North/South Ministerial Council: Tourism

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 15th December 2020.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 15th December 2020

I have received notice from the Minister of the Economy that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the social-distancing practices being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do that by rising in their place or by notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally accepted during a statement or in the period for questions afterwards.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in tourism sectoral format. The meeting was held via videoconference on 25 November 2020. I represented the Northern Ireland Executive and was accompanied by Minister Conor Murphy. The Irish Government were represented by Minister Catherine Martin TD, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, who chaired the meeting. The statement has been agreed with Minister Murphy, and I make it on behalf of us both.

Ministers noted the efforts made to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the tourism industry and acknowledged the importance of continued cooperation across both jurisdictions to address the impact of COVID-19 as the sector begins to recover.

Ministers noted the activity undertaken by Tourism Ireland to prepare for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and that the Department for the Economy and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media will continue to support Tourism Ireland in this regard.

The Council received a report from the chairperson of Tourism Ireland on the work of the board since the last NSMC tourism meeting. The report outlined the work of the board in developing, approving and monitoring the business plans for 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 and the corporate plans for 2017-19 and 2020-22. Ministers also noted the progress made in delivering Tourism Ireland’s performance goals from 2016 to February 2020 and its activity during the COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020. The NSMC noted the progress made in developing the COVID-19 recovery planning framework — restart, rebuild, redesign — to support the recovery of the tourism industry.

The Council approved Tourism Ireland’s business plans and budgets grants for 2017, 2018 and 2019, and Tourism Ireland’s 2017-19 corporate plan, which has been agreed by the sponsor Departments and Finance Ministers. Ministers noted that Tourism Ireland’s business plan for 2020, including the budget grant provision, has been completed and submitted to sponsor Departments and will be brought to a future NSMC meeting for approval. The NSMC noted that Tourism Ireland has prepared an addendum to the 2020 business plan to guide its operations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Council noted that the Tourism Ireland 2020-22 corporate plan has been approved at board level but is currently being reviewed in the light of COVID-19. An amended plan will be brought to a future NSMC meeting for approval. The Council noted the annual reports and accounts for the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, which have been laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and both Houses in Dublin.

Ministers noted that, on 17 December 2019, the Tourism Ireland board approved the granting of a general power of attorney as a short-term measure until further board directors were appointed by the NSMC and agreed that that power of attorney was to remain effective until the board meeting on 25 March 2020. The Council noted the continuation of the appointment of the chief executive officer of Tourism Ireland. It also noted recent developments in Tourism Ireland's staffing complement and that officials will take forward discussions on that and report back to a future meeting.

The NSMC agreed that officials from the Department for the Economy and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media will review the existing work programme in the NSMC tourism sector and report back to the next meeting of the Council in that sector.

The Council agreed to meet again in tourism sectoral format in early 2021, on a date to be confirmed. I commend the statement to the Assembly.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. Tourism is a very important sector in the North, and the pandemic has had a particularly hard impact on it. In the couple of months that the sector was able to open during the summer, there was a large increase in all-island tourism. In the light of that, what work is being done, particularly on marketing and the development of experience packages, because, even though we may have a vaccine online, next summer we are likely still to be dependent very much on domestic tourism to compensate for the loss of international visitors?

When do you expect the corporate plan for 2020-22 to be signed off?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Member for her questions. The marketing of Northern Ireland in the Republic of Ireland is, of course, a matter for Tourism Northern Ireland. We will take forward those issues with Tourism Northern Ireland.

You are also absolutely correct in saying that we have seen a 30% increase in visitors from the Republic of Ireland. That has been very important for supporting tourism businesses over what has been an extraordinary period for them. We will continue that marketing with Tourism Northern Ireland and will continue to use the Northern Ireland brand of "Embrace a Giant Spirit" in that market to encourage our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland to come and spend some time with us and support our tourism industry.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. The tourism sector is a vitally important one for us in Northern Ireland. How can we use the centenary year of 2021 to promote Northern Ireland as a tourism destination across the world?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I know that in the House there will be different views on Northern Ireland's centenary, but I think that we can come together and use the 100 years of Northern Ireland to drive forward the new economy of Northern Ireland and not just commemorate, celebrate or whatever way we want to look at those 100 years of Northern Ireland but look forward to the new economy of Northern Ireland. Tourism has an absolutely pivotal part to play in that.

