Overseas tourist numbers up


Tourism in Northern Ireland recorded an overall rise in visitors and expenditure last year. Record numbers visited from outside of Ireland but visitors from the Republic and domestic overnight stays continued to fall in the year 2014 to 2015. 

A Tourism Ireland task force has been established to review figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency which represent an 18 per cent fall and three year decline in the number of overnight tourists from the Republic of Ireland.

Despite the review of 2015 annual tourism statistics being broadly positive, there are concerns that the strength of sterling and the legacy of the Troubles are having a lasting impact on Northern Ireland’s ability to entice tourists from the Republic of Ireland.

The 319,870 overnight visitors to Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland last year represent a five-year low from 2011 when the figure was 370,310 and a significant U-turn in figures from 2012 when 430,140 visitors travelled north.

In fact, just 7 per cent of visitors to Northern Ireland originated their visit from the Republic, compared to 15 per cent from outside the UK and Ireland, 29 per cent from Great Britain and just under half (49 per cent) were made by local residents on domestic trips.

The number of domestic trips also slumped by 104,000 in the last year, a 4 per cent drop from figures recorded in 2014. However, the drop in domestic and Republic of Ireland visitors was offset against record numbers of visitors from outside of the island of Ireland and the 2.3 million external visitors last year represent a 5 per cent increase from 2014.

While residents from GB accounted for an extra 121,000 visitors to Northern Ireland this year, visitors from mainland Europe have been credited for most of the increase in expenditure. Overall expenditure is only up 1 per cent but the 8 per cent fall in domestic tourism expenditure is offset by a 5 per cent rise in external spend, where associated expenditure rose from £514 million to £541 million last year.

The attraction of Game of Thrones filming in Northern Ireland, the hosting of the Irish Open in May, the opening stages of the Tall Ships race and a new visitor attraction at the Gobbins have all been credited with rising tourist numbers from outside Ireland, while, the strength of sterling (up 15 per cent on the Euro) and the climate have also been highlighted as influential factors.


The latest United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) World Tourism Barometer shows that while Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom both saw a 5 per cent increase in external overnight trips in 2015, the Republic of Ireland recorded a 13 per cent increase, attracting eight million external visitors compared to two million in Northern Ireland. Almost half of those visiting Northern Ireland (49 per cent) from an external country gave their reason for doing so as visiting family and friends, a holiday was the second most popular reason (30 per cent). In comparison the Republic of Ireland’s biggest attraction was for external visitors to holiday, while visiting family and friends was the second biggest attraction (28 per cent). The proportion of business visitors to Northern Ireland was similar to levels in the Republic of Ireland, but represented a 23 per cent increase from the previous year.

Speaking as the 2015 Annual Tourism Statistics Report was published, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said that the combined numbers for external and domestic tourism had exceeded expectations set out for 2020.

“Our combined visitor numbers for external and domestic continue at the record level of 4.5 million – our original target for 2020. This is very positive and points to continued overall growth in local tourism, a sector which is becoming an increasingly important driver for the Northern Ireland economy,” he said.

Welcoming the 23 per cent increase in business visitors, he added: “This is particularly important as business visitors generally spend more than holiday visitors. This augurs well for the future of business tourism which will be boosted by the newly opened conference facilities at the Waterfront Hall.”

Last year there were 1.9 million hotel rooms sold across Northern Ireland, an increase from the 1.85 million room nights sold in 2014. Average room occupancy was also up 2 per cent from 65 per cent in 2014. Guesthouses and Bed & Breakfasts were judged to have an average room occupancy of 27 per cent, while self-catering unit occupancy for 2015 was 36 per cent, up by 3 per cent in 2014.

It is hoped that the rise in external tourism will boost the number of jobs in tourism related industries, which had a 3 per cent increase between 2011 and 2013, the most recent Northern Ireland Census of Employment figures.

“Tourism is now recognised as a key economic driver for Northern Ireland. The potential for growth is huge. The industry represents 5.2 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product and supports 5.4 per cent of jobs in the total workforce, providing opportunities across all skill levels and all local council areas,” said the Minister.

“I intend to bring forward a new tourism strategy for the next 10 years to drive growth in this important sector. I want to work across government and with the industry to build an internationally competitive and inspiring destination of which we are all proud.”


An annual survey of over 400 visitor attractions in Northern Ireland showed 17.5 million visits were made during 2015, representing no change in demand from the previous year. The biggest mover was the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site, with 851,000 visitors, an 8 per cent increase when compared to 2014.

Titanic Belfast attracted the second highest numbers of visitors (622,000) but that figure represented a 2 per cent decrease from 2014 numbers. Both the Giant’s Causeway and Titanic Belfast were significant leaders in attractions in Northern Ireland, followed by the Ulster Museum (465,000 visitors) and Derry’s Walls (381,000 visitors).

Out of the top 10 attractions, only Titanic Belfast and Belfast Zoo showed a drop in numbers. Mount Stuart represented the biggest percentage increase in visitors (19 per cent) and other areas such as W5 (15 per cent) and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (9 per cent) also recorded significant rises.

Northern Ireland annual tourism statistics 2015

  • 4.5 million overnight trips in Northern Ireland
  • £760 million overall expenditure
  • 2.3 million external visitors spending £541 million
  • 17.5 million visits to local visitor attractions
  • 1.9 million hotel room nights were sold
  • 67 cruise ships docked

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