I had the pleasure of visiting Portrush recently. I’ve incredibly fond memories of the seaside town. My first holidays as a child were spent there and I’ve nothing but pleasant recollections of the place. Sun, sand, sea and amusements galore. That was the background to my childhood summers. Those were the days. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be! As well as childhood holidays, I’ve other, more recent memories of the resort. My wife and I spent our first weekend away together in Portrush seven years ago and last week we returned for a weekend away with our baby daughter. Wonderful memories.
We went off season and the weather was characteristically uncharitable, but we had a terrific weekend, enjoying the sights and sounds of the north coast. What I didn’t expect was how many others would make the same trip. The place was positively teeming with tourists. They were there in their droves: Americans, English, Antipodeans. You name it. Over the course of the weekend, we saw lots of golfers, bikers and holidaymakers who’d chosen to spend an early September weekend in Northern Ireland.
We even stumbled across that newest breed of holidaymaker: the Game of Thrones tourist! There were bus loads of them, from all corners of the globe. I must admit that I live in blissful ignorance of the ubiquitous Game of Thrones phenomenon. In fact, when I first saw people waxing lyrical about Jon Snow on social media, I thought they were referring to the popular Channel 4 newsreader! True story.
Nonetheless, it was great to see so many tourists making the journey. It was great to see them there, in tremendous spirits despite the often inclement weather. How times have changed. Like most of us, I remember the days when tourists in Northern Ireland were as rare as hen’s teeth. And in a strange way, we kind of liked those days. All our unheralded gems were ours alone and we didn’t have to share them with the rest of the world.
Of course visitors knew about the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim but precious little else. Maybe that’s because in days gone by, there wasn’t much else! When I was growing up, Belfast, for example, did little to inform tourists of its links to the most famous ship ever to sail. However, these days we can encourage visitors with a world- leading Titanic visitor attraction and a luxury hotel.
Of course these changes are worthy of celebration. The benefits gleaned by the local economy are obvious and it’s imperative we make the most of the bounty. Tourists can go anywhere in the world but, increasingly, they’re coming here. We must ensure we give them something worth coming to. And, more importantly, we must give them a reason to return.
Northern Ireland’s new visitors are a sign of a society that’s normalising; that the outside world finally accepts there’s more to this place than the Troubles. As I’ve seen with my own eyes, the tourists are doing their bit. They’re responding to the glossy adverts. They’re coming. We must fulfil our side of the bargain by providing investment, infrastructure and world class facilities.
Ultimately, people vote with their feet. If they don’t like somewhere, they don’t return. This applies to tourist destinations as much as anything else. Weather aside, we live in a great country. Ireland is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in the world. We’ve every reason to be proud of our home. And we should be grateful so many visitors want to see our sights for themselves. However, with increased interest comes a responsibility to deliver the goods.
The tourism and hospitality industry in Ireland has come in leaps and bounds in recent times but there’s still much to be done. In this ultra-competitive world, there’s no room for complacency. The south has led the way in showcasing our tremendous product to the rest of the world. And although we’re a bit further behind up north (for obvious reasons) we’re starting to catch up in terms of the massive potential that exists. I’m delighted to see so many tourists flocking to our weird and wonderful shores. Long may it continue. It’s vital we have the facilities and infrastructure to make the most of this precious gift.