Tourism sector fears toll of flag dispute
Negative publicity is making it harder to attract tourists to Northern Ireland
Belfast is one of the very few cities in the world where you can organise a meeting in a prison cell, a church, a castle or a Victorian market.
Just imagine holding your next monthly meeting in Crumlin Road Gaol or a company conference in Clifton House, Belfast’s former poor house. If nothing else, they’d be atmospheric.
The gaol and the former poor house may be among the more unusual venues but they are just of two of more than 80 potential locations that the Belfast Visitor Convention Bureau is currently promoting in and around the city.
The question, however, is whether anyone outside Northern Ireland wants to come to Belfast for a conference or as a tourist after 40 days of loyalist protests over plans to limit the flying of the union flag.
According to the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, hotels have suffered a “growing number of cancellations” because of the protests. The federation says the majority of these cancellations have been on an ad-hoc basis but others relate to longer-term bookings.
“The real issues for us remain the longer-term damage to the image of Northern Ireland and the unquantifiable effect of never knowing who didn’t book and those who were thinking about it but were adversary affected by the media coverage,” said Janice Gault, chief executive of the federation.
She said the hospitality industry wants to see “resolution as a priority”.
The negative publicity generated by protesters is a major cause of concern, according to the chief executive of Tourism Ireland, the agency responsible for marketing the island of Ireland as a holiday destination overseas. Niall Gibbons said the agency has been monitoring international coverage of the protests.
He says the market at the highest risk of suffering as a result of the negative publicity is Britain – one of Northern Ireland’s most important when it comes to tourist revenue.
“Look at it like this – if we had 40 days and 40 nights of positive media coverage about Northern Ireland, how much would that be worth in terms of publicity? £50 million? So what is the negative impact in terms of scale and size of what has been happening since December 4th?” Gibbons asks.
He says Tourism Ireland’s job now is to “reassure” potential tourists and visitors. His agency is in regular contact with leading tour operators around the world and it is not aware of any cancellations of proposed tours this year.
The agency is gearing up to launch its latest publicity material promoting Northern Ireland as a holiday destination in Britain; it needs to be able to do this against a positive, peaceful backdrop.
One initiative fast gaining momentum this week is the Pubs of Ulster’s social media campaign #TakeBackTheCity. Colin Neill, chief executive of the trade body, said the campaign which has borrowed the title of a Snow Patrol song, is helping to “galvanise” the local hospitality industry.
“It is important for Belfast and for the rest of the country to be able tell people that we are still open for business . . . because, although the daytime economy has suffered, the evening economy is being absolutely devastated,” Neill said.
The chairman of the tourist board, Howard Hastings, knows only too well how important it is to restore confidence. Hastings is managing director of Hastings Hotels, which employs more than 1,000 people in the North. His hotel group has suffered just one conference cancellation and has reported strong occupancy levels for January.
Hastings said people have invested heavily both “monetarily and emotionally” in the brand that is Northern Ireland.
“We’ve had some terrible coverage and that is very difficult because we had built up such a positive narrative about what Northern Ireland has to offer visitors – we have a great proposition.”