Tourism’s record year

Brian Ambrose OBE, outgoing Chair of Tourism Ireland with Joan O’Shaughnessy, Chair of Tourism Ireland.

Brian Ambrose OBE, outgoing Chair of Tourism Ireland with Joan O’Shaughnessy, Chair of Tourism Ireland.














Brian Ambrose Chief Executive of George Best Belfast City Airport and outgoing Chair of Tourism Ireland talks to Owen McQuade about 2016 which was a record year for inward visitors to Northern Ireland and how 2017 may well surpass that.

Brian Ambrose finished his five year term as Chair of Tourism Ireland at the end of 2016 and he reflects on what has been a record year for tourism in Northern Ireland. Tourism Ireland has a presence in 23 countries around the world. The body markets the island of Ireland in ‘further-afield’ markets: “You are trying to get Australians who are coming to Europe to spend some time in Ireland and then try and get part of that holiday in Northern Ireland,” explains Ambrose. For ‘closer-to-home’ tourist markets such as Great Britain the approach is much more focused on Northern Ireland as an entity. Visitor numbers to Northern Ireland from all markets are showing double digit growth. Numbers had peaked in 2008 but that was surpassed last year and 2016 was another record year. “2016 was another record year for inward tourism for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Ireland performance has been particularly impressive considering where we were a decade ago – back then a 9-day coach tour would not have included Northern Ireland. About six years ago they started to include the Giant’s Causeway but they were overnighting in Donegal. The confidence level is now such that a typical 9-day tour now includes two nights in Northern Ireland and visits Titanic Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway and Antrim Coast.” Ambrose says the reason for this is the Province’s change of image resulting from events such as the MTV awards, the Giro d’Italia, the World Police and Fire Games and the golf tournaments. “These all send very positive images of Northern Ireland around the world and here is now seen as a good holiday destination.”

The bulk of Northern Ireland’s visitors come from North America, France, Germany and Great Britain and all these markets are performing at record levels. The rate of growth in visitors to Northern Ireland has kept pace with that of the Republic of Ireland. Ambrose says that this is an impressive performance considering the republic has a lot going for it over the past 15 years including, zero air passenger duty, 9 per cent VAT on tourism and favourable currency exchange rates up until the second half of 2016. “Northern Ireland has done incredibly well without such advantages,” he adds.

Tourism Northern Ireland promotes Northern Ireland in the Republic and has seen visitor numbers from south of the border surge in recent months. This has been helped by the drop in sterling that has resulted from the Brexit vote. Ambrose credits Tourism Northern Ireland for making the most of these conditions. He sees the good news continuing into 2017 with visitors to both Northern Ireland and the Republic forecast to increase.

Northern Ireland’s biggest market is Great Britain and this has not been affected by currency fluctuations. This market will be particularly challenging for the Republic because of the drop in sterling but Ambrose says that this will be compensated by an increase in visitors from North America. “There are now 17 direct services into North American cities from Dublin every day and that has given them a great platform to build that market”.

“2016 has perhaps been the best year to date in terms of no negative images, with only positive images coming out of Northern Ireland. For a few years we had great events, such as the Giro d’Italia, and then a few weeks of negative images that were more akin to the 1970s and 1980s. This summer we had the Euros, with the good behaviour of the fans from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland reinforcing the message that this is a great friendly place to come to.”

Tourism Ireland works closely with Tourism Northern Ireland. “We worked very closely with John McGrillen and his team on the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink which was a great success, with several events organised jointly by both organisations. John has shown real leadership on this and the relationships between both organisations are at their strongest.”


“In the five years I have been Chair of Tourism Ireland there are now an additional half a million holiday-makers a year coming to Northern Ireland than when I started.”

The increase in visitor numbers has tangible signs. There are nine hotels at various stages of construction in Northern Ireland and the arrival of the Marriott hotel chain which is important for the North America market. “Hoteliers are having their best year ever. This has been helped by the development of the ‘shoulder’ season in the spring and autumn. “Things like the new Waterfront Hall Conference centre extension has helped fill the restaurants all year round.”

In addition to the obvious signs of record visitor numbers Ambrose is very focused on indicators, such as the NISRA visitor statistics for the first half of 2016. Visitor numbers are up 16 per cent on the same period the previous year and revenue is up 14 per cent. “In the five years I have been Chair of Tourism Ireland there are now an additional half a million holiday-makers a year coming to Northern Ireland than when I started. Titanic Belfast had its busiest day ever in 2016 and is even busier than in its opening centenary year. Northern Ireland has seen double digit growth in all its main markets. There are now more Chinese visitors coming to the Giant’s Causeway than to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. The facts speak for themselves.”

When Ambrose took on the role of Chair he took the approach of focusing on results and outputs and brought a business approach to what was a marketing organisation. He also worked hard to ensure that the three organisations involved in tourism on the island work closely together and over his tenure spent a lot of his time working with the chairpersons and executive teams of the agencies. Before taking on the role of Chair Ambrose had been on the board of Tourism Ireland as a non-executive member and joined just as the economic crisis hit. “Nine years ago when I joined the board the recession had just started and visitor numbers were dropping and the trade was having a tough time. A lot of our hotel stock was looking very tired and needed investment. Not only are we now hitting record numbers of visitors to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but are confident of further growth next year and into the future.”

Tourism Ireland will look to sign off a new three year tourism plan with both governments at the North South Ministerial Council at the start of 2017, which will look for further growth of record numbers. Ambrose believes that the sector will need further investment to deliver this growth. “The investment in Titanic Belfast was a game-changer and I understand the government in the Republic is to invest €100 million in the Wild Atlantic Way which has been a stunning success. We need another major visitor attraction in Northern Ireland to help us extend the stay of visitors to Northern Ireland. We need to build on what has been a record year and invest in our product,” concludes Ambrose.

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