For what is Northern Ireland going to be known in 2013?

Our Time Our Place logoAs NI2012 Our Place Our Time comes to a halt, does Northern Ireland Tourist Board have a fight on its hands to maintain this year’s impetus? Competition comes from Tourism Ireland’s The Gathering (which Tourism Minister Arlene Foster made no mention of in her party conference speech at the weekend) not to mention VisitScotland’s three month Winter Festivals promotion.

The Gathering 2013 logoOn top of a series of high profile events, The Gathering’s website has a call to action, encouraging Irish families and groups to create their own gatherings and see them plotted on a map of Ireland. If momentum builds, it is a simple concept that could last all through 2013. Yet unionist politicians shy away from grabbing onto the coat tails of this all-island branding. Surely this is not the kind of economic climate in which anyone can afford to be precious about political geography terminology and

Scotland Winter FestivalHaving sold Scotland over the summer on the back of Pizar’s animated film Brave, VisitScotland are back with a new campaign fusing St Andrew’s Day, Christmas, Hogmany and Burns Night into a three month surge of Winter Festivals tourism promotion, throwing Christmas Markets [we’ve one of those outside the City Hall], reindeer [Streamvale Farm in the east of the city have those too], a Glasgow ice rink, trad music, a storytelling festival, free tickets, not to mention Burns galore towards the end of January. And there’s even a mobile app.

PS: If you’re in Scotland tomorrow, you can turn up at Edinburgh Castle, St Andrews Cathedral and many other places and get in for free. And if you preregister on a website, you can get free access to forty Historic Scotland attractions across Scotland this weekend (1/2 December).

The reputation of Titanic Belfast and the new Giants Causeway visitor centre are steadily growing, but the buzz around their opening will continue to ebb over time. Yesterday’s much-questioned figures from the NI Statistics and Research Agency suggested that the number of overseas tourists staying at least one night in NI (between January and September) had decreased by 12% between 2011 and 2012, and hotel occupancy was down 11%.

Locally, the sustaining tourism agenda of 2013 must be all about Derry~Londonderry City of Culture.

The New York Times recently published an article in their Travel section about the city. With a blizzard of events – and a mixture of world class showcases and local fayre – planned throughout the year, the north west is likely to (deservedly) dominate the lion’s share of world-wide promotion and reporting in 2013.

But will there be a portfolio of significant – yet secondary – events and themes to entice non-artsy tourists to jump on a plane and inject their cash in the failing veins of the local economy?

TV reporters covering the G8 summit may “put Northern Ireland firmly in the global spotlight once again” but the focus will be very much on the global political agenda and only tangentially on the beauty of County Fermanagh. Getting a handful of world leaders trapped on a ride in Titanic Belfast might be one way to test the “all publicity is good publicity” mantra!

World Police and Fire Games 2013The World Police and Fire Games attracts 10,000 entrants, but NI will have to rely on those athletes and their families to become ambassadors for their host nation rather than depending on significant media coverage. Mere tweets from athletes saying “Belfast is cool” are unlikely to drive a surge of bookings in 2014? Maybe we should hang a huge “Hello and Welcome” sign from a Harland and Wolff crane, or an enormous projection screen to highlight results and see if it goes viral?

Both the G8 summit and World Police and Fire Games will be good for hotel occupancy rates, bus companies and local security firms. But how much will they really contribute to year-on-year growth of visitor numbers?

The 50th anniversary of CS Lewis death will be marked in a low key manner: the Belfast Telegraph suggests that Libraries NI and Linen Hall Library are planning events. Unless I’ve vastly underestimated the pulling power of ‘Troubles tourism’, the decade of big dates is unlikely to overwhelm local B&Bs with visitors wishing to mark the foundation of the Ulster Volunteer Force! Out to Lunch is a great festival that cheers up every January in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, but it’s pretty small beer …

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing any of the local tourist initiatives. But this time next year, what will NI be remembered for? The Gathering and Scotland’s campaigns are building on a firmer base.

Keeping Northern Ireland’s tourism currency looking positive and appealing across the world may be more down to keeping a lid on the security situation and fostering political leadership and stability than any amount of good programmes, Ulster Fries and warm welcomes.

