Hotels, bars and restaurants opened last week in Northern Ireland to a great welcome from customers. Despite being a bit behind the UK business was great, and every hotel was booked up. “Probably well over 50% of bookings in Belfast and further afield were from the Republic,” said John McGrillen, Chief Executive Officer, of Tourism Northern Ireland.
Because hotels and guesthouses are only opening in Ireland on Tuesday June 2, Belfast is expecting another busy weekend with visitors from the republic, for the bank holiday weekend.
So far future occupancy is holding up well in Belfast and Mr. McGrillen believes it will be better than other European cities. July hotel reservations are looking like 40 percent future bookings and August is around 30 percent so far.
“I think the smaller cities will benefit, people feel nervous about crowds and possibly more comfortable with smaller places. We are starting to see that in Belfast. And country properties are doing well,” he went on to say.
Despite there being no events, no conferences or business travel, and no cruise ships docking, tourism in the north is being driven purely by leisure travel.
Hospitality recruitment an issue
The opening came quickly and the biggest challenge for hotels, bars and restaurants has been recruitment. “Getting back staff from furlough has been more difficult, some were doing other jobs. It has been a big issue globally not just for the North,” said Mr. McGrillen.
The north had already seen an outflow of hospitality staff leaving the province before Brexit, due to visa status. The devaluation of the pound sterling had also affected peoples’ savings. “People also feel more comfortable at home with family during this pandemic,” he said.
Despite the poor weather at the weekend people did make a big effort to get out and enjoy themselves. Mr. McGrillen heard of one couple bringing hot water bottles to visit the Hinch Distillery at Ballynahinch, such was their enthusiasm to get out.
The car parks at Montalto Estate, a stately home in Co Down, were so full they had to open up a field as a car park for the exceptional numbers visiting.
When asked about the falloff in business, and places not reopening Mr. McGrillen said, we have seen a minimal fall off. There are some restaurants and bars that have decided not to reopen.”
Government schemes, like the furlough, grants, and rate rebates have helped businesses reopen. Most business will be hoping for a good summer to keep them going over the winter.
Returning to Growth with Game of Thrones
In 2019 there over five million visits to Northern Ireland and the spend on tourism reached £1bn for the first time. It will be a long road back but there are plans to entice visitors over the next few years.
One of the biggest projects in Northern Ireland will be the building of Game of Thrones attraction. This has the full agreement of HBO and will be the only official licensed site in the world.
It will have the original sets, costumes and the technology will be exciting. Using virtual reality to give people a sense of the being in the production. In 2019 400k people came to NI to see the film locations. T
In Belfast there are plans for a new major attraction telling the story of Belfast. It will link the city from City Hall to the opposite end of Royal Avenue. It will be on the scale of Titanic Belfast. Talking about Titanic Belfast, last Saturday there was over 1,000 visits to see this landmark site and more than 70 percent were from the republic.
Province wide tourism
Around the province, considerable sums have been spent to upgrade the tourism offering at Hillsborough Castle. The village of Hillsborough has been designated a Royal village. It was announced by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis MP, on Tuesday, June 1. The home of the queen in NI will be known as Royal Hillsborough, from late this year.
The Gobbins, the cliff path in Co. Antrim is to be extended and a glass lift will be installed to take visitors up to the top of the cliff for amazing views. In the Mournes, Slieve Donard is due to get a new chairlift and visitors’ centre. It will make it easier to explore the famous mountain range and see the Mourne Wall.
There are also plans for further enhancement of tourism across the border counties, using the Peace Funding from the British Government. Fermanagh could become part of the Heartlands of Ireland.
When asked what would get Northern Ireland tourism through the next year, Mr McGrillen said, “many people have not been out of their homes for a year. They have saved a lot and are going to use those resources to get out and about. Not everyone wants to travel overseas”