North/South Ministerial Council: Tourism Sectoral Format

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 28th June 2010.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I have received notice from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment that she wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, on a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in tourism sectoral format. The meeting was held in Armagh on 16 June 2010. The junior Minister Mr Gerry Kelly and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government were represented by Mary Hanafin TD, Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Kelly, and I make it on behalf of us both.

The Council received updates from the chairperson of Tourism Ireland, Mr Hugh Friel, and its chief executive, Mr Niall Gibbons, on the impact of the continuing difficult global conditions on the tourism industry. The Council also received reports on market campaigns, including the £18 million summer marketing campaign, and on the outlook for the rest of the year.

The Council approved Tourism Ireland’s 2010 business plan and noted its plans to return to growth in visitor numbers during 2010 by focusing on best prospect markets and spreading the value message in tactical marketing campaigns. The Council noted the progress that Tourism Ireland has made to date in drafting its corporate plan for 2011-13 and the key marketing themes during the lifetime of the plan, including the Titanic centenary anniversary, the diaspora, the 1911 census centenary and the London Olympics.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement, but I am a little surprised by its sparseness and lack of detail. I seek the Minister’s reassurance that that is not indicative of any attempt to diminish in any way the nature of North/South ministerial contact. However, the statement included an important point on the impact of the continuing difficult global conditions on the tourism industry. The chief executive of Tourism Ireland indicated ways and means to deal with that. Will the Minister expand on the chief executive’s report on how to deal with difficult global conditions?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Chairman for his comments. The statement reflects the topics that were discussed at the NSMC. The reason why there is not more detail is that I wanted to respond to questions rather than regurgitating the statement’s contents, which is often what happens in the House. I am happy to go into detail about any discussions at the meeting.

There was a discussion with the chairperson and the chief executive of Tourism Ireland about the difficulties that we face in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland because of a downward trend and the fact that more people are holidaying within the confines of their own jurisdiction. As I have said in the House previously, that is partly due to a refocusing on marketing investment in Great Britain, which is Northern Ireland’s biggest tourism market, Germany and North America to generate the best short-term returns. At present, the trend is for people not to book holidays until the very last moment. We are trying to ensure that, when people are considering last-minute holidays, Northern Ireland will be at the forefront of their mind. To that end, an £18 million marketing strategy has begun, with Tourism Ireland concentrating on those three markets and examining different ways to get people to consider Northern Ireland. There are people called “silver surfers”, and we are trying to encourage such older people to consider Northern Ireland as a possible holiday destination. I hear laughter from Members sitting behind me, who may not be over 66 years of age but may count themselves as silver surfers.

We are also considering value golf breaks and trying to position ourselves in that market — and why not after what Graeme McDowell did for us in America last week? I was in America last week on a trade mission, and the focus on Northern Ireland was tremendous because of Graeme McDowell’s win last Sunday in the US Open. People were congratulating me simply because I was from Northern Ireland. That market has tremendous potential. Tourism Ireland is examining that potential and seeking ways in which to benefit from it.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the Minister for her statement. I also congratulate her on her efforts in promoting business in America. She is very photogenic; there are lots of photographs, and we were able to keep track of her the whole week. I am not a silver surfer, but I still have a little bit of silver hair left along the sides if not on top of my head.

I want to ask the Minister about visitor numbers. This morning, I spoke to Brian Ambrose, the manager of George Best Belfast City Airport, who told me that his numbers are up by some 8% from last year. That is good news. The Minister would accept that the past year has been difficult for overseas visitor numbers, and there has probably been a general fall in numbers because of the volcanic ash. What steps is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment taking to address the general fall in worldwide tourism because of the volcanic ash and the economic downturn? It is important that we have a process in place to address that.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP 12:15 pm, 28th June 2010

The Member raised a number of issues. Tourist numbers have been a mixed bag. The number of people visiting from the Republic of Ireland is up year on year. In fact, the most recent figures that I saw showed that the number went up by about 39% last year. Indeed, when I was coming back from San Francisco last week, I noticed that a record number of tourists — around 9·3 million — visited Belfast last year. That is marvellous, and we want to see more of that. However, there has been an overall downward trend. As the Member said, that is down to a number of reasons, including the global downturn and the uncertainty that the volcanic ash caused.

As I said, Tourism Ireland is involved in a heavy marketing campaign in Great Britain, Germany and North America. In addition to that, I am hoping to meet the Minister for Regional Development in the near future to discuss the volcanic ash issue to see whether we can do more in readiness in case that becomes a problem again in the summer. We are looking for ways to deal with the immediate problems. However, it is also important to look to long-term strategies.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister give us a breakdown of the amount of money that will be spent on that marketing campaign, particularly in Britain? Now that England is out of the World Cup, we are looking for quick wins. Therefore, will we get more return from our money with more people from England holidaying here?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I wondered which Member would be the first to mention England’s demise in the World Cup; full points to Mr Maskey.