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  • GavBelfast

    The 20th Anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration and, therefore, more “Peace Processing” talk?

  • boondock

    Flags and parades just like every other year!

  • I would normally dismiss it as Optics but I think both the Gathering and Scottish initiatives might have some impact here. City of Culture will have a limited local impact.
    Incidently are those 2012 lapel badges on sale (or better still free) anywhere?

  • iluvni

    Never mind more nonsense like OurTimeOurPlace, they’d be better off ensuring flying to and from Northern Ireland isnt subject to expensive APD.
    Flights are too dear, simple as that.

  • “Yet unionist politicians shy away from grabbing onto the coat tails of this all-island branding.”

    Have you not been paying attention, Alan? 😉 If you look at the figures on the map you’ll see that the addition of ‘the wee six’ was a belated one. As I pointed out the other day on Slugger, the Giants Causeway is still not mentioned in the list of World Heritage Sites. According to the Assembly debate, DETI had one day’s notice of The Gathering announcement. The Gathering could and should have been a joint venture, not a Dublin solo run.

  • grandimarkey


    I was under the impression that the DUP were against associating the North with The Gathering as they saw it as misty-eyed, green and too ‘Irish’? I could be making this up but I’m sure I heard that many moons ago.

    A wasted opportunity if you ask me, I think OTOP has been farcical…

  • Nevin – But short notice is no reason to take the hump with an idea. It’s now been a long time since it was first announced and since the Notre Dame match, plenty of time to overcome the 26 county-natured aspect of a marketing plan that could get the diaspora to take in all corners of the island when they’ve made such an effort to travel here!

  • Not just one day’s notice but, as you can see from the website, deliberate exclusion, Alan. Also, as I’ve noted on NALIL blog, the Tourism Ireland website isn’t designed with the visitor in mind. My Seattle relatives would have to look elsewhere if they wished to travel here via London.

    I suggested the idea of GenTourism to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board many many years ago – I didn’t even get a reply. Fortunately our distant kith and kin weren’t so easily put off by parochial attitudes in Belfast and Dublin.

    Modern media has also greatly facilitated global communication.

  • Neil

    I’m nearly certain there are 3 tourist boards Nevin. One for Ireland (N), one for Ireland (S) and one for Ireland (island). Which may explain why some mention the Causeway and some not.

  • Red Lion

    unionist groupings seriously want to be getting involved – it is an ideal opportunity for the Ulster-Scots/ScotchIrish to market their unique distinctiveness and heritage…not to mention make a few quid on the Ards Peninsula etc

  • Neil, Tourism Ireland is a private company, funded by Dublin and Belfast, which promotes the island overseas. It’s not clear whether or not Arlene Foster was invited to the launch of TI’s 2013 marketing plans.

  • Neil

    And as you say the Gathering event is a Failte Ireland thing. That aside I have not interest in Tourism, as a percentage of GDP tourism makes up a tiny part of an economy. The most successful country on Earth tourism wise is Australia earning 1.5% roughly. Of course they have stuff we don’t, like weather. And attractions. And not being a (reputedly) backward shithole where Catholics and Protestants hate each other, and who have a funny attitude towards homosexuality, religion, global warming, and who get good press inches for attacking immigrants.

    So we won’t get Australia’s huge 1.5% of GDP success, because there’s nothing to do and the weather’s shit.

  • “The Gathering’s website has a call to action”

    The ‘Ireland’ it’s talking about is not the island but the southern state. Just look at the map on the linked website. The corresponding site is equally parochial. Despite the joint branding through Tourism Ireland the respective tourism bodies are very definitely competitors.

    I’m sure some people come to NI via RoI 😉 :

    Getting to Northern Ireland

    Northern Ireland is easy to get to and it’s compactness means it is easy to get around. Three main airports service frequent, scheduled flights from the UK, Europe, USA and beyond and several a smaller airports and private venues are capable of handling charter flights, private jets and helicopter transfers.

    Excellent fast ferry links to England and Scotland, good roads and trains connections to major centres will take you where you want to go with minimum fuss….

    and vice-versa.

