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17 May 2006 : Column 277WH—continued

9.53 am

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), who has done as good a job as the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has done—it will probably offer him some commission for the adverts that he has given us today. I noted what he said about the people of Northern Ireland—but I have to say that if his dad had started singing republican songs in the British legion in Portstewart, he might have had to revise his opinion somewhat.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on securing this important debate. As has been mentioned, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will investigate tourism and we intend to spend some time sampling some of the tourist delights. It will be hard work, of course, and certainly not a junket or a holiday. We will discover some of the things that the hon. Member for Blaydon mentioned.

I want to reinforce the final point that the hon. Gentleman made. If tourism is to be developed in Northern Ireland, it is essential that we put the past of terrorism and criminality behind us. The Government and everyone in the Chamber have an important part
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to play in pushing those who are reluctant, and still look over their shoulders at their past and want to keep some connections with that past, towards democratic behaviour.

Tourism in Northern Ireland has the potential to achieve one of the objectives that the Secretary of State has rightly said is important if the economy of Northern Ireland is to develop. It will help to move Northern Ireland from public sector dependence to a greater emphasis on the private sector. It is significant that tourism is now the fourth largest private sector employer in Northern Ireland, and it has great potential if we use the tools we have at our disposal to help it to grow even more.

The magnet for tourism, of course, is the city of Belfast. Nearly 70 per cent. of those who come to Northern Ireland come through Belfast and stay there at some stage. We have to recognise that if that isthe magnet, attention should be paid to that part of the market. However, I represent a constituency on the edge of Belfast that opens up a different dimension, away from weekend city breaks—towards the natural heritage of Northern Ireland along the Antrim coast and the glens, the built heritage of Carrickfergus with its historic castle, walls and churches and the associated pageants, or the natural heritage, coastline and wildlife and opportunities for bird watching, walking and so on presented by the Antrim glens.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry pointed out that there is an east-west dimension to tourism. The town of Larne, which I represent, presents the gateway to the western coast of Scotland, through which nearly 600,000 people come every year to Northern Ireland as tourists. That is an important link that needs to be developed. It is significant that the strategic transport plan published recently by the Scottish Parliament does not even mention that gateway and that link. That is one of the reasons why we must emphasise the importance and potential—not only for us but for Scotland and the north-west of England—of that gateway and the way in which it can help develop tourism in both parts of the United Kingdom.

However, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed, and the first is promotion. Two thirds of the budget spent on promoting tourism goes to Tourism Ireland, which promotes the island as a whole but does not specifically promote Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that there is a need to promote both Northern Ireland and southern Ireland on the international stage and I also accept that many people who come to southern Ireland will eventually come to Northern Ireland. The flaw is that with no specific reference to Northern Ireland in much of the promotional material, on which two thirds of the budget is spent, a huge gap is left. It is significant that if there is to be any specific reference to Northern Ireland in the promotional material, extra money has to be paid. We have not sufficiently grasped that.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board does its own promotion of Northern Ireland, of course. On top of that, local councils do some promotion. That creates a difficulty, which I find in my constituency with people who have bed and breakfasts, for example, or hotels. Much of the private sector is at the small business end of the economy. Those people do not know who to go
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to. Which agency should they focus on to promote their product? Should they go to Tourism Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board or their local council? At what level should they pitch and promote their particular facilities? That needs some attention.

Of course we need an overall strategy, and I believe that that is best done by the big agencies that operate on a world-wide platform. Once that platform has been created, we must look at ways of outsourcing it so that it is friendly to particular areas in Northern Ireland. The review of public administration and the creation of larger councils offer an opportunity to do that, and I see no reason, other than perhaps job insecurity, why the Northern Ireland Tourist Board should not outsource the promotion of what is available locally to the larger local authorities. That at least would provide a local connection between the small businesses involved in tourism and the local agencies, which are better placed to know what is available.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry pointed out, because much of the development and growth of tourism takes place in rural areas, it can be environmentally sensitive. That tends to create difficulties in applying for planning permission. In the last three weeks there have been instances of such difficulties in my constituency. For example, an individual who sells fishing licences—fishing is a big tourism sector in Northern Ireland—operates in a small village off the main road, but bureaucracy in the Roads Service prevents him from putting up a sign pointing to where people may get a fishing licence so that they can enjoy that aspect of tourism. For the same reason, bed and breakfasts off the main road are also prevented from highlighting their location.

We have to be sensitive to that. There might be regulations, and we do not want road sides cluttered with a host of signs, but if we are to promote tourism, agencies such as the Roads Service in Northern Ireland need to be more sensitive to the need to promote businesses in that way.

