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17 May 2006 : Column 283WH—continued

I also wish to emphasise a couple of points to do with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, relating to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Memberfor East Londonderry. In 2005 London attracted27 million visitors with a spending power of more than £9 billion—far more than the value of the entire Irish Republic tourism industry. It is time that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board started promoting the London link and heritage of the city, to tap into that lucrative and growing market. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has on its website a map of Northern Ireland which depicts the city of “Derry” and refers to the
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“Walled City of Derry”. Astonishingly, it also states that the city of Derry is also known as Londonderry, when it should in fact address the city by its proper title of Londonderry, and state that some locals refer to the city by the nickname of Derry. It is wrong that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board does not give Londonderry its proper name, and that should be rectified immediately. There is also no mention on its site of St. Columb’s cathedral, which is a massive tourist attraction. That is another thing that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board should examine and rectify.

We should redirect money from politically driven north-southery to invest in the Northern Ireland infrastructure. I believe that between 2005 and 2008 the Government plan to spend some £30 million each and every year on seven separate north-south bodies such as Waterways Ireland, the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission and the Food Safety Promotion Board. I ask the Social Democratic and Labour party to join the Democratic Unionist party—not literally, but in calling for savings and efficiencies—

Mark Durkan: Do a David Ervine?

David Simpson: Yes, that would make news.

I ask the SDLP to join the DUP in calling for savings and efficiencies in the north-south set-up to help fund the Northern Ireland infrastructure. There can beno justification for continuing to spend more than£30 million a year on what is basically a political project aimed at mollycoddling nationalists and republicans. Millions of pounds can be saved from the cross-border budget. Why should roads and railways suffer because money is needed to run bloated cross-border bodies?

I turn now to the international airport in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea). I am sure that he will discuss that point, but I want to refer to it briefly. Secure access to Heathrow is vital for the economic development of Northern Ireland. The Government need to take action and seek changes to the EU rules that will allow protected access to secure the long-term future of our air link.

Northern Ireland recently enjoyed some good news on the air front: new routes have been introduced. They are welcome, but not all the travel needs of passengers will be met, which is why our links to Heathrow remain so important. It provides a gateway to the rest of the world on a scale unmatched by any other UK airport. Our location and lack of direct air services to destinations outside the UK mean that Heathrow is essential for local passengers and businesses—but in recent years, the daily number of Belfast-Heathrow flights has decreased from 15 to just eight, and that situation must be addressed.

Despite all the problems that Northern Ireland has had, we remain a warm and friendly people. In saying that, I am referring not only to members of my own party but to the wider spectrum of the community. We have a great future in tourism. As has been mentioned, we had a meeting yesterday in the Assembly in Northern Ireland involving the Business Alliance. It gave us some startling figures: over the next 10 years we
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will have to create about 140,000 jobs—an average of 14,000 a year, which will be difficult to achieve. That figure relates to the people who are already up and coming, and does not include people coming from other countries who will try to get jobs. The tourism side can help in that process. As many Members have said, we have work to do, but we are looking forward to it and I have every confidence that the people of Northern Ireland will achieve that aim.

Several hon. Membersrose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. I would like to start the Front-Bench wind-ups at about 10.35 am.

10.27 am

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship,Mr. Martlew. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on securing this important debate, and I join other hon. Members in welcoming the Minister to her new responsibilities. I look forward to working with her.

I shall not go over many of the arguments that have been put, but I want to deal briefly with several issues. It is a pleasure to listen to the comments made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I was born in the city of Londonderry, so I have a fond attachment to that part of the country. My parents live in County Fermanagh, in Ulster’s lakelands, so I have good connections there as well. In respect of the tourism industry in Northern Ireland, I have good connections all over.

As a Belfast Member, my prime interest and responsibility relates to the city of Belfast. It has been mentioned that Belfast is the regional driver for tourism in Northern Ireland, and that is very much the case. Visitor numbers have risen between 1995 and 2005. While the number of overnight visitors to Northern Ireland has increased by 19 per cent. during that period, the corresponding figure for Belfast increased by 95 per cent. In those earlier days, Belfast was a byword for troubles, difficulties and all sorts of things, so we are starting from a fairly low base, but those figures show the extent to which it is a major driver in the tourism industry, especially for weekend and overnight visitors who come to the Province.

There is enormous potential. In 2005, it was estimated that Northern Ireland’s tourist industry was worth £350 million, whereas the Irish Republic’s was worth £2.3 billion. That shows the discrepancy that exists, and hon. Members have mentioned some of the reasons for it—the well-developed infrastructure and all the rest of it. There is enormous potential for the development of tourism to create jobs and economic regeneration in Northern Ireland.

