Ireland Plans to Create Islandwide Tourism Unit

NEW YORK -- Tourism is among the areas slated for development under the new governmental framework approved by referendum late last month in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Plans call for the formation of a cross-border tourism promotional body that will be unveiled in October, Roy Bailie, chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), said in an interview here.

Though all the details have not been ironed out, Bailie said he is confident that the new tourism entity will continue to push all-island promotions and work closely with the British Tourist Authority.

"Part of the agreement was to set up east-west [Great Britain-Ireland] alliances as well as cross-border, and this is one area where that will happen," he said.

Bailie was appointed chairman of the NITB in July of 1996, a few months after the Irish Republican Army ended a ceasefire worked out 18 months earlier.

Visitor numbers in Northern Ireland increased 67% in 1995.

Bailie said he is looking forward to seeing healthy arrivals figures return during the remainder of his three-year term.

"Now is our opportunity to promote a good product without combating the negative image people have of Northern Ireland," he said.

The biggest challenge, according to Bailie, is making sure "we take advantage of the window of opportunity that has been opened for us" because the publicity surrounding the agreement won't last forever.

About 1.5 million people visited Northern Ireland last year, and Bailie wants that number to reach 3.5 million within the next four or five years.

Tourism accounts for 2% of the province's gross national product -- a percentage Bailie would like to see grow to 6%. Such an increase would mean 20,000 new jobs, according to Mark Alexander, the deputy chief executive of the NITB.

A new tourism strategy is being put in place now, Alexander said, including persuading tour operators to bring groups to less-visited attractions and encouraging people to visit year-round.

He added that the province's infrastructure is improving, with a number of hotels and bed and breakfasts opening this year.

Hotels slated to open by the end of the summer include the Belfast Hilton, adjacent to the newly built Belfast Waterfront Hall conference and concert center, and the Stakis Park, Templepatrick, located 15 minutes outside Belfast.

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