In the next year — vaccine and COVID permitting — we will drive forward our marketing campaigns in GB, because we see there as being a pivotal market and one of the easiest markets for a return to tourism activity. We will drive forward our campaign with Tourism Northern Ireland in the Republic of Ireland and will be working with international tour operators. There is no doubt that Northern Ireland's centenary will play a key role in that marketing.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Tourism is an extremely important sector in Derry and along the coastal route, the Wild Atlantic Way. Is the Minister working with the Irish Government to develop a continuation of the Wild Atlantic Way along the northern coast? The brand is so strong worldwide that we should be locking on to it in order to grow tourism in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP 10:45 am, 15th December 2020

I thank the Member for her question. I agree that tourism is extremely important for the north-west of Northern Ireland; it is hugely important. Just last year, Tourism Northern Ireland launched its own brand for the promotion of Northern Ireland, and that is Embrace a Giant Spirit. We have been going into the GB marketplace with that brand, and Tourism Ireland delivered, in September and October, a very specific campaign in the GB marketplace around the "Embrace a Giant Spirit" brand. That is what we have been using when we have been having our meetings with buyers from outside and other world markets, and that is the brand that we will be using. No doubt, the Wild Atlantic Way is a well-known brand, but the brand for Northern Ireland is Embrace a Giant Spirit.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for your statement. I am aware that, in the past, Tourism Ireland has been accused of over-promoting Dublin Airport. Bearing in mind that the Northern Ireland Executive provide a third of Tourism Ireland's budget, what steps is the Minister taking so that at least our airports will be equally supported in the forthcoming years, as we deal with COVID and Brexit, as Dublin Airport seems to be? That seems to be an underlying, key element in what Tourism Ireland has been doing over the last couple of years.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Of course, Dublin Airport is an important route for international visitors into Northern Ireland, but I believe that we can support and develop our own airports. I have had recent conversations with Belfast International about routes to North America, and I have had conversations with Belfast City about a wider network of routes throughout Europe. In Northern Ireland's centenary year, we would like to explore how we, with our national Government, can support and grow that network of routes for Northern Ireland, and I have already taken up that challenge with Grant Shapps, the Transport Minister.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for your statement this morning. Up to now, EU funds have made a considerable contribution to the whole tourism project, particularly in border counties. What action are you proposing to take to ensure that we maintain comparable amounts of support after Brexit, given the news yesterday from the Finance Minister that he expects the prosperity fund to have a deficit of some £70 million in year 1?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Of course, tourism was not specifically supported under PEACE or INTERREG in the last iteration of those funds, although there were environmental programmes that support the tourism sector. I hope that the wider range of funding will support tourism, particularly in border counties. There is some very important work to be done on, for example, tourism on the waterways. On the Member's wider question, I am in the process of preparing a paper on this for the Executive. Our national Government promised us a like-for-like replacement for European funding. I would like to see that being honoured, and I will do what I can to make sure that it is honoured. Of course, European funding is very important for the Department for the Economy in terms of employability and providing support for social enterprise and those who are far from the labour market, and we need to continue that very important work.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. We are all very much aware of the challenges faced by the tourism sector in 2020. What more can Tourism Ireland do to bring life back to our major tourist attractions such as Titanic Belfast, the Ulster Folk Museum and the Antrim coast and, of course, to get tour buses back up around Stormont to see what goes on?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The Member makes a really important point. I have been working with Tourism Ireland to make sure that Northern Ireland, as a brand and as a destination, is part of its campaigning. I have also been looking at its research on the general tourism area.

Let me share with you some of the conclusions that Tourism Ireland has come to on the research and insights for tourism for the next year. All the research indicates that holidaymakers are still planning and dreaming of taking their next trip away and that that is an important part of people's personal planning for 2021. The most influential parts in that will be the roll-out of the vaccine and driving down COVID transmissions over the next number of months. Summer 2021 is seen as the most opportune time for people to take further breaks. You are absolutely right to say that we need to drive forward that spend in Northern Ireland.