Then we come to planning. Only last week, I spoke to someone who had diversified from farming into holiday cottages, had turned three of the farm outhouses into holiday cottages and was booked up throughout the year—even in the winter. That person wanted to add another cottage, but because of the area in which it would have been placed, even though it was within the curtilage of the farmyard, they were having to fight the planners. Again, the authorities were applying the planning rules too rigidly rather than considering the potential for further diversification in the countryside, and the further promotion of alternative sources of employment now that farming is in decline, especially in some of the hill areas.

A major project involving a disused quarry just outside the town of Larne in my constituency is fighting for planning permission. A company plans to build a cycle track of international standing and provide various ancillary and associated activities that could attract thousands of people to the area, but already there are planning difficulties. We need more sensitive planning policies if we are to develop tourism, as well as proper training, especially in the hospitality sector. Without that proper training, we will drive tourists away. Those are some of the issues that need to
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be addressed. Tourism is an important sector of the economy and it must be allowed to grow. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to some of the points made here today.

10.4 am

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on securing this debate. He is my constituency neighbour; indeed, he has the very proud honour of being my constituent. Like me, he lives in a city that should be very attractive as a tourist destination and has great ambitions and aspirations in that regard. It is a city that is well located in a river valley and has much history, some of which the hon. Gentleman touched upon. It is luckily located, with the giant’s causeway not very far away on one side, with all that the causeway coast and beyond has to offer, and Donegal and all its riches on the other side. It also has everything that the Sperrins and Erne areas of Fermanagh and Tyrone have to offer. As a tourism region, the north-west of Ireland has much to offer.

In taking forward the opportunities for tourism, we must examine all elements of the tourism industry, including what makes successful tourism experiences in other parts of the world that we visit and in other parts of these islands. As someone who holidays not on the continent but throughout these islands, I am constantly struck when visiting the south-west of England and the south-west of Ireland by the ease of reference from one amenity to another, and by the constant cross-promotion of information on all the different amenities and events. That can be compared with the difficulty that many visitors to Northern Ireland have in finding out even what visitor amenities and attractions are within a 20 or 30-mile radius of where they are staying. There is a lack of integrated information and promotion to give people a good, effective, attractive tourism experience. Too often tourists are left to do much of their own work in finding out what is there.

Councils and others at a local tourism level have been trying to do something about the problem, as have the regional tourism organisations in recent years. They have tried to sell not just one isolated location but a whole region, so that people have plenty to occupy them and a range of experiences over a period of days. Unfortunately, the regional tourism organisations have had their funding cut. They have now been replaced by regional tourism partnerships, which the Government tell us will have a wider brief, but which will also have smaller budgets.

If we are to gear up our tourism and all the sub-regions are to play their part, it is hard to see how they are meant to do so with diminishing Government funding and the loss of some of the European money that has supported tourism projects and initiatives introduced as part of the peace programme, under the heading of seizing the opportunities of peace. There are issues that the Government need to address. It is all very well to produce documents that highlight the room that exists to grow the tourism sector, and show the relatively low tourism figures in Northern Ireland compared with other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but expansion will not happen unless we invest in it.

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The hon. Member for East Londonderry and others raised the role of Tourism Ireland. As one of the people involved in the package of decisions that led to the creation of that company, I stress that it was created not as some sort of political gesture or gimmick but as a marketing company to enhance tourism marketing for the island of Ireland as a whole, and bring more tourists to it. We must all work hard to ensure that tourists who come to the island experience all that it has to offer. It is not just Northern Ireland that believes it sometimes misses out on the tourist traffic that comes to Ireland. Many of the counties in the south, above the Dublin-Galway line, feel that they too miss out, and that not enough of the coach tours take in enough of the whole island. That is not Tourism Ireland’s fault; the southern half of the island simply has a well-beaten tourist track and a much more developed tourism infrastructure. That is all the more reason for us to invest more in our infrastructure in the north of the island, and particularly in Northern Ireland.

Some hon. Members present were recently in Killarney, at a meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary body.

Mr. Campbell: As tourists?

Mark Durkan: They would probably count in the tourism statistics. [Interruption.] I am sure that Kerry will find a way of counting them as tourists—they are cute at that sort of thing in Kerry. However, the town of Killarney has more hotel beds than the whole of Northern Ireland, which tells us something about the scale of the opportunities that we are missing out on. Given that level of supply, and all the attractions in Killarney, it is obviously not Tourism Ireland’s fault that foreign tourists very much want the south-west of Ireland to be part of their experience. We must therefore ensure that we build up our infrastructure, amenities and accommodation so that people know that is worth while being up in the north-west and other parts of the north of Ireland.

