Tourism: “The Gathering: An Irish Homecoming”
Private Members’ Business
Stephen Moutray (DUP)
The motion is certainly tourist-orientated. However, it is a very green motion, and I am not surprised, given who tabled it. This is a case of the SDLP using tourism as an excuse to peddle its all-island agenda.
To my mind, next year’s “An Irish Homecoming” will be hugely sentimental and very Irish in a way that I cannot and will not really identify with. It is a sort of “Mother Ireland” concept that conjures up images of leprechauns, shillelaghs, pints of Guinness, donkeys, dancing at the crossroads and thatched cottages. In other the words, it is the sort of stuff that we see far too much of in retail outlets at our airports. A quick glance at the list of venues and events related to “the Homecoming” reveals that almost all of them are in the Republic of Ireland. The initiative is being driven by the Irish Government, and it is being geared primarily towards boosting tourism figures in the Irish Republic in an effort to strengthen the ailing economy. Indeed, that is the overwhelming impression that you get from the promotional literature and from statements by the Irish Tourism Minister and others.
I have no problem with the Irish Government developing their tourist base, and I wish them well for their homecoming initiative. Indeed, some tourists might cross the border into Northern Ireland, and we may benefit from that. There are times when it is right and proper that our tourism Minister will want to co-operate with her Irish counterpart, and if such co-operation will be to the benefit of the Northern Ireland economy or the broader UK economy, that is fine.
I am not the biggest fan of Tourism Ireland but I accept that it does some good work. I pay tribute to the role that its chief executive, Niall Gibbons, is playing in promoting Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to 12 July. However, Tourism Ireland’s goal is the promotion of the island of Ireland, and the logical outcome of that is that its main focus will be on the Republic. We must concentrate on marketing our own distinct Northern Ireland image. That has to be our priority. We have plenty of work to do and plenty of opportunities to seize.
During the long hard years of the Troubles, we fell so far behind for obvious reasons. We have so much ground to make up, but I am glad to say that we are making up that ground. This is indeed our time, our place. Tourism estimates for 2011 were published a couple of weeks ago, and they are very encouraging. Last year saw a 20% increase in the amount of money spent by overseas visitors. One and a half million overseas visitors spent at least one night in Northern Ireland, which was up 4% on 2010.
That is all very encouraging. It is only the end of April and there is already a real buzz about the Province. The Titanic visitor centre, Titanic Belfast, has attracted worldwide interest in this centenary year, and I have every confidence that it will not only prove the naysayers wrong, but it will exceed all expectations. It has been described by the travel publication ‘Fodor’s Ireland’ as being the world’s biggest tourism story in 2012. In a couple of months, the brand new visitor centre will open at the Giant’s Causeway, and we will have the Irish Open golf tournament at Royal Portrush for the first time since 1947. Plans are also well advanced for the celebration of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, and, like many others, I look forward to the Orange demonstration that will be held here at the end of September. Next year, Londonderry will be the United Kingdom City of Culture, and, indeed, the motion refers to that important year in the life of our second city.