Over the last number of months, a campaign has been rolled out since August, September and very early October, promoting Northern Ireland as a tourism destination in the GB market. We allocated three quarters of a million pounds to that campaign, which was done, as I said, under the "Embrace a Giant Spirit" banner. That ceased in early October because of increases in virus transmissions. That campaign included talking to travel journalists, influencers, having relationships and media partnerships with 'The Guardian', marketing activity in Scotland and social and traditional media marketing. Those are the important things that were carried out, and we will continue to do that work.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. She will be aware that the Narrow Water bridge project is gaining pace. When that project is finally completed, it will act as a major catalyst to economic and tourism growth in the wider south Down area. We need the region to go from one that people pass through to a region that people stay in. That can be achieved through extending Ireland's Ancient East marketing franchise to the north-east counties of Ireland, as opposed to the ambiguous nature of "Embrace a Giant Spirit". I am not even sure what that means.

Will the Minister commit to exploring that with Tourism Ireland and ensure that it will be on the agenda when tourism is discussed at the next NSMC on tourism?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

As someone who comes from south Down but who lives in upper Bann, I know that part of Northern Ireland very well. We need to drive tourism in that area forward, and I look forward to looking at, for example, Kilkeel harbour's plans for expansion as well as the Narrow Water bridge project. Those will drive tourism forward in the area, although real economic development would allow lorries to pass on the bridge, as opposed to the more limited form that it is in. Those are really important issues for south Down.

Tourism Northern Ireland has spent a considerable amount of time using the "Embrace a Giant Spirit" logo to sell Northern Ireland to international destinations. That has been going very well, and that is the logo that we will use for Northern Ireland in the future.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

At least 15 presidents of the United States of America can trace their family back to the province of Ulster. The migration of Ulster Scots down the Shenandoah valley had a huge influence, particularly in shaping the development of country music. How does the Minister's Department intend to tap into not only the huge diaspora that exists in the United States but into the interest in music and the arts as a means of marketing Northern Ireland as a tourism destination?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Member for his question. One of my first jobs in politics was to chair the tourism committee of Belfast City Council when we set up the Belfast-Nashville partnership. I still think that that is a very strong partnership for not just Belfast but wider Northern Ireland, given, as you say, the general interest in music and the historic connections with the area.

The greatest thing that we can do is to increase our connectivity to the area, not just for tourism but for business. One of our greatest FDI partners in Northern Ireland is North America, so I would really like to see connectivity enhanced. That is why I said, in response to Mr Aiken, that those are the things that we would need to explore to take full advantage of for the future, particularly in Northern Ireland's centenary year.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

The importance of all-Ireland tourism has been mentioned, but the importance of all-Ireland tourism to Fermanagh is of the utmost importance. Initiatives such as the Shannon-Erne Waterway have provided a unique opportunity for visitors to travel through Leitrim, Fermanagh and Cavan by boat. Minister, you mentioned the potential of waterways. Have any commitments been made regarding further investment in the Shannon-Erne Waterway as a major tourism initiative, particularly in the linkages between Clones and Upper Lough Erne, which were set out in New Decade, New Approach?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The Member asks a specific question, as well as making a general point. We can cooperate with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland to ensure the exchange of tourists, which is important for the economies of both jurisdictions on this island. I look forward to working to ensure that that happens. As someone who has Fermanagh links, I understand the importance of that to the county. It is hugely important.

We have just completed our first NSMC meeting after I do not know how many years — I think that 2016 was the last NSMC meeting — and those issues will come forward in due course.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, the Irish pub is critical to our international tourist offer on both sides of the border, but because of COVID-19, pubs everywhere, particularly on the island of Ireland, are in terminal crisis. What thought is the Minister giving to a long-term rescue and revitalisation plan for our pub industry? We have to be realistic in the next couple of months, so what is the Minister doing for the long term, with her colleagues in the South, to think about rescuing and revitalising pubs on the island? Furthermore, will she speak to the Communities Minister about licensing reform, including reform of the surrender principle, which could mean that we lose a load of pubs in the coming months if they do not feel able to reopen?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The Member is quite right that licensing is a matter for the Minister for Communities, but that is something that we can look at together.

