Posted on Thursday 23 September 2010 byUlster Business
Alan Clarke (left) NITB chief executive and Howard Hastings, NITB chairman
As the country awaits the next comprehensive spending review, Howard Hastings and Alan Clarke from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board told Ulster Business why support for the tourism sector is essential to the wider economy
A UK study earlier this year concluded that tourism has the potential to contribute £1bn to Northern Ireland’s economy by 2020 – double the contribution it makes today.
The study – which was undertaken by Deloitte and Oxford Economics – found that the sector currently makes up about 5% of the Northern Ireland economy, a contribution of £529m and supports 40,000 jobs.
Ahead of the comprehensive spending review at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is understandably keen to highlight this potential for growth while at the same time emphasising the continuing need for investment and favourable policy considerations to ensure it is realised.
“We’re keen to make sure the business community is aware of the potential value of tourism as we come into what’s going to be a very tough public spending round,” said NITB chairman Howard Hastings.
“There’s always the inclination by government to cut from every department. We are saying that economically you’ve got to think about this a bit more cleverly. As we emerge from recession and the public spending reviews, increasing the allocation to tourism will actually move the economy forward, especially because the objective is to reduce the reliance on the public sector,” he adds.
Mr Hasting’s says that tourism has a very supportive minister and department in Arlene Foster and DETI, but wants to make sure the mindset does not change when the purse strings are tightened.
By 2012 it is estimated that around £300m will have been invested in tourism over the preceding five years on major projects including the likes of the Titanic Signature Building, Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience, Ulster Museum and the Ulster Hall.
Mr Hastings says it is easier to convince political representatives to provide support for the “bricks and mortar” spending than promotion and marketing of these attractions, but that promotion is just as important as the capital investment.
“If there’s no support for promotion and marketing you could end up with white elephants for want of finishing the job,” he says.
“There are a lot of things happening in 2012 that could galvanise reasons why people would want to come to Northern Ireland, followed closely by City of Culture. There is an opportunity to put some oomph behind it that takes tourism from where it is and delivers on the infrastructure we’ve already put in. That’s one reason why we think tourism should be a strategic priority for the government now.”
NITB chief executive Alan Clarke says its research shows that for every pound the agency spent on promotion it got £14 back into the Northern Ireland economy and believes further investment in the private sector will result in the need for less backing in future.
“We know we are entering a period of tight public sector spending but these two anniversaries – Titanic and the first UK City of Culture – you only get those opportunities once in the lifetime and if you don’t capitalise on them now you’re not going to have the opportunity in five years time,” he said.
“If NI sees its self moving on, tourism’s got to be part of it because it is about making NI a good place to visit, to live, to learn and to work. The fear we have is that if there is a salami slicing process then everybody loses out.”
There is also a lot that can be done to promote the tourism industry through policy development, rather than spending vast amounts of money, they say. For instance having a designated National Park could inject around £20m in to the economy.
“We’ve been sitting with an aspiration to deliver a national park – most people think that is likely to be in the Mourne’s – but we’ve been sitting on that for seven years. While Scotland has delivered two and southern England has delivered one in the last six months, we’re still sitting there with no political will to get this over the line even though there’s quite a lot of enabling legislation to make it happen,” says Mr Hastings.
“Some things cost nothing. Looking at things like planning, we’ve a project for a golf course resort on the north coast quite near the Giant’s Causeway. It’s been in planning 16 years. The cost of resolving that one way or other has to be relatively little compared to the economic benefit that might be derived,” he adds.
While there has been talk of trying to attract big events such as the Open Golf tournament or a leg of the Tour de France, the NITB bosses say this has so far failed to gain enough actual support.
“In the events market we will have a budget next year of the wrong side of a million pounds. Wales has budget for events for £5m. If we want to compete for events we have to have a realistic budget to do that,” says Mr Clarke.
Mr Hastings adds: “Events such as these give people who would be saying ‘I’d love to go there at some stage’ a reason to come here now. The promotion of events that are of special interest to people are proven to be much more sustainable, irrespective of the political or social climate.”
Strategically, Northern Ireland is clearly positioning itself as a culture and heritage destination – something that appeals to tourists with links to the province but also to visitors from the Republic and the increasing number of people from Northern Ireland rediscovering what it has to offer and taking their holidays at home.
Part of the rationale behind the five signature projects is to get a lot of people who arrive through the Dublin gateway to think about coming North.
But in addition to the well-known draws such as the Titanic anniversary there are many other points of interest to tourists from around the world. Mr Hastings notes for example that the man who invented drinking chocolate - Sir Hans Sloane - was born in Killyleagh.
“We have lots of good stories to tell”, says Mr Hastings. “But we’re not very good at putting people past the till and that’s holding us back. We’ve been so reliant on the domestic market for so long that the domestic market has priced it.
“There are lots of publicly run visitor attractions that aren’t geared up for taking more money off the customer and in turn that doesn’t give them the return to go and refresh their offering. The challenge we have is how do we make sure what we’re offering going forward is world class.”
The NITB believes that if can get various facets of the tourism industry on board under the same strategy, it will get the most from tourists. If there is not investment in a linked up offering when people get here, they will spend less.
As a result it has released its Campaigning for Tourism document, designed to get people signed up to the same goals and to present this to the Government.
It believes that the targets of 50,000 jobs supported by tourism, 4.5 million visitors and £1bn generated for the economy each year are achievable if there is sustained investment. The goals are ambitious but NITB believes 2012/13 could provide a launching pad.
“We have to invest now for the long term. We all know we are in a difficult public sector spending environment but there’s got to be some focus on those sectors of the economy that will drive growth in the long term and are indigenous and will be here for the long term,” says Mr Clarke.
“Tourism currently contributes 4.9% of GDP. The growth potential over the next decade is for spending to double. What other sector can give you that growth?”
Five so-called “Signature Projects” have been identified as key to have the greatest potential to helping promote Northern Ireland as a tourist destination. They are: the Mourne Mountains; the Walled City of Derry; Saint Patrick and Christian heritage; the Titanic shipyard and signature building; and the Giant’s Causeway Coast and Glens.