2016 tourism in numbers

With greater recognition and focus on the potential for tourism to help grow the Northern Ireland economy, agendaNi analyses the recently published figures for 2016.

Statistically, the overall tourism figures for 2016 largely resemble the figures for 2015, however, a range of economic and political factors have led to a shift in where visitors to Northern Ireland are coming from and how much is being spent.

While figures for the overall number of trips for Northern Ireland portray a 1 per cent increase between 2015 and 2016, the statistic somewhat masks a changing trend between domestic and external visitors. Where previously, Northern Ireland has been heavily dependent on its domestic market, the number of overall trips defined as domestic fell by 11 per cent across the year but was balanced by a 12 per cent increase in external overnight trips. This shift has been attributed to a number of factors including the value of sterling against foreign currency post-Brexit referendum and initiatives aimed at attracting a broader market to the region.

A drive to help grow the economy of Northern Ireland through tourism, as outlined in the Programme for Government, will have its level of success measured largely on the two key areas of number of overnight trips and the associated expenditure. 


While the number of overall nights has fallen by 2 per cent over the year, largely driven by a 20 per cent reduction in domestic stays and 6 per cent increase in external stays, the level of overall expenditure is up by 11 per cent. Both the domestic (8 per cent) and external (13 per cent) registered increases in this area.

A headline figure from 2015 statistics, highlighting a five year low in the number of overnight visitors coming from the Republic of Ireland, appears to have been reversed and the 0.5 million visitors is a significant uplift from the 2015 figure of 319,870.

Of the 2.1 million overnight trips taken in Northern Ireland by people outside of the island, 91 per cent of Great Britain visitors arrived via Northern Ireland ports, whereas almost two thirds of visitors from outside the UK and Ireland came through the Republic of Ireland’s ports.

Reason for trip

The main two reasons given for those staying overnight in Northern Ireland were for holiday/leisure (2.1 million) and visiting friends/relatives (1.8 million). Since 2011 hotel accommodation occupancy in Northern Ireland has risen steadily in line with the increasing number of overnight trips. From January 2016 to December 2016 there was an estimated 2.02 million rooms sold in comparison to the 1.9 million figure for the same period in 2015. The percentage of hotel rooms occupied last year is estimated to be 70 per cent.


Visitor attractions

Out of the 400 visitor attractions surveyed at the end of December 2016, it is estimated that there were a total of 15 million visits made in 2016. Excluding country parks, the Giants Causeway World Heritage Site was the biggest draw, improving by 11 per cent on the previous year and coming close to the 1 million visitor mark (944,000). Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland’s second most popular attraction in 2016, attracted 667,000 visitors, up 7 per cent from 2015.

Cruise ships

The growing attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a cruise ship destination is reflected in the stark increase from the 32 ships in 2011 to the 93 that docked in 2016. Last year cruise ships brought 152,000 passengers and crew to Northern Ireland. Of the 93 cruise ships that docked, the majority (81) docked in Belfast, five docked in Derry and seven docked in other ports.

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