Dark Hedges

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 26th September 2016.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 2:45 pm, 26th September 2016

2. Mr Storey asked the Minister for the Economy for his assessment of the impact the Dark Hedges have had on tourism. (AQO 310/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I fully recognise the importance of the Dark Hedges as a tourist destination. They are a tremendous tourism asset, not just for the local area but for Northern Ireland as a whole.

When the Dark Hedges were featured at the start of season 2 of 'Game of Thrones', they immediately captured the imagination of viewers. There was an instant impact at the Dark Hedges, with a huge increase in the volume of visitors from all over the world. Subsequently, they have become an iconic image not just of the series but of Northern Ireland.

'Game of Thrones' has just broken the record for the highest number of Emmy awards won by any fictional series. It is, quite simply, the biggest TV show in the world. It is broadcast in 199 territories, which offers a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland to position itself internationally and promote our destination to a global audience. With at least two more seasons to be filmed, the audience will continue to grow, as will the demand to visit film locations in Northern Ireland.

The show has been a catalyst for business growth, with Northern Ireland Screen estimating the economic value of 'Game of Thrones' production to Northern Ireland as £148 million to date. Tourism NI is building on that success and has been working closely with the industry to develop new and innovative 'Game of Thrones' visitor experiences and marketing campaigns. Most recently, the Dark Hedges featured prominently in Tourism NI's collaborative marketing campaign with Tourism Ireland celebrating season 6 of 'Game of Thrones'. The videos associated with that campaign resulted in over 1·2 million social media engagements.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. I declare an interest as the chair of the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust. Given the strategic place that it has in tourism in the north Antrim area, will the Minister welcome the fact that the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council has taken a very proactive role? I thank the Minister for his help in ensuring that Tourism NI was present at a recent meeting with the council. That will allow us to build on the success and deal with the challenges. The Minister will be aware that there are particular issues in relation to preserving the site, ensuring that locals have adequate and appropriate access, and having a system in place that manages the many hundreds, indeed thousands, of people who come to the Dark Hedges on a very regular basis.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I also want to thank him and the other members of the trust for their ongoing work in seeking to preserve the beauty that is the Dark Hedges. I visited them for the first time this summer, and they are absolutely spectacular. You can see why they are such an attraction and why the show wanted to use them, but they are clearly under pressure. I am aware that, by visiting them, I was also putting them under pressure. There were a huge number of people there that day.

A lot of work has been done to try to preserve the beauty of the Dark Hedges, and the preservation trust has been to the fore in that respect. If we are to use them to attract people to Northern Ireland, we will have to preserve them for future generations. I know that there have been tree preservation orders in place since 2004, although there have still been difficulties in preserving trees. It is interesting that we were able to use the bad news of some of the trees falling for good by creating the doors that have been located around different parts of Northern Ireland and have themselves become a bit of a tourist attraction.

It is not my area of responsibility, but I know that Transport NI is looking at a number of traffic management proposals that I think will be incredibly important. It is my intention for Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland to continue to promote the Dark Hedges through 'Game of Thrones' and use it to our advantage. Continuing to build on what we did with season 6, we now have apps in place that identify the Dark Hedges and other filming locations that are publicly accessible. As the Member knows, NI Screen has been working with the council to put interpretative panels in place, and the Dark Hedges feature in all Tourism Northern Ireland's marketing information about the Causeway coastal route. If we are to continue to do that, we will have to ensure that they are preserved: that they are still accessible, but preserved and there for future generations to enjoy.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Minister is allowed up to two minutes. He does not necessarily have to take the two minutes.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

As the Minister indicated, the Dark Hedges have been put on the world map because of 'Game of Thrones'. I would not necessarily have taken Mr Storey as a fan.

[Laughter.]

Given that there are only two series left, is the Minister confident that the film and creative industries are sustainable enough to outlive the series, so that the production companies will keep coming back to locations in north Antrim, Dalriada or west Antrim?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP 3:00 pm, 26th September 2016

That is the local press statement drafted for this week. I think we can focus, as did Mr Storey in his question, on promoting the Dark Hedges in the short term. We are very fortunate to have secured the sixth series. There are at least two more, and who knows what the future holds with 'Game of Thrones'? Northern Ireland has benefited from it through the promotion of certain places, whether it is the Dark Hedges, Castle Ward or wherever it might be. A lot of areas have reaped the benefit. I was in Ballintoy harbour, which is in the Member's constituency, over the summer. Again, that is a hidden gem in Northern Ireland. It was probably not visited that much in advance of the series, but now huge numbers go there. I think there are about 20 'Game of Thrones' tour experiences in Northern Ireland, and they employ people and provide a service for visitors.

