Belfast has seen significant development over the past number of years, with the reopening of the Ulster Museum and the Lyric Theatre; the opening of the MAC, Belfast’s new arts centre; developments at Belfast zoo; and, of course, Titanic Belfast. Those examples and many more provide a wide range of attractions for tourists to see in Belfast, which is now listed in Fodor’s travel guide as one of the top visitor destinations. There are further plans to develop a conference and exhibition centre to add to the product on offer and attract the lucrative business tourism market. All of that is testament to the good working relationships between the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, the city council and Tourism Ireland to ensure that Belfast continues to grow as a tourism destination, with an increase in visitor numbers and revenue.
I thank the Minister for her answer. I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Does the Minister agree with me that the way forward for tourism in Belfast, which has grown exponentially over the past number of years, is to continue with the collaborative approach between the Tourist Board, the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, Belfast City Council and her Department?
I thank the Member for his question. I was in City Hall just yesterday with my good friend and party colleague, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson, at the official launch of Super-connected Belfast, at which I was more than happy to demonstrate my support for the super-connected city project for Belfast, which will bring the new digital connected programme. Belfast is one of 10 cities bidding for money through that programme, and I am very hopeful that it will get the maximum amount available, because of the fact that it is working collaboratively with Departments, other agencies and the business community.
One of the best examples of partnership working has been shown to be Titanic Belfast. All the agencies worked together to deliver the signature project on time and on budget, and I am delighted to tell the House that I understand that visitor numbers are in excess of 200,000. All involved are absolutely delighted at the number of visitors to date. You may recall that the annual visitor target is 425,000, so we have almost reached the halfway mark, and the signature project has been open for just over two months. It is an absolutely brilliant piece of work by all concerned, and we are very pleased with the way in which it is going.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her update thus far, and I take the opportunity to commend all those involved in increasing the visitor numbers to Belfast.
Political tourism attracts a lot of people to parts of my constituency, including the Falls and the Shankill, and it has a positive impact on people coming here. Can the Minister outline today, in writing if she has not got the answer with her, whether there is a strategy that her Department, Tourism Ireland, the Tourist Board or Belfast City Council has to further enhance visitor numbers coming here to take part in political tourism?
There is always a discussion over whether we should look to the past or the future in Northern Ireland. I know that very many visitors who come to Belfast want to look at our past, and many of them will take a black taxi tour to different areas of the city. That is very good, but we want to mix that with the future Belfast as well, and that is what we are trying to do through all the new developments that I mentioned, whether it is the MAC, the Lyric Theatre or Titanic Belfast.
I think that there is a cultural offering that is unique to Belfast. We should not shy away from that. I have always said that, if we want visitors to come to Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland, we must be authentic in what we do, and, therefore, we have to face up to our past. I hope that we can do that in a mature way, so that, when people visit us, they get the factual context of what happened in Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I hope the Minister will accept that the cultural offering is not exclusive to Belfast. Given her roots and background, will the Minister assure us that areas beyond Belfast will not be forgotten about in the promotion of tourism and its values?
I assure the Member that the whole of Northern Ireland is very much on my agenda. He will know that from the number of visits that I make right across Northern Ireland. Of course, cultural activities will take place right across Northern Ireland, particularly on 12 July. I know that the city of Londonderry is looking forward to its year of culture next year as well. Of course the rest of Northern Ireland beyond Belfast benefits from tourism, but we must realise that Belfast is our capital city, and, if people come here for short breaks, they tend to come just to Belfast. Our challenge is to signpost those visitors to attractions right across Northern Ireland, so that, when they return, they can go to all the other places that we want them to visit.
Whereas there have been many good news stories on tourism, can the Minister explain how we have reached the situation where there is a threat to remove HMS Caroline from Belfast to Portsmouth? Can she assure the House that all that needs to be done will be done to retain that vessel, which itself has immense tourism potential?
Not only has it immense tourism potential, it has immense historical and cultural significance for Northern Ireland, as it is the last battleship that served in the First World War and at the battle of Jutland. HMS Caroline has been berthed in Belfast since 1924 but was only decommissioned from the Ministry of Defence in March last year. Since then, despite the fact that the responsibility does not all fall to me as tourism Minister, I have taken up the case. I commissioned a business case in August last year. I have only recently received that business case, and I hope to meet the Minister of State for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey in the very near future to discuss HMS Caroline.
Of course we want to keep HMS Caroline in Belfast. I believe that the solution is a partnership with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which owns the ship, so that we can keep it here in Belfast. It would cost a huge amount of money to take Caroline to Portsmouth. Would it not be much better to see her preserved here in Belfast? Therefore, I have no difficulty in assuring the Member that I will do everything in my power to find a workable and sustainable solution to keeping Caroline here in Belfast.