The recent North and South survey series from The Irish Times and ARINS, and a separate Ipsos Mori poll, have led to much conjecture about current challenges and opportunities for cross border relations. Readers of The Irish Times have also provided further insights and comments.
The research series has explored, among many things, the subject of tourism across the island. As the agency with responsibility for promoting Northern Ireland as a destination on the island of Ireland, Tourism NI has more than a passing interest in the findings.
Given the sample size of the poll, one would expect a high degree of statistical accuracy and indeed the findings correlate with Tourism NI’s own analysis.
It is, however, a snapshot in time. What is also informative is how that picture has changed over time and the factors that have impacted those trends.
Historically, Northern Ireland residents have been much more willing to travel south. Undoubtedly, decades of civil unrest were a major factor, and a lack of investment in tourism infrastructure north of the border resulted in the Republic being a more appealing proposition as a holiday or short break location.
That picture changed, however, between 2010 and 2014 with the opening of Titanic Belfast and the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre and great events such as the MTV European Music Awards, Derry’s year as UK City of Culture and the Giro d’Italia cycle race.
Despite this investment, the increase in cross border tourism traffic was marginal. In 2015, overnight visitors from the Republic spent £60.9 million (€69 million). On a per head of population basis, Northern Ireland residents were spending around ten times more in the South than vice versa.
With the very odd exception, Northern Ireland’s hotels and visitor attractions did no marketing in the Republic at all, and so were effectively invisible to consumers there
In the same year, Tourism NI’s board set up an independent taskforce to explore the reasons for the slow growth. Chaired by the late Eamonn McKeon, a former chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation, the taskforce included a number of people with an in-depth knowledge of both the tourism sector and the psych of the Irish consumer.
The findings of the research undertaken were stark, and included limited knowledge in the Republic of the geography of Northern Ireland, or indeed the Border counties, misperceptions of Northern Ireland’s distance, and a lack of awareness of things to do or places to eat out.
With the very odd exception, Northern Ireland’s hotels and visitor attractions did no marketing in the Republic at all, and so were effectively invisible to consumers there. Since 2016, Tourism NI, working closely with the local industry in Northern Ireland, has embarked on a highly focused marketing strategy aimed at changing the perception of Northern Ireland by consumers in the Republic, targeting those people most open to persuasion to travel North.
In what was a record year of tourism in 2019, the year The Open golf championship was staged at Royal Portrush, visitor numbers from the Republic had increased to 756,000 – which was a 125 per cent increase from 2015. During the pandemic we also witnessed a visible increase in the numbers of car registrations from the Republic on our roads and in our car parks.
In the absence of reliable statistics, it is difficult to assess market performance in those years. But we do know that many people holidayed at home due to travel restrictions and safety concerns, and became much more familiar with what is on their own doorstep.
Tourism NI’s latest consumer sentiment research indicates that around half of residents in the Republic who took a holiday or short break in Northern Ireland in 2022 were first time leisure visitors. The most recent statistics for 2022, a year which has seen a return to something close to normality post Covid, were recently released by the Central Statistics Office.
During the pandemic, many people holidayed at home due to travel restrictions and safety concerns, and became much more familiar with what is on their own doorstep
These show that just more than 800,000 visitors from the Republic spent almost two million nights in the North, spending £164 million in the first nine months of 2022. That was 68 per cent higher than the amount spent during the same period in what was a record year in 2019.
Between January and September 2015, figures show that 226,000 Irish residents made an overnight trip North of the Border. In the first nine months of 2022 that had risen to 809,000. The likelihood is that end of year statistics for 2022 will show that visitor numbers will have trebled since 2015. The underlying trend is therefore one of dynamic growth.
During the pandemic, Irish tourists helped to breathe life back into our city centres, towns and villages. They also brought much-needed business to hard pressed restaurants, bars and retail stores as well as to hotels and visitor attractions.
What The Irish Times/ARINS Survey does undoubtedly show is that there is still much room for growth.
Ellvena Graham is chair of Tourism Northern Ireland