The Downside of Success – Coping with our increasing tourist numbers…

Over the past number of years, Northern Ireland’s tourism industry has maintained a steady growth and our visitor attractions have continued to become more popular than ever. These high levels of tourism are a relatively new phenomenon for the region and perhaps not one we have yet learnt how to deal with properly. In 2017 there were an estimated 4.9 million overnight trips in Northern Ireland, the highest estimates on record. Many of our most popular visitor attractions are purpose-built to accommodate large numbers of people, such as the Titanic Centre, however some are not. For example our most popular visitor attraction, the Giant’s Causeway, saw over one million people pass through in 2017, a near doubling of visitor numbers since 2011 when 533K people went to see the volcanic rock formation. The nearby Carick-a-Rede Rope Bridge saw a similar growth in popularity in the same time period with 243K visitors in 2011 jumping to 424k visitors 2017.

The tourism statistics have, on one hand, been correctly identified as a success, demonstrating increased affluence among the people of Northern Ireland who now have money to spend on more internal trips, as well as a more positive global image of Northern Ireland, attracting more visitors from abroad. There is however a downside for our increasingly popular natural and historical heritage sites such as the Causeway or Carick-a-Rede. The footfall has potential to cause permanent damage to these sites, and yet the organisations responsible for the running of these attractions, including their conservation, maintain an attitude more appropriate for a Northern Ireland of the past where they would be grateful to receive any and all visitors. Currently, active effort is put into attracting visitors, but if the trend continues and more people keep coming the organisations will have to start limiting numbers, or else risk jeopardising their main responsibility of conservation.

The increased visitor numbers has also led to congestion along the causeway coastal route, which has narrow roads that were not built to accommodate heavy traffic and large tour busses. One particular area which has now been made unsafe by the traffic is the narrow country road that leads down to Ballintoy Harbour where the sign which prohibits buses is routinely ignored. The tour buses that travel this route are often filled with tourists who have come off cruise ships arriving in Northern Ireland. The number of these ships visiting our shores has increased dramatically in the last seven years. In 2011, 32 cruise ships docked in Northern Ireland with up to 58,000 passengers and crew on board. In 2017, there were over three times the number of ships (112) with up to 168,100 passengers and crew on board. Of these ships, 93 docked in Belfast, 9 in Derry/Londonderry and 10 in other ports. Cruise ships are famous worldwide for bringing large crowds who spend little money while on shore, thus not contributing to the economy as much as a traditional tourist. This kind of tourism can be very disruptive to the local population of an area without bringing any of the usual benefits. In countries that have experienced large increases in the number of visiting cruise ships, far greater than that of Northern Ireland, such as Croatia and Italy, there were widespread public protests in 2017 to show the locals’ objection to the impact of this kind of tourism.

So if the organisations associated with the Northern Ireland tourism industry are now to get into the business of limiting numbers or at least adapting to the larger numbers, where is a good place to start? While a large numbers of tourists is new to Northern Ireland due to our political situation, other places have been dealing with this for much longer and have come up with their own solutions. In the South of Ireland, large visitor numbers to Newgrange began to damage the site in the 1980s. Since then a visitor centre has been built which visitors must go to, to purchase a ticket (of which there are a limited number) and then they must make use of the shuttle bus service to Newgrange which is on the other side of the river Boyne from the centre. These small obstacles along with the extensive amenities available at the visitor centre, including replicas, have been effective at reducing numbers to the actual historic site. In 2011 there were 228K visitors to the visitor centre, of which only 133K went to Newgrange. A more extreme example of limiting visitor numbers in the name of conservation can be found at the 17,000 year old Lascaux Cave Paintings in France which used to be open to the public but are now entirely closed off to preserve the ancient artwork; instead tourists can view a replica in a visitor centre. This example does however beg the question what is the point of conserving something if nobody ever gets to experience it?

At the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge you are already required to buy a ticket and ticket numbers are limited so the infrastructure is already in place to dial down visitor numbers either by increasing the price or further limiting the number of tickets available. It is difficult to imagine however how a visitor centre, of which there currently isn’t one, would ever be able to substitute for the experience of crossing the rope bridge, thus limiting ticket numbers would probably leave many people disappointed. At the Giant’s Causeway, while many visitors do pay for tickets to go into the visitor centre, these tickets are not necessary to access the Causeway itself, which can be accessed by different routes and there are no current means of limiting the numbers of these visitors. It is unclear if the National Trust would ever be able to put in place a ticketing system at the Causeway as when the Trust placed signs at the causeway suggesting that access was granted with their “permission” it caused a number of complaints to the Causeway Coast and Glens Council who subsequently passed a motion to “protect all public right of way” in the borough and to declare the signs “misleading”.

This is a new problem that faces Northern Ireland and it is a problem that has arisen out of our success. For that reason it is a problem that many probably thought would never come. In facing this problem we must hope that the custodians of our natural and historical heritage sites act with the conservation of those sites as their main focus but that people will still be able to visit and enjoy the attractions that our country has to offer.