Posted on Wednesday 4 August 2010 by Ulster Business

The local tourism industry has developed significantly over the last few years but how has the recent recession impacted the sector? David Elliott spoke to Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland to hear how the organisation is going to tempt more tourists to these shores.

During the darkest days of the troubles, selling Northern Ireland as a holiday destination to family and friends was a difficult enough task, never mind trying to attract tourists with no connection to the place. But in recent years the onset of peace, a flourishing economy and the establishment of a network of budget airline routes into the main airports has attracted a flurry of visitors. To accommodate this we’ve seen a significant expansion in the local tourist service industry as a whole with an extra 800 hotel rooms added to the Belfast area alone in the last few years. On the streets where soldiers once patrolled, tourists can be seen marvelling at a combination of our troubled past, our beautiful vistas and, of course, the warm welcome. Local cynics may scoff but travel guide Lonely Planet normally has its finger on the tourist pulse and touted Northern Ireland as a ‘must see’ destination in 2007. In tandem with the popularity of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, already a popular tourist destination, has managed to grow its reputation amongst tourists, particularly from the US, Canada and Germany. But the economic conditions in 2007 are very much different to those in 2010 with tourists’ disposable income bearing the brunt of the harsher environment. Tourism Economics, an independent industry research company, said tourism into Ireland will decline by 2% in 2010 based on consumer spending and consumer confidence assumptions. This hasn’t worried Niall Gibbons, Chief Executive of Tourism Ireland. “We produced a marketing plan in December and there’s good degree of ambition in there,” he said. “We’re looking to grow tourism by 3% to the island of Ireland in 2010.” That 3% equates to 230,000 additional visitors and will bring the targeted number of tourists to the island in 2010 to 7.85 million, a boost which will certainly need hard work from Tourism Ireland if you take into consideration Tourism Economics predictions. “We have recalibrated what we do in the market place and have invested heavily in tactical marketing, including working with air and sea carriers. If they’re putting money into the marketplace we try and leverage additional investment with them.” For the airlines, this also means trying to maximise the inbound route legs. “An airline will put on a plane and obviously wants to fill it both ways. For us, it’s a key challenge, particularly in Northern Ireland where some of legs are weighted in favour of the outbound leg.” So with planes essentially taking more people out of the country on holiday than they are bringing in as tourists, how will Tourism Ireland tempt more visitors? “We have to fly our flag and give people motivating reasons to spend their money, get into a plane and spend time here,” Niall said. He points to the Titantic Project in Belfast, the Giants Causeway on the north coast and the St Patricks Visitor Centre in Downpatrick as examples of our growing wealth of attractions and maintains it is essential for Tourism Ireland to target the right tourists. One is Germany, the largest outbound tourism market in the world where the population of 80 million people take over 70 million trips abroad each year. “The island of Ireland has 0.5% of that market so we (Tourism Ireland) have carried out a root and branch review and found a lot of potential. We’re going on national television in Germany for the first time and have had travel agents over as most people in Germany book their holidays with them. “On the other side of the coin is the new and developing market opening up in China. There’s currently no direct access for people from China other than to route through Paris, London or Amsterdam. And if they want to come to Northern Ireland and the Republic they have to pay for two different visas. We’re working with our colleagues so only one tourist visa is needed for both the UK and Ireland.” Being able to attract people here is one thing but having the proper infrastructure in place to make their stay as easy as possible and to transport them to the sights is another. Our rail system, for instance, is relatively limited and it, and other forms of public transport, have been said to be inadequate when it comes to dealing with a tourist influx. Faced with this, Niall pointed to the availability and price of car hire which, he believes, compares well with other destinations. But it remains extremely difficult to hire a car in Northern Ireland and drop it off in the Republic, and vice versa, thereby creating a significant obstacle for tourists wishing to enter via one and leave via the other. “We’re exploring an idea to see if it would be feasible to give a month’s grace so a car hire company can re-let a southern registered car in Northern Ireland, (or vice versa) so it can be returned via a rental rather than make the renter to pay a return fee.” It’s encouraging to see Tourism Ireland has acknowledge these idiosyncratic problems facing tourists here and realises it needs to make the tourist experience as easy and pleasurable as possible. Niall is a firm believer in the fact that if we can get tourists here for the first time, we’ll be able to charm them and maybe even tempt them to come back. Given the fact the industry is becoming more and more valuable to the local economy, we can only hope Tourism Ireland succeeds in its endeavours, but it may take the additional help of global economic recovery to prosper. “We’re sometimes a bit self critical but so far we’ve punched above our weight. But ultimately it will take international recovery to help boost the tourism sector.”

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