A leading Northern Ireland hotelier has criticised Stormont for its “embarrassing” funding of Tourism Ireland, the cross-border body marketing the entire island.
And Howard Hastings, MD of the Hastings Hotels Group, blamed “institutional resistance” for the failure to connect the Northern Causeway Coastal Route with the Republic’s Wild Atlantic Way.
He made his comments in a video address to the Shared Island Dialogue event, ‘Tourism on the Shared Island: Building on Past Success to Create a Sustainable Future’.
The event was part of the Irish Government’s Shared Island Initiative, which seeks the views of key stakeholders for deeper co-operation on tourism on the island. Attendees included the Republic’s Tourism Minister, Catherine Martin.
Mr Hastings, whose group runs premier Northern Ireland hotels including the Culloden, Europa, Grand Central and co-owns Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, believes tourism has been “pigeon-holed” as one part of the island’s economic mix.
And he singled out the Stormont Assembly for not putting its shoulder to the wheel to form a cohesive, all-island strategy.
“Not only does tourism create employment in every nook and cranny of the island, parts where no other industry can reach, it does so year in and year out.
“In our fairs and our festivals, in its observed seasonal rituals, it is a source of social cohesion, it is a generator of mental health, it is a source of civic pride.
“My greatest regret is that as yet, our Northern Ireland (tourist) industry is so far ahead of the Northern Ireland government in embracing Tourism Ireland and what it does.
“It is a source of embarrassment to me that in a funding model where Northern Ireland is pledged to commit one third of the resources, at present, their contribution is barely 15%.”
Mr Hastings said Covid restrictions sparked a “fascinating” influx of tourists from the Republic to Northern Ireland – 55% of them overnighting for the first time.
But he said more was needed to cement that growth – including calling out the “institutional resistance” which means funding to connect the Wild Atlantic Way to the Causeway Coastal Route is not in place.
He also took aim at the “folly” of not including Enniskillen and Armagh City as part of the ‘Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands’ project – and said he looked forward to the National Ploughing Championships being staged in North Antrim.
Bold marketing of Northern Irish food tourism and its corporate offering is now required, he insists.