Posted on Wednesday 23 March 2011 by Ulster Business

The Giants Causeway

Photo courtesy of the NITB.

By John Simpson

The tourism industry is, by its nature, built up from a diverse number of interest groups. Consequently there is little surprise when the allegation is made that 'no single voice' speaks effectively for the whole sector. To ensure better co-ordination and gain the benefits of mutually supportive actions, there is a need for a centrally placed policy direction.

Northern Ireland is a small area with diverse tourism interests. Policy development and co-ordination should not be too difficult. Nevertheless, the present arrangements do lack coherence. One of the factors which is important for local tourism is the degree to which the island of Ireland, as a whole, is a more marketable tourist destination than the other approach which sees the island as developing two (or more) parallel and overlapping tourism destinations. Of course, this academic distinction overstates reality. Tourism will evolve with many diverse factors attracting the customers. Literature and advertising can emphasise places and events with different degrees of distinction. Central to the development of tourism policies affecting Northern Ireland there needs to be recognition that, on this island, tourism should develop without unhelpful artificial attempts to segment the marketplace, north versus south. The present north-south arrangements offer an example of logical institutional co-operation. Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) each have agreed marketing responsibilities so that they can maximise market impact and minimise any overlap or clash in their delivery efforts. Institutionally, the arrangements are elaborate but, operationally, they work. There are some suggestions that the NITB might like to have a bigger role in marketing Northern Ireland to potential tourists from Great Britain. However, pragmatic co-operation seems to avoid legalistic disagreements. With the present North-South co-operation in place, the policy debate that is needed in Northern Ireland is how to grow the tourism sector faster for the whole island but, in particular, for Northern Ireland. For some types of activity, Northern Ireland is a natural area to grow a larger tourism industry. There are, however, dangers in a simplistic policy that works on the basis that the more tourists that come to Northern Ireland the better. The easy guideline starts from an answer to the question, why would more tourists be welcome? A related question asks, what do we mean by tourism, or tourists? More tourists are welcome if, one way or another, they contribute to the economy. Of course, there is a generic welcome for all visitors who come for many different reasons whether cultural, historic, scientific or recreational. However, as part of an effort to gain economic benefit, the main thrust of tourism policy must measure not just how many tourists arrive but also how much they spend and then, how much of the spending stays in the local economy. There is a neat apparent contradiction in selling Northern Ireland as an inexpensive place to visit and a tourism policy which wants to enhance the level of spending by visitors. The contradiction can be resolved by seeking to ensure that while a visitor is encouraged to spend, the assurance will be that they appreciate that there is good value for the money spent. There is currently an inadequate continuing assessment of the nature and value of the tourism industry in Northern Ireland. There are good estimates of the number of visitors, and where they come from, and rather more approximate estimates of the turnover revenue generated by them. Converting the turnover figures into estimates of value added for the economy is less well documented. The NITB has commissioned an assessment of the average daily spending of visitors. The figures were not reassuring. The daily spend per visitor was much lower than a comparable estimate for Scotland or other areas. In turn, these differences may be caused by lower local costs or differences in the purpose or style of the visit, such as staying with family and relatives or staying in hotels or B&B. Growing the contribution of tourism to the local economy could be encouraged simply by a passive policy of letting the marketplace respond to the opportunities. Alternatively, an appreciation of the likely sources of high value-added tourism could be enhanced by a selective policy of incentives, inducements or infrastructure developments. Northern Ireland is 'open' for all types of visitors, ranging from hill walkers to beach surfers and back-packers. It is also open to visiting golfers, people attending top class sports events, people who attend professional and academic conferences, international exhibitions, culinary gourmets seeking 4* and 5* hotels, and cruise liner stop-over facilities. If the policy makers have any influence, while publicity often dwells on the former groups, marginal leverage would be better focused on the latter. Does Northern Ireland currently have the capacity to grow high value-added tourism? Are the museums and historic places geared and professionally prepared for larger numbers who pay modest sums for the experience? Is there enough high class hotel provision? Can Belfast or Derry City offer world-class facilities for international multi-lingual conferences of 2,000 people? Do the relevant sporting organisations have plans for high profile events, national or international, where admission charges earn good returns? Does the transport infrastructure offer best international quality modern amenities in ports and airports? All of these features might be expected in a well-endowed tourist industry. Government or official involvement does not need to be extensive. The museums and historic places can develop commercial strategies. The Titanic Signature project and the Giants Causeway visitor centre should soon be profitable enterprises. The hotel sector will respond to market forces without direct Government funding provided that the planning system behaves sensibly. So also should the other trading organisations. There may be a case for government and municipal involvement in a large multi-lingual conference centre if one of the universities does not take an initiative. Northern Ireland has a high proportion of its visitors who are not in the big spender groups. That is no problem when it allows for the large numbers who frequently visit family and relatives. However, the tourism of 2020 should be about more than doubling annual numbers of visitors and generating revenue of £1bn. An updated tourism strategy needs to raise the game plan. Simple head counts and crude spending figures should give way to a more selective and sustainable use of our assets.

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