Tourism is right at the heart of business in Northern Ireland and in Belfast alone, there will be an estimated tourist income of over £130m this year.

NI attracts more than six million air passengers, more than two million ferry passengers and over 330,000 cruise ship passengers every year.

One man at the heart of this industry is John McGrillen, the chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland.

The industry John is charged with overseeing is certainly growing, but it’s not without problems.

A study from Ulster University (UU) and Dublin City University (DCU) has shown that while both jurisdictions on the island are improving their tourism numbers, the Republic is attracting much higher expenditure from travellers.

John is unsurprised by some of these conclusions, and sees external factors as playing a key role.

“I think there are two reasons. One, a visitor who may come from the US typically, will do a tour of the whole of the island. And so they may come for somewhere between 10 and 12 days, they might spend three days in the north and nine in the south.

“So part of that is simply down to geography. The Republic is four times bigger than the North.

“The second factor is probably down to connectivity. People, flying say from France, Germany or Spain, they would tend to spend less time [in NI].

“Connectivity in the Republic of Ireland to mainland Europe is far in excess of what we have with Belfast.

“I certainly think we need to see a greater level of connectivity between Europe and Belfast directly.

“We need to look to see how we can encourage more direct flights from places like Paris, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Munich: some of those larger cities in France and Germany.”

One way to encourage those flights is to market individual locations within Northern Ireland, and Visit Belfast launched a new three-year strategy at the end of May to help further build up the city’s appeal as a destination.

The Belfast city region’s New Horizons plan aims to grow the city’s tourism economy by 20%, to get to an annual return of £150m by 2026-27.

Growing tourism is a key goal of Tourism NI, however the UU and DCU study also found that Northern Ireland had struggled to grow tourism within the state when compared to the Republic.

Staycations within the Republic grew from 6.5 million a year to 11 million a year from 2011 to 2021.

In contrast, in NI the numbers remained steady at around 2 million, something the universities said could reflect the Republic’s stronger economic performance.

John agrees with this suggestion, saying: “Part of our challenge is in the past decade that we’ve really lived through a period of austerity.

“Certainly within the public sector and, given the public sector dominance here, people in real terms are probably worse off now than they were 10 years ago. So people are having to make choices as to how to spend their money.

“It doesn’t surprise me that if, in real terms, their incomes haven’t increased, that the level of expenditure that they’re making on domestic travel has followed suit.

“Whereas, what you’ve seen in the Republic has been significant year on year growth, salaries increasing.

“We’ve been on different trajectories in terms of economic performance over the last 10 years. And that probably applies right across the UK, not just Northern Ireland.”

Tourism NI has been working hard to tap into the market of tourists from the Republic, and to that end “have invested huge time and effort over the last 10 years to change the perception of Northern Ireland.”

“[In 2016] we did a huge piece of work to establish why people from the south were not coming north.

“The findings of that poll were that people thought there wasn’t very much to do, people had no idea how they would get there, and they thought it was very far away.

“Some people thought it was more expensive than it is in the Republic, and they felt that Northern Ireland wasn’t a particularly friendly place for visitors from the south.”

Tourism NI launched a new advertising campaign in the Republic to try and challenge these preconceptions.

“Our strap line has been ‘a small step to a giant adventure. So that’s really connected getting the message across to people that Northern Ireland is not that far away, it’s on your doorstep and, when you do get there, there’s lots to see and do and it’s a friendly place.

“And over the last couple of years we’ve overlaid that again with the value for money offer, because we are definitely much better value for money than the Republic.”

John believes the rise of tourism within the island of Ireland during the pandemic helped people from the South to learn more about NI.

“I think that was one thing that people really did discover during Covid, that it was a very friendly place and that Belfast was a very friendly city, and it is really good value for money.

“And I think people having that experience, and word of mouth, along with continual promotion, has been hugely instrumental in driving that growth.”

The Covid pandemic was a huge challenge to the tourism industry, not least to the hotel trade which saw huge dips in visitor numbers along with prolonged uncertainty. John views the hotel trade as having bounced back from those years.

“There’s undoubtedly been a recovery. We’re probably back to 90% of where we were in 2018, in terms of hotel occupancy.

“The big difference has been the rates that hotels have been able to charge and the prices that people have been prepared to pay.

“Hotels tend to measure their performance in what they call their revenue per available room.

“That has increased dramatically since 2019.

“So, as a result, have you seen people like Hastings Hotels and McKeever Group, very recently publishing their annual reports, and their profits have gone up dramatically in 2023 in comparison to 2022.

“So, the hotel sector has done pretty well.”

John also believes Tourism NI is doing pretty well with its budget allocation, despite the pressures of budget cuts across government departments.

This feeling is largely down to how the money has been allocated this financial year.

In the past Tourism NI would’ve “gotten a budget less than we would’ve liked” but the “department was always quite generous when it came to monitoring rounds”.

“What the Minister has agreed to do for us this year is to say, well, rather than give you the same starting budget, and then have you beg for money during the year, he has set our starting budget the same as our closing budget for last year.

“So we’re not getting more money, but we’re getting all our money available to us upfront.

“It allows us to plan more and with more certainty. And it allows us to make choices as to where we spend money and to expend it in a more effective way.

“So I’m not at all disappointed by the allocation that the Minister has granted us”

John is not excited by all of the government’s plans. With the post-Brexit visa requirements, in particular he’s concerned by the fact that, “you’re going to have to have an Electronic Travel Authorisation to travel to Northern Ireland, which you don’t require if you’re travelling in the south”.

“When it comes to visiting Northern Ireland, you don’t want any barriers.

“We’ve had to work extremely hard to develop the amount of international business that we’re getting across the border. And the fact that international business has grown faster in the south than in the north is indicative of that.

“Any barrier, we could do without.”