I understand that Dublin is the third most visited city in Europe, in terms of weekend visits and so on. Belfast is coming up the list, but we should be attracting far more visitors to the city. On that front, I am concerned that the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau—one of the main agencies that can help to attract visitors to the city—faces a £1 million cut in
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funding. I would like the Minister to consider that, because clearly that cut will make it more difficult to attract visitors to the city. That needs to be addressed.

For comparison, 4 per cent. of the Republic of Ireland’s gross domestic product is tourism; for Scotland the figure is 6 per cent., and for Northern Ireland it is 2 per cent. We need to develop a vision for tourism in Northern Ireland. Reference was made to the debate in the Assembly yesterday, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). In that debate, there was mention of the difficulties caused by the large public sector in Northern Ireland, and the challenges that Northern Ireland faces, with the decline in manufacturing industries and so on.

Tourism has enormous potential to create the jobs needed in Northern Ireland, but that potential will not be reached unless we create a real vision for tourists, and unless we market and invest in the tourism product in Northern Ireland; that has not been done sufficiently. Colleagues and I recently had a meeting with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. We discussed in detail some of the products that need to be developed, and particularly some of the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry, such as the whole issue of the Ulster-Scots heritage. Frankly, I am extremely disappointed with the approach that has been adopted. Not enough has been done to develop the tourism product, and much more work is needed.

On the investment in marketing, reference has been made to Tourism Ireland, and clearly there is a role for the international marketing of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Tourism Ireland markets the island of Ireland abroad, in places such as Australia, America, Japan and the far east, but what causes me concern is the enormous amount of money going into tourism from Northern Ireland. By 2007-08, Northern Ireland will be putting £22 million into Tourism Ireland’s budget; that is one third of the overall budget. Two thirds of the budget comes from the Irish Republic, as has been mentioned. By 2007-08, the entire budget for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board will be £11.1 million, yet £22 million is going into funding Tourism Ireland from Northern Ireland.

I recognise the need for a marketing exercise along the lines that have been described, and the role that Tourism Ireland plays, but given that hon. Members have talked about the need for investment, we need to think about this. We cannot sustain so great an investment in Tourism Ireland while investment is cut in other areas, as the hon. Member for Foyle mentioned. The Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau is suffering cuts and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has an insufficient budget. There needs to be more balance, and I appeal to the Minister to look into the issue carefully.

The money—it will be argued—goes into bringing people to Ireland, and so goes into bringing more people to Northern Ireland, but the fact is that only20 per cent. of people coming to Ireland come to Northern Ireland, and most of that 20 per cent. spend far less time in Northern Ireland than in southern Ireland. I say strongly to the Minister that we need to think again about this. There is a need for investment in marketing the island of Ireland, but in my view things are not properly balanced. There is far too much
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money going into Tourism Ireland, as opposed to developing the tourist product and the tourism marketing of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Finally, 2012 is coming up. The Olympics have been mentioned, but it is also the Titanic anniversary, so it is absolutely vital that the Government get a grip on the issue. Recently, I was at a meeting with the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Social Development, about the return of the Nomadic. I very much welcome the fact that it has been purchased and saved for the city of Belfast, and will be brought back there soon. It is an important part of the Titanic package, which I hope will encourage many visitors to come to Belfast in 2012. A £25 million lottery application for the Titanic project is under way, but I strongly urge the Minister to get a grip on the issue, because at present there is no Government commitment whatever to core funding for that project or indeed for any of the main signature projects that are part of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s remit. That needs to be grasped, because we have a tremendous opportunity before us.

Cities such as Cork and New York are developing strategies to capitalise on the Titanic anniversary, but Belfast should be synonymous with it: it should be the place that people will not leave out of their Titanic itinerary. It has to be marketed, and that needs investment. I appeal to the Minister to consider that very strongly.

Dr. McCrea: We all have that vision, and want to get lots of tourists into Northern Ireland, which is absolutely correct, so how can it be acceptable that the international airport, to which people come from across the world, has no official train link to the centre of Belfast? Is it not time that that infrastructure was put in place?

Mr. Dodds: I agree, and I would encourage as many links to and from Belfast as possible, as it is the gateway from which people should be persuaded to visit other parts of Northern Ireland.

10.37 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on securing the debate. He is right to focus on the important issue of tourism, which has the potential to make a significant contribution to Northern Ireland’s economy—perhaps greater than that of any other single industry.

Northern Ireland has a great many tourist attractions and it has a great deal to offer in that respect, from the new Titanic quarter in Belfast to the giant’s causeway and the spectacular scenery in between. Heritage and environmental tourism also have great potential. Yet despite those attractions, Northern Ireland has done much less well from tourism than the rest of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Given the recent history, it is understandable that tourists have been reluctant to travel to Northern Ireland, but the great progress that has been made in recent years has opened up tremendous potential.

