Reshaping tourism policy

The restructuring of Tourism NI is designed to save money and promote Northern Ireland as part of a single economic brand.

John Hunter’s review of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board was published last June and formally accepted by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster in January of this year. Hunter served as senior civil servant until his retirement in 2007 and was also the first Director-General of the International Fund for Ireland when it was established in 1986. He also takes a keen interest in reconciliation as the Chair of the Corrymeela Centre.

The organisation’s brand was immediately changed to Tourism NI. John McGrillen – currently Director of Development at Belfast City Council – will take up post as Chief Executive in July. David Thomson, a civil servant by background, will be the acting Chief Executive until then.

Businessman Terence Brannigan was appointed as Chairman, succeeding Howard Hastings, on 1 April this year. Brannigan, who also chairs the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation, was a member of the DUP when he took up that appointment in 2012. He has declared that he is not currently involved in political activity.

Then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster announced her intention to set up a tourism growth fund, to help the new councils promote local destinations, in the next Budget period. Memoranda of understanding will clarify the councils’ responsibilities for tourism and how they will effectively co-operate; the nine key destination areas often cross over council boundaries. A large representative advisory body (meeting twice per year) will help Tourism NI to gather views and insights from businesses in the sector.

Tourism NI will also work more closely with Invest NI to develop a single Northern Ireland economic brand. The two organisations are also expected to co-locate in a single head office in 2016. Invest NI would be responsible for evaluating tourism projects worth over £1 million and would take responsibility for processing grant payments.

On air connectivity, recent arrivals have included KLM and Vueling (both at Belfast City Airport) and the Executive is keen to secure a direct route between Northern Ireland and Germany and a restored air link to Canada.

Under the Belfast Agreement, Tourism NI markets Northern Ireland within the island of Ireland while Tourism Ireland markets the whole island to potential visitors elsewhere. The DUP cannot, on its own initiative, change the all-island arrangement but it wants to see Northern Ireland having a standalone brand – and being marketed as part of the UK to the Great Britain market.

Foster indicated a continued role for sub-regional tourism promotion bodies such as the Causeway Coast and Glens Tourism Partnership. However, that body closed in March following a proposed spending cut by the new councils in the area.
One of John Hunter’s most significant comments was that outbreaks of unrest over parades and flags – and “continuing sectarianism and racial prejudice” – still damage Northern Ireland’s image. He suggested that this “points to the need for concerted action on the part of all the organisations involved to promote a safe and secure image” of Northern Ireland.

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