As we manage tourism in government terms, we must also tackle the disparate way in which so many tourism issues and visitor attractions are dealt with. When Departments were created on devolution, some of us proposed that tourism should be part of the brief of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, but others argued that it should stay with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Our hope and understanding was that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment would deal with the hospitality sector—that is, hotels—and with selective financial assistance, but that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure would take responsibility for co-ordinating tourism amenities.

Some heritage sites are with the Department of the Environment, while other attractions for tourists and local visitors, such as some of the forests, are with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Many visitor amenities are owned by councils, while other amenities and interpretive centres are owned by arm’s length companies, and community and voluntary bodies. They all have very different opening policies,
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and there is a lack of a clear, integrated information system. The idea was that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure would marshal resources and deal with that side of things, but that never happened, and we have all missed out quite a lot since. There are therefore things that we need to rationalise and fine-tune if we are to determine which parts of the Government relate to and take responsibility for which parts of our tourism potential.

In all this, there is also the question of developing the tourism work force. One problem is that many people do not see the tourism sector as offering a long-term career. In addition, many business players in the sector feel that if they invest in work force development, somebody else or somewhere else will simply poach the fruits of their work. There is therefore a disincentive to such investment, and we need to look at how we can develop and improve our tourism work force properly, because the lack of investment clearly comes through in the tourism experience and perhaps sometimes leaves people who come to parts of Northern Ireland feeling a little less satisfied than they do when they go to other places.

Northern Ireland also needs to understand that as we grow tourism, the tourist trade will include not only the hotels and the bars but the small shops, the cafés and everything else; they are all part of selling the area and providing the information and added direction. Again, we need to develop that sense of awareness. In all that, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and regional tourism partnerships have a strong role to play.

It is wrong for people to create a false tension between the role of a regional body such as the tourist board and the sub-regional bodies, such as the tourism partnerships, and the clear international marketing role of Tourism Ireland. Working all such systems and networks together, we can increase the number of tourists and ensure that they go away with positive experiences and, in turn, bring in more tourists.

Hon. Members have referred to signage. I agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson); people with small businesses who are stepping out and saying, “Yeah, we’re going to take the risk and invest in the tourism potential of this place,” should not find themselves rationed to one brown sign, and having to pick which of three or four perhaps very relevant roads it will be on. That is simply nonsense; people should not lack such basic support and co-operation.

We need to remember that growing our tourism industry will involve a lot of small firms and individuals diversifying, not least in rural areas. As they choose to diversify, make that investment and take that risk, people should not be handicapped by needless regulation and controls, without the assistance that—given all the noises that they hear from all the politicians, not least the Government—they have every right to expect.

I look forward to hearing about how the Government intend to address some of the budgetary issues of tourism support and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s spend in the south of Ireland at the minute. Never mind marketing Ireland north and south together through Tourism Ireland; Northern Ireland has a very ready market to the south.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s spend in the Republic of Ireland was reduced this year and last, yet
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big money is about to flow into households in the south of Ireland, as the special savings incentive accounts are maturing. Big money is going to come in; there will be big disposable incomes. People are looking to spend the money in different ways; one has only to look at the Irish newspapers to see how many ads there are for this, that and the other, all based on that big money boost. We could bring in some of the money that is floating about there if people from the south come to Northern Ireland as tourists. But what are we doing? The Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s tourist promotion budget in the south is being cut. That seems utter folly.

Again, I ask the Government to think again about how they can better assist what they say they want to assist through sensible and accommodating budgeting.

10.19 am

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I, too, welcome the new Minister. This is her first encounter with us in an Adjournment debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on securing this one.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spoke well about tourism in Northern Ireland. He has a reputation—a very decent one, I have to say—for being keen on motorcycles. Your predecessor was given the offer of a lifetime: to jump on the back of my hon. Friend’s Harley Davidson—[Interruption.] My understanding is that she was about to take up the offer, but then—[Hon. Members: “She was rescued.”] She was moved, and my hon. Friend was very disappointed because he had thought that the two of them could sail off into the sunset along the coast of East Antrim and away round by Larne. As I said, we would give you an insight—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. I am not interested in going on the back of a motorbike, although the Minister may be.

David Simpson: We could give the Minister an insight into tourism at first hand.

I will be brief; I just want to raise a number of points—more bullet points than anything else—on tourism. Because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, I believe that we should emphasise the British link more. The British tourism market is worth £74 billion annually, and that is rising, whereas the tourism market in the Irish Republic is worth a mere €4.5 billion. While it is certainly worth getting a slice of that, there is more to be gained by promoting in tourism the Britishness of this part of the island, to get a slice of the £74 billion.

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