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Tourism

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2007

3. How many tourists visited Northern Ireland in the last year for which figures are available. (126337)

I congratulate the Minister on that fantastic figure. When I visited the country and visited the glories of the north Antrim coast, the Giant’s Causeway, Portstewart strand and the wonderful hills of Fermanagh, I noticed the difference from 20 years ago, when there were tanks on the streets of Belfast. What is my hon. Friend doing, particularly for the coastal areas? I noticed that there was nobody on the beaches, although admittedly, it was October. What can we do to diversify tourism in order not only to attract Americans seeking to trace their rich family history and heritage, but to get people to go to the wonderful mile-long white sandy deserted beaches?

May I say that 2005 was the first year since the troubles began that more people visited Northern Ireland than live there. That is a landmark. When the new Executive and Assembly are up and running in a couple of weeks, they can build on that. There is nothing like political stability to attract more visitors to that fantastic landscape. I am sure that achieving a proper political settlement in Northern Ireland will boost visitor numbers enormously. My hon. Friend is right. In a recent poll the Antrim coast road was named the fifth most spectacular view in the world. It came higher in the poll than the Grand Canyon—a reflection of the glories of Northern Ireland. A poll in The Guardian placed it second among the best road trips in the world. There is no doubt that there are glories in Northern Ireland that more visitors need to see, and the best way of ensuring that visitor numbers increase is through a stable political situation and devolved government.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) agrees that Northern Ireland is a worthwhile place to visit. I believe that Strangford in my constituency is one of the most beautiful areas of Northern Ireland, but like others, I believe that the Ards peninsula and Killyleagh in particular are not properly marketed for their tourism potential. Does the Minister agree that the draconian planning policy guidelines for the rural areas, which include the coastal areas, are inhibiting the hospitality sector from building hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation?

It is interesting to hear the hon. Lady’s views about that. She may be a Minister in the new devolved Government in not too many weeks, and she will have an opportunity then to focus on making the most of the tourism potential in her constituency. I agree that marketing is important, and that it is important to take note of the detailed implications of visitor numbers as they come through and to adjust marketing to make the best of the tourism potential. There is no doubt that that potential exists. There are already 52,980 jobs in the tourism industry and it is clear that that number could increase significantly with proper marketing. If proper services are available, the tourism potential to exploit in Northern Ireland is enormous. I hope the hon. Lady and her right hon. and hon. Friends will shortly have a hands-on opportunity to make that potential a reality.

The next time a Northern Ireland Minister is in Dublin, will he or she visit the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in Nassau street, opposite Trinity? It is unattractive, unappealing and lacking in marketing skills for the beautiful Northern Ireland that hon. Members have described. It is important that such a visit be made in order that we can attract people interlining to the island of Ireland through Dublin to come to the North, and more importantly, to attract citizens of Dublin and elsewhere in the Republic to come to the North. I have seen more appealing funeral homes than that office in Nassau street.

I have visited that office in Dublin, and I cannot say that I recognise my hon. Friend’s description. I accept that it has its limitations, but it certainly did not strike me as looking anything like a funeral home.