It should not be an unrealistic ambition to increase significantly the number of visitors coming to Northern
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Ireland each year, thus increasing the revenue produced by the tourism industry from the tourist attractions themselves, and from bed-and-breakfast accommodation, restaurants and so on.

We should compare Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, which has done tremendously well from tourism in recent years, attracting 6.5 million visitors annually. Tourism expenditure in the Republic of Ireland doubled in real terms during the 1990s and visitor numbers increased at twice the world growth rate. Tourism is definitely an area in which north-south co-operation can be strengthened and enhanced, which can only benefit Northern Ireland.

For tourism to succeed and grow, every opportunity should be taken to attract potential visitors to Northern Ireland. Government have a role to play in publicity and in the education system, which must ensure that the vast range of service providers are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to satisfy the needs of a range of potential visitors from different countries and cultures, with a host of diverse backgrounds and languages.

The Government have a role to play, too, in providing transport infrastructure for visitors to get to Northern Ireland and then to travel around. I declare an interest: I represent the constituency on the British mainland that is closest to Northern Ireland. Hon. Members mentioned the links with Scotland, which are extremely important. It is also important for hon. Members and the Government to think not only of the link eastwards from Larne to Stranraer but the link northwards from Antrim to Argyll. There is a shared heritage between Argyll and Northern Ireland—not only the Ulster Scottish but the Gaelic heritage. Christianity was brought to Argyll by St. Columba sailing from Ireland, so there is a series of common heritages.

A ferry service ran between Campbeltown in Argyll and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland for three years between 1997 and 1999. That popular service was operated by a private company under a strange contract awarded during the dying days of the Tory Government. It was strange because the company was given the ship as long as it operated the contract for three years. Of course, the inevitable happened. When the three years were up, the ship sailed away and the company used it elsewhere. It was a publicly owned and publicly paid for vessel, the Claymore, which was formerly operated via the publicly owned Caledonian MacBrayne. That was certainly a lesson in how not to award shipping contracts. They should be awarded on the basis of an annual subsidy, not by saying, “Here’s a ship; after the end of the contract you can sail away.” It was a big disappointment when the contract came to an end after three years.

Efforts to restore the service have been made by the Scottish Executive and this Government, and by the Northern Ireland Executive, when they were in existence. They have come very close, but never quite got there. The Scottish Executive have the lead role in that, but I hope that the Minister will be able to inform us of the current position.

Although Governments have a role in developing tourism, it is important that it should flourish in the private sector. It is important that there is confidence in the private sector to invest, and that tourists have the
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confidence in it to come. Both tourists and private sector investors must be confident that Northern Ireland has a peaceful and stable future, and that crime and terrorism are things of the past.

It is also important that we re-establish the Assembly and the Executive, so that Northern Ireland is once more seen by the rest of the world as being in a normal situation. It also goes without saying that a local Minister living in Northern Ireland, elected by the people of Northern Ireland, is far better able to judge what investment is required than any Minister appointed from this House. It is important that Assembly Members ensure, over the next six months, that the Assembly and the Executive are re-established. I am convinced that if the rest of the world sees Northern Ireland as having a stable and peaceful future, tremendous potential from tourism can be realised.

10.43 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on securing the debate, and welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities. She could have had no better introduction to the very pleasant side of her Northern Ireland Office responsibilities than the description of the delights of all parts of Northern Ireland that hon. Members from Northern Ireland have painted. I expect that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) will have told her a number of ways in which she can enjoy herself there—even on the rainiest of days.

Two themes have come through in the debate. First, that tourism offers tremendous opportunities for the Northern Ireland economy, and secondly that both the industry and Government have responsibilities to do their best to turn those opportunities into jobs, investment and prosperity. The industry has clear responsibilities to improve marketing and to seek to drive up standards of service at all times. It strikes me, from my anecdotal experience of travelling, that tourists are becoming more choosy. They want not only to see the best attraction described in a brochure or on a website but a high standard of service. If it is not delivered to them adequately they will not come back, and they will advise friends and relatives not to visit that destination.

The industry needs to focus on what tourists want from a visit to Northern Ireland. In some cases, it will be opportunities for family breaks, long weekends and so on. Other packages might include an island of Ireland tour, which would probably require thinking in terms of north and south. The reality is that an American or Japanese tour group will have limited time to spend on the island, and that time limit will mean that they will want to scoot around to different destinations as quickly as possible.

There may be a future for more golfing and fishing packages that are marketed on a north-south or Scotland-Ireland basis. A Scotland-Ireland distillery tour could well be promoted as a non-seasonal or winter activity.

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