Perhaps the best and most important legacy is that for our film, television and creative industries in Northern Ireland. We have studios in the Titanic area that are full, we have new studios developing on the other side of the lough in Giant's Park and there are studios in Banbridge. There are opportunities for Northern Ireland to be used for filming locations for many years to come. Over the weekend, I was looking at statistics from the National Association of Theatre Owners in the States that show the huge increase in the number of films being made and released in the United States alone. Whenever you look at the big studios in London that are full and see that studios are looking for capacity to make films, you see that Northern Ireland is very well positioned for the future thanks to the expertise we have developed through filming 'Game of Thrones' in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far and for his praise of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, of which I was until recently a member. The Minister placed importance on the Dark Hedges as an environmental and tourist attraction. How does he envisage their long-term management, given the cross-cutting nature of his Department, other Departments, the local heritage trust, tree preservation bodies and the council? Who does he envisage taking the lead in their future management?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I will be honest: we have yet to give specific thought to how that might be done. Obviously, there are a lot of actors involved — excuse the pun — including the preservation trust, the council, Tourism NI and local stakeholders. That is part of the conversation Mr Storey alluded to, which has already started to take place on the ground about the Dark Hedges.

Our first priority has to be preserving the Dark Hedges. There is a temptation, to be completely honest, perhaps, on our side — on the tourism side of things — just to market this and not necessarily to think about the environmental impact. That is incredibly important to me. As I said before, there is nothing to market if they are not there. We have to look after them first and foremost. That is where we would look to the preservation trust to lead on that and show us the best way forward in preserving the asset as an asset. From a tourism perspective we are then very happy to step in.

There is much more we can do at the Dark Hedges. I know that the hotel and the resort beside them are developing further and see huge opportunities; in fact, I think they are rebranding to call themselves the Dark Hedges resort. There are huge opportunities, and we will work very closely with them to do that. I look to colleagues in the Environment Agency and Transport NI to ensure that we can preserve the asset first and foremost. Then it is very much over to us in combination with the council and the preservation trust to ensure that the asset is marketed in a way that not only benefits everybody but is sympathetic.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

As the Minister recognises, the Dark Hedges have been a victim of their own success. Is it not rather neglectful that, in looking after them and exploiting them to the maximum degree compatible with their future, there is no structured management arrangement, given that there are so many cross-cutting departmental and council interests? I was rather surprised by an answer six months ago or so from the Department saying that there were no structures, for example, in place between the preservation trust and Departments such as the Minister's. Is it not imperative that there is more structure brought to this? Many local residents have their own concerns. There are issues about access and Transport NI issues, yet there is the capacity, because of the lack of structure, to pass the buck. Is it not time that there was a more structured input?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I agree with the Member: it has, in many respects, been a victim of its own success. If a range of organisations, including my Department and Tourism NI, were, perhaps, caught out, it was because nobody could have foreseen how big a success it would be. I am sure that the Member is a huge fan of the show and binges on box sets all the time.

[Laughter.]

I do not want to spoil it for anybody, but, as the Member will know, it appears on the show for only about 10 seconds. I will not give any spoilers about who dies, but most of them do. It appears for only a brief moment, but, out of that, we have the success of the number of people visiting. Part of the pressure comes from a large number of tour buses going up and down a road that was not designed for them.

The council is very much taking a lead in trying to bring people together, and the preservation trust is important to that. Conversations, as Mr Storey intimated, have already started about what we may do in the future, first and foremost, as I said in response to Mr McGuigan, to preserve the Dark Hedges — that is the most important thing that we can do — and, beyond that, what we can do to market and promote the Dark Hedges in a way that does not jeopardise them or ruin what is a fantastic asset to the area. It is wonderfully spectacular and attracts people from far and wide to Northern Ireland.