A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Titanic efforts boost tourism figures

This year, 2016, is set to break records in terms of both visitor numbers and revenue

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, filming Game of Thrones, which is made in Down and Antrim. Photograph by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, filming Game of Thrones, which is made in Down and Antrim. Photograph by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO


While it’s too early to say what effect Brexit will ultimately have on Northern Ireland’s tourism industry, 2016 looks set to break records again in terms of both visitor numbers and revenue, reaping the rewards of significant investment in the sector over the last number of years.

Last year, 2015, was a record year for visitor numbers, with 2.3 million tourists, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. But in the first six months of 2016, a record 1.1 million visitors came from outside Northern Ireland, an increase of 12 per cent on the same period last year.

Not only did they come, they spent £268 million in that time, an 11 per cent increase. Add in domestic visitors, and the spend rises to £372 million.

“We are also encouraged by the strong growth in Republic of Ireland trips and nights, with a welcome 6 per cent increase in Republic of Ireland holiday trips,” says John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland.

This is not even taking into account the fall in the value of sterling since the Brexit result in July, so the number of visitors from the Republic to Northern Ireland in the second half of this year could feasibly see a big boost.

All this is in marked contrast with last year, when the number of people visiting the North from the Republic fell by 69,000, while the sector just missed projected revenue targets – which tourism chiefs blamed on the strength of the pound.

Over the past five years, tourism spend in Northern Ireland has increased by 33 per cent, according to Tourism Northern Ireland, much of which can be attributed to the huge success of Titanic Belfast, the new visitors centre on the Causeway Coast and the promotion of film locations in Down and Antrim that provided the backdrops for the world-famous US fantasy drama TV series Game of Thrones.

This year has also seen a big marketing push for the NI Year of Food and Drink 2016, which aims to showcase key producers, chefs and restaurateurs.

Titanic Belfast

Last August, Titanic Belfast welcomed the highest-ever number of visitors in a single day – 4,200 – as well as its three millionth visitor. It was later named Europe’s leading visitor attraction in the World Travel Awards, beating the Eiffel Tower in Paris to second place, while a recent report revealed that in its first three years, it contributed £104 million to the local economy.

Certainly the success of the Titanic museum and quarter has helped the city to become what the Visit Belfast agency would claim is the ‘engine room’ of Northern Ireland tourism.

The agency, a public-private partnership limited company that has more than 500 member businesses that work with it to promote Belfast as a tourist and business destination, says it has helped to deliver just under £100 million in economic benefit from its sales and marketing activity in respect of conferences, cruise ships, city breaks, group tours and visitor services management.

“The level of public- and private-sector investment, commitment and focus on driving tourism has never been greater,” says Gerry Lennon, chief executive of Visit Belfast. “Belfast has an important role as the gateway to experience the rest of Northern Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland.”

However, it is acknowledged that while the success of Titanic Belfast could help spread tourism spend across Northern Ireland, it has highlighted a need for similar must-see destinations outside Belfast.

“We are also hopeful that the next few years will see more exciting projects coming forward from across Northern Ireland,” says McGrillen. “We are aware of several projects outside Belfast that may have the potential to boost local tourism. Where we have identified potential, we are working closely with promoters and local authorities to ensure every chance of success.”

In the north-west, the city of Derry has been continuing to carve out its niche as a city destination but with a huge variety of other visitor attractions on its doorstep, including in Tyrone and Donegal.

Odhran Dunne, manager of Visit Derry, a similar public-private partnership tourism marketing agency to Visit Belfast, says the rise in the number of visitors, the length of stays and tourism spend across the island of Ireland in 2016 looks set to naturally spread out to the regions.

“With the island performing well, there’s a greater opportunity for the regions to benefit from that, and so we’ve seen growth in most of our major markets, in particular North America and from Europe.”

There is a sense that Derry rose up the ranks of must-see city destinations in the UK and Europe after its highly successfully year as the UK City of Culture 2013, which saw a major year-long programme of cultural events and festivals. But Dunne says visitor numbers this year look set to break records that have stood since that pivotal year in 2013.

“Certainly the tourism and hospitality sector has brought forward many of these opportunities for growth within the local economy, and as a major export industry, it is important that it’s recognised as such and that its part of the overall development of the economy of Derry and the north-west region. We have a fantastic product in terms of our city walls, our culture and our history, which is unique – that’s a great selling point and we’re only scratching the surface in terms of the potential of the destination.”

Home of Thrones

HBO’s Games of Thrones could be doing for the Northern Ireland tourism industry what The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy did for New Zealand’s.

The spin-off benefit of promoting the film locations in Down and Antrim for this hugely popular US fantasy drama series is estimated to have ploughed well over £100 million into the local economy.

A successful social media campaign designed to create global awareness of Northern Ireland as the ‘Home of Thrones’ ran during series 6 of the show.

Run by Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland with HBO, it focused on a series of 10 intricately carved doors, which were unveiled over a 10-week period. The doors depict moments inspired by the current season and referenced key scenes and events from the latest episode.

The doors were carved from trees blown down in Storm Gertrude at the Dark Hedges in Co Antrim, which serves as the backdrop for the Kingsroad, one of the most iconic Game of Thrones locations.

You can find them installed in pubs and other venues in Northern Ireland near the filming locations.