HC Deb 02 December 1993 vol 233 cc1153-5
7. Mr. Ian Bruce

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest figures for tourism in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Atkins

The latest figures available are for 1992, when 1.25 million visitors came to Northern Ireland, representing an increase of 6 per cent. over the previous year. This was the fourth successive annual increase in visitor numbers, which is highly encouraging set against the background of a difficult year for the tourist trade worldwide.

Mr. Bruce

Will my hon. Friend send our congratulations to all those involved in the tourism industry in the Province for maintaining their traditional welcome? Will he tell the House what more can be done to promote this excellent industry and to increase the benefits gained from tourism in the Province?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I join him in congratulating the chairman of the Northern Ireland tourist board, Hugh O'Neil, together with all members of his board. They have done a tremendous amount of work to ensure that tourism—the fastest growing industry in the western world—goes from strength to strength in Northern Ireland. There is more that we can do in terms of resources and commitments, and we are trying so to do. Above all, we need to get across—as we are doing —the positive message about Northern Ireland being "the place you will never know unless you go." The more that we promote Northern Ireland in the House, the more visitors will come and the more profit will be gained for those in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

The Minister will be aware that good travel facilities are necessary for tourists in Northern Ireland. Will he tell the House what steps he will take, or has taken, to sort out the infighting which is apparently taking place between not only the airports in Northern Ireland but the airlines there? It will lead to a lack of confidence about the travel facilities in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority on airport matters because he has an airport in his constituency. I take slight issue with him on his last sentence—that this will harm the tourist industry. It is clear that competition among airlines and airports can only be good for the traveller because, we hope, it will reduce costs and make things more attractive over a period. The point that the hon. Gentleman raises about differences of opinion interests me. They are not directly a matter for me, except in so far as it affects my custodianship of Aldergrove airport, albeit temporarily.

Mr. Viggers

I take pleasure in the fact that 1992 was the fourth year of growth in the Northern Ireland tourist business. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland co-operate on tourism, particularly as it is supported by the International Fund for Ireland and European Community funds?

Mr. Atkins

It would be fair to record that my hon. Friend probably started the increase in tourism when he was a Northern Ireland Minister and, to that extent, its roots lie with him. I agree with what he said. We must attempt to get the message across to those who wish to come to the island of Ireland that they can travel north and south and enjoy excellent facilities. Discussions that the tourist board is having with Bord Failte from the south are aimed at doing that. For example, the Erne-Shannon waterway crosses the border and is of mutual interest. It is something which people are keen to see when they come to Northern Ireland.

Mr. McGrady

I certainly accept that the Minister is deeply committed to the development of tourism in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that one important aspect is to provide the necessary infrastructure so that we can leap forward, as it were, when peace breaks out? Is the Minister aware that a quango appointed by the Government, the Northern Ireland Museum Council, has made direct representations to Brussels? That has frustrated applications made for funding there for several flagship developments for tourism. Is the Minister aware of that and does he agree with it—and if not, what action does he propose to take to indicate to the Brussels Commission that that is not the attitude or feeling of the people of Northern Ireland or of his Department?

Mr. Atkins

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Northern Ireland has some fine museums, not least the one in his constituency with which I have been privileged to be associated. I am not aware of the detail to which he referred. I must investigate the matter and I promise that I will write to him. If he has further information that I ought to have, I should be grateful if he would talk to me later.

Mr. William O'Brien

I agree with the Minister and with other hon. Members that tourism is most important to Northern Ireland. It mainly comprises small businesses, which compete for a share of the market. I agree with the Minister that the Northern Ireland tourist board brings together both the private and the public sector to develop tourism. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is required now is for the national heritage section of his Department to work with the Northern Ireland tourist board and the local authorities—which, with their limited resources, promote tourism—to make available through the Northern Ireland Office details about arts, culture, historic buildings, music, museums and so on, as that would help to give tourism in Northern Ireland a boost? Will the hon. Gentleman take that suggestion on board and act so that we can further stimulate tourism in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Atkins

There are many documents which pull together the concerns to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention. As I would expect of him, he has come up with a very good idea. I shall certainly consider it and draw it to the attention of the bodies that can best implement it.