Northern Ireland plays catch-up for U.S. visits

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NEW YORK -- Northern Ireland is counting on several years of domestic tranquility, a larger accommodations base and a new all-Ireland marketing campaign to help it catch up with the southern part of the island in attracting more U.S. tourists.

That's according to Howard Hastings, managing director of Hastings Hotels, president of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation and a board member of Tourism Ireland Ltd., the agency overseeing the new marketing campaign.

Hastings said the organization has a $27 million budget to promote visits to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Although it is not the first time the two governments have cooperated on a tourism promotion, the new budget is "vastly more sizable than what existed before."

U.S. arrivals to Northern Ireland have quadrupled over the past eight years. Above, Queens University in Belfast. The board of Tourism Ireland has yet to decide exactly how and in which markets that money will be spent, he said, but the campaign is expected to start in September to prepare for the 2002 tourist season.

Tourism Ireland has agreed on a general theme for the campaign, which will "relate to the emotional experience of visiting Ireland," Hastings said, focusing on the concepts of "people, place and pace."

Although Ireland as a whole received some 1.1 million visitors from the U.S., only about 10% of that number visited Northern Ireland. But small as they are, U.S. arrivals numbers have been surging -- they quadrupled over the past eight years, up 22% in 2000, and could repeat that rate of growth again this year, Hastings said.

The destination has the lodging base: Northern Ireland's hotel capacity has roughly doubled in the past six years, including the addition of a number of four- and five-star hotels.

Hastings added that corporate and incentive arrivals from the U.S. have been growing significantly, partly because more U.S. companies have been setting up operations in the country, and also because the destination's golf courses are attracting corporate groups.

"One of the key products attracting the business and incentive types is the golf," he said.

Hastings' hotels include three properties in Belfast (the five-star Culloden Hotel, the Europa and the Stormon), the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, the Everglades Hotel in Londonderry and the Ballygally Castle Hotel on the Antrim coast.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) in the U.S. is helping the effort by working closely with the Irish Tourist Board in marketing to agents, said David Boyce, director-U.S.

The NITB also has benefited from working the U.S. Tour Operators Association convention every year. The number of operators with programs that include Northern Ireland has grown from 13 in 1993 to 75 today.

Operators are listed in a new 2001 travel planner. For information, call the NITB at (800) 326-0036 or (212) 922-0101.

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