I do not have a breakdown of the figures for the amount that will be spent on marketing in GB, North America and Germany. However, GB is our main tourist market, and I know that when I speak to the chief executive of Tourism Ireland he will tell me that, because of that, he concentrates heavily on it not only because of the direct flight access but because of the strong ferry links. We are seeing more and more emphasis on car touring, for example. It is important that we look at all the ways in which we can get visitors to come to Northern Ireland. People have been telling me how much they have enjoyed staying at home in Northern Ireland over the past two to three weeks because of the good weather. However, we also want to see more people coming into Northern Ireland to enjoy what is going on.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. The question that I was going to ask has been fairly well answered. Recently, I have had two or three complaints from Americans who are on holiday in Northern Ireland. They said that, although they love the country and the people, there have been one or two times when they felt that the personal skills of the people helping them have been poor. Will the Minister tell the House whether we will be instigating a campaign, through Tourism Ireland, to improve how we look after tourists?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Howard Hastings, who is the current chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, takes a particular interest in that area. In fact, he has met the Minister for Employment and Learning to talk to him about skills in the hospitality sector. The Member is absolutely right: there is no point in our having a product if we cannot deliver it in a meaningful way in Northern Ireland.

I know of some good exemplars in the hospitality sector, not least those in my constituency. For example, staff at the Lough Erne golf resort are skilled up to deal people when they arrive. I hope that more skills and training can be put into the hospitality sector. Sometimes people are a bit sniffy, if I can put it like that, about that sector in so far as they look at it as the poor relation. However, I have always said that, if we are to make tourism an economic driver in Northern Ireland, we need to work at every single level. I welcome the work that the Department for Employment and Learning has been doing to grow skills in the tourism sector.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

I am somewhat jealous of the Minister’s visit to San Francisco last week. A number of years ago, I worked out of San Francisco for a while on behalf of the then Department of Economic Development.

I am pleased that the Minister raised the issue of the Titanic centenary. Will she describe to the House the importance not only of the Titanic signature project but of other signature projects in the development of tourism? Will she explain how those projects are falling into line with the development of tourism?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. We were in San Francisco primarily on a trade and investment mission. However, we also took the opportunity to hold a Tourism Ireland reception to which all those connected with the tourism sector were invited. At that reception, we had an excellent presentation on the five signature projects that are moving forward, which was the basis on which I made my speech to the reception.

In respect of the Titanic centenary, at the end of September we will be taking part in a new Titanic exhibition in Grand Central station in New York. That will be a very exciting event, because millions of people — I do not have the exact figures in front of me — pass through that station every day. Therefore, the event will give us recognition for the fact that the Titanic was made in Belfast, as opposed to any of the other places that may try to take ownership.

In Northern Ireland, 2012 will be a hugely significant year for tourism, not least because of the Titanic projects. Also, the new visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway will then be finished. We are waiting to hear about Londonderry’s bid for the city of culture, which falls in with the Walled City signature project. Also, let us not forget that investment is still going on apace in the St Patrick/Christian heritage and Mournes signature projects. Having started at different levels, I am pleased to say that all signature projects are now moving ahead and coming along nicely. I am delighted that I can use that offering to sell Northern Ireland when we go to places such as San Francisco.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. What is Tourism Ireland doing to increase the number of tourists that come to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

GB has always been our strongest market for tourists coming to Northern Ireland, not least because of the connection between friends and family. I see that as something that will continue. Unfortunately, however, last year saw a significant drop in numbers because of the downturn and the fact that people were staying in GB rather than coming across to Northern Ireland. Tourism Ireland’s £18 million marketing campaign, which concentrates on GB, Germany and North America, will help put Northern Ireland as a proposition at the top of people’s lists when they are deciding where to go on holiday. I commend Tourism Ireland for the work that it is doing on that marketing campaign and hope that it can make Northern Ireland stand out as it needs to.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. Will Tourism Ireland look directly at marketing Ulster-Scots heritage and culture, particularly over the next couple of weeks during which the Orange festivals will be bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists into Northern Ireland? Will Tourism Ireland be specifically targeting the southern states of the United States of America, where there is significant Ulster-Scots ancestry, through direct promotion and online promotion? I ask that as a junior silver surfer.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Everybody wants to be a silver surfer today.

In relation to the Ulster-Scot campaign or, as it is sometimes known in North America, Irish Scots, Tourism Ireland has carried out direct mailing to people with Scots-Irish names. It found that to be very successful and hopes to build on that in its North American campaigns. Tourism Ireland has a strapline for the Giant’s Causeway:

“Some People Call This the Eighth Wonder of the World. Your Ancestors Called it Home”.

That is a very nice way of getting people interested in Northern Ireland from a historical context.

Also in relation to the historical context, at the NSMC we had a discussion on the 1911 census, the diaspora and trying to get more people to look at their genealogical roots in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I hope that people will take that up. Television programmes such as ‘Who Do You think You Are?’ will encourage people to look into their background, and we hope that tourism in Northern Ireland will benefit from that.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. However, she has perhaps been listening to too much television coverage of the US Open in that she pronounced Mr Graeme McDowell’s name as “Mr McDow-ell”. On the north coast, it is pronounced “McDo’ell”.

