The peace of Ulster

Northern Ireland Tourist Board

The ad simply says 'Northern Ireland. You'll never know unless you go'. But most of us know that Northern Ireland's image as a safe holiday destination is not on a par with the Cotswolds.

Yet Northern Ireland boasts the assets that a fully matured holiday destination such as Spain, Italy or England have developed. Northern Ireland has the lowest crime rates in the UK, an infrastructure of top-grade accommodation including country houses, inns and four-star hotels, internationally awarded museums and visitor centres, world-class golf courses, salmon and trout rivers and miles of walks in the wild. And a people absolutely committed to making visitors feel welcome.

But this 'flip side' which the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has been promoting since its inception in 1948 is often overshadowed by the darker aspects of life in the province. How can the attraction of Northern Ireland ever surmount the images of sectarian violence as witnessed in summer 1996. Pictures of street rioting, burning barricades and uncompromising politicians only repel visitors. While Northern Irish people remain puzzled as to why visitors are frightened to come over when they would actually be much safer in the province, one cannot blame potential visitors from switching off the idea when watching the news and reading the papers.

Despite the troubles and a terrible image, promotional efforts to help build the province's tourism industry are working. What is more, they have been working successfully for years. And while the 1994 ceasefires had their effect, tourism had already been increasing steadily each year since 1989.

By 1989 tourists had been returning to Northern Ireland in pre-troubles numbers. In 1967, 1.08 million people visited the north. In the 1970s this had dipped to below half a million, very few of whom were holidaymakers. But by 1989 the numbers had risen to above 10.9 million.

These numbers have increased ever since. In 1994 just under 1.3 million made the journey across the Irish Sea and Atlantic. Out of this total, the number of holidaymakers in 1994 had risen to 275,000.

But 1995 showed the true potential of Northern Ireland's holiday industry. Of 1.5 million visitors 461,000 were holidaymakers an astonishing 69 per cent increase. Reassuringly, a Coopers & Lybrand report concludes that this huge increase did not mean a drop in standards and nine out of ten foreign visitors surveyed (1,100) said they loved the place so much they would be back.

Unsurprisingly, in 1996 the tourists turned up in fewer numbers. Cancellations and no-shows started in February the day after the Canary Wharf bomb in London. Subsequent attacks in Aldwych and Manchester kept the inquiry figures down, but when the violence developed in Northern Ireland the numbers fell considerably.

But the tourism industry is reacting fast. Good news can mean an instant influx of visitors, while bad news can create an immediate exodus. Following this summer's events the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is confident that numbers will bounce back. Perhaps not to original forecast levels, but certainly higher than pre-ceasefire days. In September 1996, NITB forecast a drop of 11 per cent in the total number of visitors compared with 1995. This figure would still be well above 1994 (seven per cent higher) confirming the trend established since 1989 that tourism is still on the increase. The holidaymaker content is now forecast at 345,000, a 25 per cent drop in 1995, but still 25 per cent higher than 1994. Original pre-disturbance forecasts for 1996 would have seen these figures increase slightly over 1995.

So what is it about Northern Ireland that still convinces Stakis to build an £18 million hotel on the outskirts of Belfast, Hilton to build in the city centre and other big name brands to invest in Derry and elsewhere? What has persuaded Stena Line, P&O; European Ferries, Seacat, Aer Lingus and other carriers to increase, improve and speed up crossings into Northern Ireland? And what is it that enchants visitors to come here in greater numbers each year despite the terrible news and perceptions of Northern Ireland as a war zone?

It is the fact that the parallel reality, the flip side, is so genuinely unique, charming and well, Irish, that once the visitor breaks through the doubt barrier and comes to Northern Ireland, he comes again for more. He also tells one or two of his closest friends because the idea of a well-kept secret is still the most appealing to visitors.

The golfer can choose from any number of top-grade links courses, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down are still in the top ten in the world according to American Golfer Magazine.

The game and coarse angling are abundant with rivers teeming with native wild dollagham and gillaroo trout and wild salmon. Nature trails are empty and vast swathes of unspoilt countryside and coastlines open up real get-away-from-it-all heaven. Restored, whitewashed Ulster cottages (with central heating, colour tv and al the modern necessities) are dotted around cliff tops, and mountains and are available for rent to anyone in search of rural sanctuary. And the pubs and music have not suffered from excessive repackaging.

But the plastic bullets, sectarian attacks and burning buses of the summer make the news. Those events will not stop the regulars from coming over. In fact, the troubles constitute a perverse preservation order on Northern Ireland's beauty, keeping the masses away and the playground empty. All the more room for those who continue to come.

Northern Ireland, despite its reputation, will continue to attract tourists. Not the macabre voyeuristic kind, but those looking for, ironically you might think, peace and quiet. Ask anyone who's been to Northern Ireland and they'll say the same. You'll never know unless you go.


Information on Northern Ireland is available from:
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
59 North Street
Belfast BT1 1NB
Tel: 01232 246609

Northern Ireland Tourist Board
135 Buchanan Street
Glasgow G1 2JA
0141 204 4454

Northern Ireland Tourist Board
All-Ireland Travel Desk
British Travel Centre
12 Regent Street
London SW1

Northern Ireland Tourist Board
Freephone: tel: 0800 282662

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board publishes the Winter Breakaways and Summer Breakaways brochures each year and these can be obtained from the above addresses free of charge. Other information on Northern Ireland including historic heritage, genealogy, general touring holidays, golfing, fishing, rambling, watersports, etc, is also available.