Posted on Thursday 15 March 2012 by Ulster Business
“It is a make or break year for tourism in Northern Ireland, and luckily I think it will be a make year.”
That was the assessment given by influential travel journalist Simon Calder on a recent visit to Northern Ireland.
Admittedly, Mr Calder was here as guest of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, but his view that the province would beat all the visitor targets the NITB is working towards was still a ringing endorsement of what we have to offer visitors to these shores.
The Independent’s travel editor was fulsome in his praise of Titanic Belfast and believes it will prove such a draw that the people who run the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin – currently one of Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions – “will wonder where everyone has gone” when it opens later this month.
Calder has long been an advocate for Northern Ireland as a tourist destination but it seems that other GB-based travel experts have also been charmed by recent visits across the water and believe the promotion of the events taking place in 2012 is having an impact.
“I think more people are now becoming aware of a ‘new’ Northern Ireland in terms of visitor attractions. The advertising certainly seems to be paying dividends; I personally know many people who have visited Belfast recently for a weekend break,” says Dominic Ryan, who recently wrote about the province for The Herald in Scotland.
“The fact that there seems to be a cohesive and coherent approach, bringing different strands together, is a very strong factor,” he adds.
William Bevan, a freelance writer whose clients include the Sunday Times Travel Magazine, is similarly positive about the “slick and professional” campaign raising awareness.
“A lot of people – trade and public alike – are beginning to take notice. I’ve certainly been aware of a significant increase in coverage, in both news and travel media.
There’s a palpable sense that 2012 will be Northern Ireland’s time as a tourist destination – as may be seen in its inclusion in National Geographic Traveller’s top ten destinations to visit this year,” he says.
David Atkinson from the Daily Telegraph says that having a series of flagship events planned throughout 2012 will be a big help in getting people to visit for the first time.
“From a media and promotional point of view you need these big events, the opening of Titanic Belfast and big showcase events like the Titanic Festival, to fuel interest. People who are interested in cultural tourism will be keen to go to something like Titanic Belfast, one of the events in the festival, the MAC and then up to the Giant’s Causeway,” he says.
“There is a lot going on in the UK and they’ve got a lot of competition. There is the big Cultural Olympiad, the Shakespeare festival starts up in April and there’s the opening of the Wales Coast Path, so they do need big headline events to get interest going.”
Bevan agrees that it is the wow factor of the new openings and celebrations which will make the difference in changing the Troubles era image of Northern Ireland.
“A programme of events on this scale is the best way of laying such prejudices to rest, and showing that the mood of Northern Ireland is far from austere.”
When it comes to what makes Northern Ireland attractive as a destination the three writers hit on similar themes – including location, size, friendliness and culture.
“With so many attractions within such a relatively small area, it’s very easy for the visitor to enjoy a rewarding experience. I didn’t get a chance to research the public transport options but certainly, with a hire car, a tourist would be able to visit the highlights with few worries,” says Dominic Ryan.
“Aside from Titanic Belfast, which promises much, I still think (the top selling point) is the sense of hospitality in pubs, restaurants and hotels: there is a hugely welcoming element to be found in the music and culture as expressed by the people of Northern Ireland, which deserves its reputation but could be pushed more in promoting the area,” he adds.
William Bevan says the point of difference from the rest of the UK is that Northern Ireland is “overseas without being abroad” and boasts a unique cultural offering.
“The natural beauty is a massive plus – particularly when people realise there’s more than the Giant’s Causeway on offer. The Mournes, Sperrins and Fermanagh Lakelands deserve to be as well known as Snowdonia, the Peak District and the Lake District; and another great selling point is that Northern Ireland is compact, and they’re within easy reach of each other,” he adds.
“Ephemerally, the Titanic anniversary will be a huge selling point. This is a story that people simply don’t tire of exploring. Beyond that, the natural beauty of the landscapes, the liveliness of the towns and the friendliness of the people will always be a big draw.”
David Atkinson picks up on the same theme, saying: “It is very close and easy to get to from where I live in Manchester. It is unusual to be able to go somewhere that’s in the UK and so much on your doorstep but has a different cultural offer. You feel you are having a cultural experience away from home, particularly around the Causeway Coast.”
However, despite these positives he believes there is still work to be done from the perspective of attracting more international visitors.
“Northern Ireland has not had massive amounts of tourism over the pat 30 years and it is still getting there in some respects. I did feel at times, especially thinking from the perspective of international visitors who are used to high levels of service and a savvy approach, I felt a few places were a bit stuck in the 1970s. It wasn’t across the board, but I thought occasionally that other destinations like Scotland and Wales have moved on and Northern Ireland perhaps needs to catch up a little bit in terms of service levels and mindset,” he says.
Bevan however, thinks that starting afresh with a newer tourism offering is something that can work in Northern Ireland’s favour – with our gain potentially being the Republic of Ireland’s loss.
“The Republic has a worsening reputation at the moment, people see it as horribly expensive, overhyped in the 90s and early 00s, and having developed its tourism in the wrong direction – for example attracting stag parties to Dublin and playing up to a theme-park idea of Ireland, laying on the blarney with a trowel. Northern Ireland could win by positioning itself as a ‘more authentic’ Ireland.”
So, is there enough here to encourage people to come back more than once?
“Yes, I believe so,” says Bevan. “The offerings in Northern Ireland are more diverse than many people realise. It just needs to be pushed!”
Ryan also agrees, saying: “So long as there are high-profile events, such as the clipper race in Derry-Londonderry and numerous music and arts festivals there will always be something fresh for the visitor.”
Atkinson believes that with Belfast well set up to attract people in for weekend breaks there is an opportunity to convince them there is more to do elsewhere in the province.
“I think if you can get people in on the cultural offer initially, to come to Belfast for a city break, and then work from that, there’s a lot going for it.”