Heroes of tourism in North could do with helping hand and a trouble-free summer

Award-winning chef Niall McKenna has created 70 jobs in three restaurants

Police help remove guests from the Everglades Hotel in Derry after a firebomb was thrown into the reception by a masked man last month. Photograph: PA

Police help remove guests from the Everglades Hotel in Derry after a firebomb was thrown into the reception by a masked man last month. Photograph: PA

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 01:00

Heroes may come in all shapes and sizes – but as a rule not many tend to wear chef’s whites.

Niall McKenna is, however, the exception.

The Belfast chef has just been officially named as Northern Ireland’s Tourism hero of the year for his work in helping to promote the city and the experience he creates for visitors.

McKenna is far from an unlikely hero. He owns one of Belfast’s top restaurants, James Street South, and has two other successful establishments in the city – the Bar & Grill and Hadskis.

Jobs

He also runs a cookery school for budding award-winning chefs and so far has created 70 jobs in the city.

And he is not finished yet, as he intends to open yet another establishment – this time in the Titanic Quarter.

McKenna’s overwhelming enthusiasm for all things Belfast is just one of the reasons he deserves the tourist hero accolade – and the fact that he turned his back on a glittering career in London to follow a dream to open his own restaurant on home soil only adds to his credentials.

His passion for what he does, his determination to put local seasonal produce centrestage and his commitment to helping Belfast expand its tourism sector by offering an experience that makes visitors want to come back, is why he makes a difference.

McKenna admits that it is sometimes useful to have heroic tendencies when you work in the tourism sector in Northern Ireland.

“It has its challenges,” he says “it can be very tough. Belfast isn’t Dublin. We don’t get the same big number of tourists and there are a lot of restaurants here, which means a lot of competition, but the type of tourist we are now getting in Northern Ireland has definitely changed.

North Americans

“We’re getting a lot more North Americans, a lot more Europeans and growing numbers of visitors from England and Scotland, and that is exactly what we need.

“If you look back to where we were 10 years ago, then we are doing so much better; it’s really the difference between night and day, but that’s not to say that we still don’t need more people to come.

“Tourists are the key for us when it comes to growing our business – of course we want to get more local people through our doors too but we need to get more tourists to really make the difference to the industry – that’s what will help everybody,” says McKenna

Growing numbers

The latest annual tourism figures published by Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency last week would suggest that tourism numbers are growing.

The agency reported that visitor numbers to Northern Ireland rose to nearly 4.1 million last year.

It also said that tourist expenditure – both by local people and visitors from outside Northern Ireland – was estimated to have increased by £33 million (€40.6 million)between 2012 and 2013.

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