With regard to the wider pub trade in Northern Ireland, we all know that pubs have been enormously impacted on by COVID-19. As I have said many times in the House, no amount of grants, money or funding that we can provide is enough to sustain them in this repeated round of closures. I am finalising — it should be ready for the Executive on Thursday — the grant that will look at traditional pubs that have been closed, virtually continuously, since March. In the long term, revitalising our tourism and hospitality industries is the way that we will be able to help pubs to sustain themselves.

In 2019 in Northern Ireland, tourism and hospitality contributed about £1 billion to the economy and employed about 70,000 people. That is an enormous contribution to the overall economy, so driving forward tourism will help our hospitality industry to get back on its feet.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, thank you for your statement and some of your answers. I heard your party colleague refer to tourism in a number of places in Northern Ireland. However, he forgot to mention his home county.

Minister, can you inform the House how you intend to market the beauty of the lakes in Fermanagh, especially to get trade that is coming into Belfast to move west into Fermanagh and, further along, to Donegal?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP 11:00 am, 15th December 2020

Fermanagh is indeed a beautiful county and is very important to the tourism industry in Northern Ireland. I was recently down in one of the large sites in Fermanagh overlooking a lake, and it was absolutely beautiful and wonderful to see it in all its glory.

We need to make sure that tourism covers all of Northern Ireland and is not concentrated on just the wider Belfast region or the north coast. We need to do two different things. It is about driving the product and the destination of tourism. We will always associate Fermanagh with the fishing, the waterways, the golf and the wonderful hospitality. In my home town of Banbridge in Upper Bann, we will offer a new tourism product next year with the opening of the 'Game of Thrones' exhibition and tour, which will be world-renowned. We need to develop product in the different regions and then try to maximise our audience with our promotional activity.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, I noted in the press yesterday that the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media in the South, Catherine Martin, responded positively when asked by a TD if she would consider extending an invitation to Ireland to the organisers of the Tour de France. Minister, I hope that you will be aware that I submitted a question for written answer on 15 October — nine weeks ago — which I resubmitted on 2 November, asking whether, given the success of the Giro d'Italia Grande Partenza in 2014, you would work with your ministerial counterpart in the South, Catherine Martin, whom you met at this meeting, to put together a bid to bring the Tour de France to Ireland, in particular to my constituency along the north coast and the glens of Antrim. Minister, given that major events have the potential to drive participation in sport and contribute to trade, tourism, business, community pride, community engagement and economic growth, will you give a commitment that you will look at the issue and work towards bringing the Tour de France back to Ireland?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

There are a number of initiatives around at the moment. There is an initiative around a five-nations approach to the soccer and rugby World Cups. As you rightly said, we had an enormously successful time with the Giro d'Italia in Northern Ireland, and we have had contact with it again. We would be happy to look at whatever is proposed in relation to the Tour de France. These are enormous, world-renowned events that have a lasting impact. We need to take events tourism forward. We had an enormously successful Irish Open golf tournament at Galgorm in Ballymena, in September, and I look forward to engaging with the Royal and Ancient with a view to bringing the tournament back to Northern Ireland. Events tourism is hugely important. However, to strike a note of reality for the House, events tourism requires huge financial support. We would have to work as a whole Executive to ensure that the financial support is there to help to encourage events tourism.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I return to the question of the centenary. Unfortunately, much of the promotion has to rely on Tourism Ireland by virtue of the subordination of Tourism NI. Why, then, is there no mention in the statement of discussions about the centenary? In checking what the board of Tourism Ireland's attitude might be to such matters, I ask why the board minutes do not appear on its website.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The Member makes an excellent point and one that I have made to Tourism Ireland. That is why I am still waiting for the revised plans.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)