I take her point that golf and other sports could add tremendously to the tourism product of Northern Ireland. Therefore, would the Minister work with her colleague the Minister for Regional Development to ensure that the road signage into Portrush indicates clearly that it is the home of US Open champion Graeme McDowell?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Perhaps that is a question for the Minister for Regional Development, who is sitting opposite. I very much welcome the Member’s correction. Obviously, those of us from west of the Bann need correction from time to time on Ulster-Scots pronunciation.

Whether he was a McDow-ell or a McDo’ell, last week I was incredibly proud of him when I was in the United States of America. It was almost a precursor to my arrival in California in that the Northern Ireland Minister for tourism arrived just as Graeme McDowell won the US Open. It was a tremendous occasion for us. I wrote to him — obviously, pronunciation does not come into it when writing to someone, so I am happy enough about that — to tell him that we are so proud of him and because he has put Portrush and north Antrim on the map. I met representatives of Royal Portrush Golf Club before his tremendous victory, and I hope to meet them again to see whether there is more that we can do about golf tourism.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Maybe some golf lessons. We continue to discuss signage. We also continue to discuss the need for golf resorts and golf courses. I recently met my colleague the Minister of the Environment about that because, if we are putting Northern Ireland onto the world golf stage, we need to have the product and to be able to attract those who wish to come and visit the home of the winner of the US Open.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health)

As the Minister is on the issue of Graeme McDowell and golf, would it be possible to extend DETI’s budget to include golf lessons for the Minister so that the next time she goes to the States we could pass her off as Graeme McDowell’s cousin? That would be a major marketing ploy.

I compliment the Minister because whatever she is doing, she is doing it right. I switched on RTÉ the other day, and a panel of hoteliers and tourism people were screaming blue murder that Tourism Ireland was putting all its efforts into supporting the North and doing nothing for Munster. So, obviously something is working.

On a serious note, does the Minister agree that any serious or significant growth in our tourism depends on decent gateways? New gateways really mean airlines and new air routes. The Continental Airlines route that we have to Newark and New Jersey has been extremely successful and was well worth the investment that DETI made some years ago. Can we do a deal with someone to perhaps establish a route into Toronto? If we could get it as far as even Nova Scotia, that would be three quarters of the way, and then we could get connections from Nova Scotia. There are strong Titanic connections in Nova Scotia that we could work on.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I encourage the Member to ask his question.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health)

If we cannot at least get one route to Canada established, could we look at one to Atlanta, the Deep South and the Scots-Irish areas or however we choose to describe them? Ulster Scots is only at home; in the US, they are Scots-Irish. There are a number of opportunities, and we can talk all we like, but, at the end of the day, unless there is an airline —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I must encourage the Member to get to his question.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Member is absolutely correct about that. First, I welcome his support for an increase in DETI’s budget. I will be collecting Members’ views on that in the near future.

We have been in contact with Belfast International Airport and Belfast City Airport about increasing the number of direct flights into Northern Ireland. The Member is absolutely right: it really adds a string to our bow that, when I go to New York, I can talk about the direct connectivity into Northern Ireland through the Newark flight. That has been a tremendous route and a great success for Continental Airlines.

When I was at the Tourism Ireland reception in San Francisco, we were again talking about connectivity, and we noted that there are no flights into the island of Ireland from the west coast of America. That is a real disappointment. People have to go to Chicago and link in to Dublin, or go to New York and then link in to Northern Ireland or link in through London Heathrow. However, we are at an advanced stage of speaking to a Canadian airline about trying to get a flight back into Belfast; it was really disappointing when those two airlines pulled out of Belfast International.

If flights to Canada were reinstated, we would reap the benefit from the increase in tourist numbers. That would, of course, enable people to travel from Northern Ireland to Canada, and we would benefit from tourists making the journey in the opposite direction.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 12:30 pm, 28th June 2010

I thank the Minister for her statement. I suspect that she has answered most of my question through her thorough responses to Members. The Minister is aware of the importance of tourism to the constituency of North Antrim. What has Tourism Ireland done specifically to promote Northern Ireland and all that North Antrim has to offer? What has it done to promote North Antrim’s links to the west of Scotland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

In the North Antrim constituency, the Member is fortunate to have the Giant’s Causeway, which is the principal tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway remains a key selling point for Tourism Ireland when it promotes Northern Ireland.

As I said when talking about golf tourism, we now have a window of opportunity. I will not attempt to pronounce his surname; I will call him Graeme from now on, rather than offend him through mispronunciation. His success provides a small window of opportunity for selling golf tourism in Northern Ireland. Golf is an important part of what North Antrim has to offer.

Golf also features in my answer to the Member’s final point on links with the west of Scotland. The Scottish tourism proposition focuses on golf. We could benefit by creating connectivity between the golf markets in North Antrim and Scotland.