Tourism Ireland chief ‘shocked’ by airport director’s criticism

The head of Tourism Ireland has said he was “shocked” to hear a claim that his organisation was not doing enough to promote Northern Ireland.

Niall Gibbons was speaking while giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster on Wednesday.

Earlier this month the committee heard from Uel Hoey, business development director at Belfast International Airport, who claimed the “sales pitch is not being made for Belfast” in North America by Tourism Ireland.

Niall Gibbons
Niall Gibbons

When this point was put to him on Wednesday by North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, Mr Gibbons said he had been shocked to hear it.

“I was surprised, I was shocked to be quite honest with you,” he told the committee.

Mr Gibbons said he has not met Mr Hoey since that evidence session on June 5, which he said he had watched.

Lady Sylvia Hermon
Lady Sylvia Hermon

“We had a discussion at our board last week, those conversations are confidential,” he said, adding Mr Hoey had not been present at that meeting.

Tourism Ireland is a cross-border body set up under the 1998 Belfast Agreement to promote the island as a whole internationally.

Mr Hoey had been expressing frustration at the fact there is currently no direct airline route between Northern Ireland and North America.

Mr Gibbons insisted in response to a question from DUP MP Ian Paisley: “It is very much a level playing field”.

“I think it isn’t correct to say we first and foremost promote the Republic of Ireland, that used to be the job of Bord Failte but Tourism Ireland was established to carry out the functions which had previously carried out separately by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Failte,” he told the committee.

“We do so in a very collaborative manner, we make sure we give a lot of prominence to Northern Ireland.

“Everyone is treated the same, there is very much a level playing field so I don’t accept the criticism at all.”

Earlier Mr Gibbons outlined that since Tourism Ireland came into operation in 2002, almost 30 million overseas visitors have come to Northern Ireland and more than £6.6 billion has been generated for the Northern Ireland economy.

He described tourism as a “vital industry for Northern Ireland” and the source of 65,000 jobs.

“The growth of overseas tourism in Northern Ireland has outpaced the rate of growth to UK as a whole in terms of visitors and revenue over the last five years,” he said.

“Since 2010 the number of North American and European visitors to Northern Ireland has increased by 106% and 47% respectively.”

John McGrillen, chief executive, Tourism Northern Ireland also gave evidence to the committee meeting.

“The programme for government has tasked us to work in partnership with others to deliver £1 billion in tourism spend by 2020, and at the end of 2018 the tourism spend had risen to £968 million, so we are 97% of the way to achieve that target and I think we are reasonably confident we will deliver that target set for us hopefully slightly ahead of target,” he said.

He said they have invested £100 million over the last decade in tourism, including in the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, Giant’s Causeway visitor centre and new conference facilities at the Waterfront in Belfast.

Mr McGrillen also revealed that talks are currently under way with FIA World Rally Championship organisers about hosting an event in Northern Ireland in 2020.