I’m really looking forward to the Giro d’Italia coming to Northern Ireland in May.
It’s a brilliant coup to have secured the start of the race and it will be fun to learn a bit more about such an exciting and spectacular sport.
We’ve had great success lately in attracting big events: last year there was the G8 Summit, the World Police and Fire Games and the UK City of Culture in Derry/Londonderry. This is an area where our politicians have excelled: getting behind proposals to bring visitors here, working together effectively, and using their networks to get results. We should applaud them for this. They do work hard at it and they do get results.
This performance is reflected in the latest tourism figures, which were published last week. They reveal that Programme for Government targets of 4.2 million visitors and £676 million tourist expenditure which were set for December 2014, have been met by September 2013.
It’s not very often that government targets are met, so this is cause for celebration. However delve a little deeper and there are a few more worrying statistics in the report. For example the number of overseas visitors who came on holiday, as opposed to being on business or visiting relatives and friends, actually fell during the action-packed year. The biggest factor in the rise is actually people from Northern Ireland holidaying here. So if, for example you live in Coleraine and spend a night in Belfast, you are categorised as a tourist, whether you think you are or not, and you will find yourself included in the figures. That’s fine with me – if you are staying in a hotel and eating out then your money is just as welcome as someone from Germany, Sweden or Italy.
But the lack of growth in overseas visitors is a concern and that is presumably why the Tourist Board, politicians and others are putting such efforts into making the Giro a success.
So we are being encouraged to deck out our homes, shops, restaurants in pink, which is the race colour. There is pressure on politicians who will be competing for local government and European seats during the time of the race to remove their posters from lampposts and Belfast City Council wants more than £200,000 so that empty and derelict premises passed by the riders look like thriving shops.
You get the picture. We all dress in pink for a couple of days, eat pink themed meals in pink bars, pretend there’s no political action going on, and paint over the dereliction and decay that is blighting our towns and cities.
The watching millions will be charmed by the wild beauty of the Antrim coast, they will warm to the quaintness of our streets and to a people who have taken the race to their hearts. Many may conclude that Northern Ireland is misrepresented and misunderstood and will decide to visit.
I wish the powers that be good luck with this: I hope it works. We need the money and tourism is vital to our future prosperity.
However: a little advice. One of the biggest challenges for the PR industry is not so much coming up with ideas that make people look good, but matching the image you are creating firmly in reality. Get that wrong and the whole exercise can backfire to such an extent that you end up causing damage instead of boosting your reputation.
This has certainly been our experience here: yes great things happened last year. But there was rioting during the Police and Fire Games, and widespread disorder throughout the year which culminated in Northern Ireland featuring on Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. So let’s not be delusional about this. There’s a reason why people don’t come here on holiday and taking down posters of Anna Lo, Diane Dodds, Alex Attwood and Martina Anderson is not going to alter that, and is when you think about it, insulting to all those good people. As if anyone watching in Italy would decide, after all, not to come here when they discover what the SDLP candidate for the European elections looks like!
No the reality is that disorder and instability are symptoms of a lack of political progress. And tourism will only take off when that is addressed.
I’ve no problem whatsoever in the authorities pretending that everything is just terrific here – and I’ve got my pink shirt all washed and ironed already. I just wish they would put in just a bit more work to actually make it so.