    You’d think they’d never heard of The Agreement 🙂

  • Seimi

    Derry is hosting the Fleadh Ceoil in 2013 as well…

  • My apologies, grandimarkey, I failed to spot your comment. The Gathering was no more and no less what you might have expected from a Dublin-sponsored (but partly all-island paid for) event; ditto the DUP and probably over Unionist reaction. I feel it was just a bit unfair to kick the DUP when the main culprit, in this instance, was Dublin hi-jacking not just the Ireland brand but also excluding Northern Ireland from the very notion of Irishness.

    I set aside by narrow parochialism of the Kingdom of Moyle (briefly) and looked at the event through the eyes of the Diaspora and potential visitors. A joint Dublin-Belfast venture would have been about orange and green and red; bodhran and lambeg; shamrock, leek, rose and thistle; and all kinds of everything associated with the island.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    This is how any all-Ireland tourist comms should be – playing up the diversity of the island and ability to experience starkly different landscapes and cultures within a small space (just taking Greater Belfast and environs as one area to experience it). But though the people who decide in Dublin have come on a bit in recent years in their ability to see NI as it really is, I think we’re still some way off an actual positive embracing of the British aspects of culture and life on the island in the way it’s sold to tourists. By which I’m not referring to flag-waving Orange stuff so much as just making more of our castles, Victorian buildings, parks, museums, monuments etc – there’s actually loads there and it doesn’t all fit nicely into the dreamy Ireland / craic / mistiness stuff.

    But actually I think we are missing a trick still with golf (3 major winners and the world No1?! Really we need to be cashing in big time NOW and I don’t see it happening) and other sports tourism – has anyone packaged and marketed trips to see big Gaelic matches for tourists, or experience a ‘Bel Classico’ … ? Growing market for that kind of thing. Even with Irish league football, mundane perhaps to us, but most English football fans I know are fascinated by our football clubs and seem to see it as a bit what football used to be like before Sky over here. disappointed when they go, but still …

  • MU, the NW200 motor-bike race and the Cradle of Presbyterianism is flagged up on the Gathering 2013 webmap. I wonder would the folks in Dublin acquisce to the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland flagging up its parades 😉

  • For what is Northern Ireland going to be known in 2013? Even worse weather, some riot or other (probably uncomfortably near where I live) and a new series of The Estate.

  • willchamberlain

    Not sure I agree with your analysis on this one Alan. I think the Gathering will fail to capture the imagination. the rumblings I am hearing are that the cultural sector and media are already heartily bored with this bland concept which is all pervading. As for NI, I think that we will have to rely on the incredibly lively and vibrant cultural scene to drive visitors for years to come – and they will come. My view is that the media will always obsess with every minor deviance from the path of peace – just ask any friends you have from EU to discover that the smallest problem is blown out of all proportion. I think that many visitors to NI are attracted through word of mouth and personal social media. I know that I am biased because I am part of the cultural provision, but I genuinely believe that what we deliver in NI is a worthy attraction for visitors from around the world – particularly the more interesting bits. Check out other cities the size of Belfast in UK and EU – there is nowhere near the quality and quantity of cultural provision. Plus we have the people, the sense of humour and the craic, which people talk about once they return home. I reckon we will do alright through word of mouth.

  • Greenflag

    ‘but I genuinely believe that what we deliver in NI is a worthy attraction for visitors from around the world ‘

    True visitors love to see flag burning and riots 🙁

    Check out other cities the size of Belfast in UK and EU – there is nowhere near the quality and quantity of cultural provision.

    Or the amount of flag burning and rioting.

    Plus we have the people, the sense of humour and the craic, which people talk about once they return home. I reckon we will do alright through word of mouth.

    Never mind word of mouth -Think 20th century TV screens and 21 st century youtube videos and twitter etc .

    Lets wish that the ‘riotous ‘ events of the waning days of 2012 are not regurgitated come summer 2013 .

  • Greenflag

    @ Nevin 30 November 2012 at 2:02 pm

    ‘and all kinds of everything associated with the island.’

    ?- After last night’s riotous events in Belfast perhaps NOT everything 🙁