending when away from home, into more selective concepts. Who are the best tourists to attract and do the experts know whether attracting ‘better’ tourists is happening? How much do tourists spend, away from home, and on what do they spend it? Tourism measured just by the arithmetic of the number of visitors, or the total level of spending, are lazy substitutes for more careful assessment. Whilst the civil service professionals probably do have some of this more helpful information, none manages to creep into print in the Minister’s consultation. Indeed, the Minister has signed up to proposals that will increase the number of visitors each year to 3.6m in 2013 (up from 3.3m this year) generating expenditure of £633m, compared to £536m in 2010, but offers little further refinement.. Too complicated or too unstructured? A complete matrix of the economics of tourism is not easily created but, for any intervention, an understanding of relationships, incentives and attractiveness is needed. Does Northern Ireland have an adequate well articulated and published knowledge base of the tourism sector? Unfortunately the answer is ‘no’. There is a partial explanation. During the 30+ years of political and civil disruption, tourism was often an unsaleable service. That explanation should now be forgotten. The tourist sector has the capacity to be a growth industry. Some of the basic attractions are available or could be enhanced further to become attractive, even unique, selling points. Has Northern Ireland well focused organisations to influence and expand the contribution of tourism to the economy? Not yet! The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is now chaired by a business entrepreneur with his livelihood dependent on tourism and leisure activity. Howard Hastings brings first hand experience to the task and has reached the ‘hot seat’ when the prospects are improving and there is potential and scope to drive faster expansion. Official policy for tourism is now being reconsidered but in an ill-defined matrix of ideas reviewed in the consultation paper. Ideally, the brand which makes and sells Ulster tourism should be relaunched. There are several key stakeholders whose actions and remit enter the equations. Indeed, one of the possible frustrations is the complex nature of these inter-relationships. Imaginative contemporary leadership is needed. If the Minister was to set up a defined operational framework which delegated authority and leverage, the leadership could pass to a recharged NI Tourist Board (NITB), renamed as Ulster Tourism. In today’s circumstances, that would be unsatisfactory since the Board is only one of the stakeholders and not in a position to deliver a wide ranging set of changes by itself. With that caveat, there needs to be a reconsidered and strengthened role for a reformed Board. The Board (or its successor) should be encouraged to be a marketing, selling, thinking and communicating force that behaves and is recognised as an authority in this sector. One change that might be expected is in the presentational style of the Board. The present official title is dated. It is also reflected in the dated stereotyped annual report on the work of the Board. The annual report needs to convey the message of a successful organisation that knows its potential and is delivering on steps to enhance the value added from tourism and looks for greater added value from each tourist. The current development role of the NITB is too modest. The tourism sector is as extensive and diverse in Northern Ireland as, in a different sector, the farming sector. Could Northern Ireland have for the tourist sector an organisation that parallels the Ulster Farmers Union? Roll out the Ulster Tourism Federation! The Federation should be an organisation with (voluntary) membership by all organisations and businesses which depend on, and serve, tourism. Membership would be by a modest fee of (possibly) 1% of gross turnover. Refusal to be a member would mean refusal of membership benefits, including selective promotional assistance. Compared to the political clout of the UFU, the tourist board is currently a minnow. Taken further, the Federation might be allocated the development funds that currently go to the NITB and given a monitoring and mentoring relationship with Tourism Ireland. Tourism Ireland is gaining credit as an effective publicist but the Northern Ireland influence could be demonstrated more strongly. Bord Fáilte has maintained its profile alongside Tourism Ireland. An Ulster Tourist Federation should be just as prominent. A small part of the unfavourable comparison comes from the ‘high street’ image. The main ‘high street’ image of the NITB faces several regeneration sites in Donegall Street and is less than satisfactory. There is no tourism help centre in Belfast where a visitor can arrive by car, park conveniently, and enjoy a mixture of advice, information and hospitality. Finally, a controversial topic: what should be the official policy on hotel and accommodation development? Arguably, the economics of hotel and accommodation business can now be left to market forces. Hotel and accommodation development is being removed from the remit of Invest NI. The (new) Tourism Federation might be asked to consider what should now happen. Is the Minister radical enough to tell the providers of tourism accommodation to be more self-reliant and less dependent on transfers from taxpayers? If tourism is a viable industry, subventions should be reducing, not increasing. Is Ulster Tourism capable of driving a modern productive cost effective sector? The Minister set up a steering group to help draft the new (so-called) strategy. As a result, she has been offered a non-selective long shopping list. This is not what she could have expected. Minister, send it back and ask for a better operational guide to bring coherence to the 79 action points!

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