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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