by Fergal kearney
On Friday 4th September 1998 I made the journey from my Bellaghy home to Belfast for the first of many days at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, where I would also finish out my public sector career. My mission was to play my part in the development of tourism in Northern Ireland. On a tour of our beautiful North Antrim Coast with a young couple from Michigan USA towards the end of July 2022, I came upon this wonderful old tourism poster leaning against the wall of a shop in Bushmills. It put me in mind to write this reflection on my time with the organisation that was set up in 1948 (as the Ulster Tourist Development Association) to develop and promote this part of Ireland to visitors.
I had the great privelege throughout my working life of taking on roles that no one else had done before, so I have always been a pioneer of sorts, and a risk taker. I also joined the organisation just after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland had just emerged from 30 years of internecine conflict that had become known as ‘The Troubles’; three decades that had taken a terrible toll on our community and on our image overseas.
Re-imagining the destination
I was to take a central role in ‘re-imagining’ Northern Ireland, in a manner that would go some way to redressing this tarnished image. Turning this negative image of tourism in Northern Ireland around would require courage, ambition and authenticity and a huge shift in our collective imagination. We were assured by our colleagues in Bord Fáilte (now Fáilte Ireland) that we need do nothing as ‘all ships will rise with the tide’. In other words, sit back and relax; with peace they will come. A philosophy that we rejected outright.
Key to this re-imagining was to explore the unique and authentic experiences that our part of Ireland could offer. Our first task, post peace-agreement, was to develop a sustainable marketing proposition, focusing on stand-out experiences unique to Northern Ireland and that would differentiate us from the rest of the Island. Another consequence of the peace agreement was the creation of a number of cross-border agencies, chief among them Tourism Ireland. They were tasked with marketing and promoting the whole Island to all exisiting and emerging international markets.
The signature projects
What emerged from this lengthy period of sustained lateral thinking became known as the ‘Signature Projects’, five pivotal themes that would see an unprecedented investment in our tourism infrastructure during the second decade of the 21st Century. These initiatives were (in no particular order):
- Titanic (Maritime)Belfast
- Giant’s Causeway/Antrim and Causeway Coast Area
- The Walled City of Derry
- Christian Heritage/St Patrick
- The Mountains of Mourne
Of course, settling on these five distinctive themes meant that other areas of Northern Ireland felt neglected, chief among them the Sperrin Mountains and the Fermanagh Lakelands. Managing this early disappointment – and indeed anger and resentment – was as key to the development of the region as the investment in the Signature Projects. Immediate engagement with all the stakeholders in these regions was an imperative – as was detailed future-searching to agree on ambitious development strategies for their areas. This latter was less about appeasement and more about a common-sense and all embracing approach to the future tourism offering across the region.
What could possibly go wrong?
It was an unprecedented period of aspiration and determination to get things done; and done well. Yet, when the ambitious development targets were agreed across multiple stakeholders, there was no actual money to deliver them. Begrudgers and naysayers whispered malevolently from the sidelines; they’ve overstepped themselves, they opined. Well indeed we had overstepped ourselves, deliberately. Now we had the most ambitious tourism development programme in the region’s history agreed and ready to go. And it was this fact that sealed the deal.
We had rallied the great and the good behind what we called ‘The Strategic Framework for Action 2004-2007’ with the 5 Signature Projects at its heart. The groundwork had been laid to take these ‘ideas’ and bring them to life and that is what we spent the subsequent 3 years doing. So by 2008 we were able to present these ‘ideas’ as actual costed ‘projects and programmes’ and get them fully written into the NI Assembly’s Programme for Government 2008-2011, securing a financial commitment of some £79million over that period. This levered a further commitment of some £80million from other public sector bodies and from the private sector.
what a time to work in tourism!
The year 2012 was a magical one for those of us fortunate to have lived and worked in the sector during the previous decade. In that year, we saw mere ‘ideas’ (sometimes even ‘crazy’ concepts) such as Titanic Belfast burst into life in a way that we could never have imagined way back in 2002. Great world-beating coastal drives; historic cities; scholarly and theological concepts made real. All came to life before our very eyes. We now had the world-beating, unique and authentic visitor experiences that could only be the envy of may other mature, and much larger, destinations.
The downside of course is often that the dreamers and the architects of the future become mere footnotes in history. By 2012, the original creators had gone. Perhaps their work was done in laying the foundations for the future of tourism in Northern Ireland. Or making the case for the unprecedented financial resources needed to make it happen? Or maybe just time for a change. I left the organisation in 2014 for health reasons, but in hindsight I had done my bit; and more!
I didn’t receive any invitations to any of the grand opening events. I was one of those historical footnotes whose energy and commitment had set the whole thing in motion. Was I resentful? Not a bit of me. By that stage in my life and career, I had become accustomed to it. Those like me who are early adopters, cheerleaders for sometimes bonkers concepts – ‘sure the bloody ship sunk Fergal’, the then chief executive quipped at a board meeting – but who persevere and lay the foundations for a great sea-change. That is reward enough!
The road ahead
We have had ten years and more since we set down the solid bedrock upon which our investment in tourism in Northern Ireland and our tourism economy has grown, well above and beyond those cautious early predicitions. Despite the ‘blip’ of the coronavirus and the disaster of the accompanying lockdowns, the confidence that arrived right across our tourism industry all those years ago has prevailed. Today we are fighting back, recovering as best we can and ready to protest any future molestation of our industry by dark forces.
And what of our Tourist Board? During our Troubles, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board became a ‘caretaker’, as benign as the school janitor, doing worthy but invisible work in keeping the candle lit. Today, I would suggest that it has reverted to being the caretaker, but one who carefully, somewhat beningly, looks after a mighty industry. I believe that the heyday for the development of tourism in Northern Ireland has passed!
Good luck to them!
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