HC Deb 12 December 1996 vol 287 cc388-90
2. Mr. Simon Coombs

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what estimate he has made of the contribution of the tourism industry to Ulster's economy in the past two years; and if he will make a statement. [7316]

7. Mr. Nigel Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what was the level of tourist activity in Northern Ireland for the year 1995–96. [7321]

Mr. Ancram

In 1995, peaceful conditions saw a dramatic increase in tourism: total visitors rose by 20 per cent. over 1994 to 1.5 million; holiday visitors by 67 per cent. to 276,000; and visitor revenue by 17 per cent. to £214 million. The year 1996 has reflected the ending of the IRA ceasefire and the summer disturbances. Downturns are forecast of 11 per cent. in the total number of visitors, 25 per cent. in holiday visitors and 6 per cent. in revenue.

Mr. Coombs

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that those are remarkable figures and that he will join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland tourist board on its excellent work during the ceasefires to draw the Province's manifest attractions to the attention of the outside world. Can there be any more dramatic evidence than that presented by those figures of the need for peace to be restored in Northern Ireland, so that prosperity continues to flourish?

Mr. Ancram

I very much endorse what my hon. Friend says. There is no doubt that an established peace will tremendously benefit the tourism industry in Northern Ireland, where there is enormous room for expansion. The industry accounts for 2 per cent. of gross domestic product in Northern Ireland. The figure is 5 per cent. in Scotland and in the Republic of Ireland; were the Northern Ireland figure to go up to those levels, 20,000 new jobs would be created there. It is interesting to note that, even in 1996, the visitor figures are still above the pre-ceasefire levels, and I pay tribute to the work of the Northern Ireland tourist board in attracting tourists to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many small businesses depend on healthy tourism in Northern Ireland? Many are self-employed and some employ just a handful of people. Therefore, one of the immediate results of peace in Northern Ireland will be a boost to those small businesses.

Mr. Ancram

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; small businesses across the Province would benefit greatly from further increases in the number of tourists to the Province. I certainly hope that those who try to bring instability to the Province are aware of the damage that they are doing to prosperity in their own areas. I assure my hon. Friend that, even if there were peace, the interests of small businesses and tourism would be severely damaged were the social chapter and the minimum wage to be introduced.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Does the Minister know of the tourist attractions in the Strangford lough area, and realise that tourists would like to visit such areas as Ballyhalbert, Grey Abbey, Ballywalter and Kircubbin? Does he think that it would be wise for the tourist board to provide grants for licensed inns and accommodation in the areas that tourists would like to visit, and not to deny grants to those areas because they are not in need of social benefits and not targeting social need?

Mr. Ancram

I do know the areas to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I have visited them, and I understand what the right hon. Gentleman means when he mentions their attractiveness to tourists. I shall certainly always try to persuade those I know who are going to Northern Ireland to visit those areas. As he knows, I am not the Minister with responsibility for tourism, but I shall ensure that the matters that he has mentioned are passed on to my noble Friend.

Mr. Ashton

Is the Minister aware that the Select Committee on National Heritage has just completed a report into tourism and given great praise to Northern Ireland for its statutory system of classification and registration of accommodation, and that people who do not live up to that standard will lose their licence and go out of business? The Committee has recommended to the Government that a similar system should be introduced in England, but the Secretary of State has refused to do so. Why does a law that works very well in Northern Ireland not apply to some of the hotels in London, for example, that rip off foreigners, are ridden with bugs and rats and are a damn disgrace? Why does the Government not introduce a consistent policy?

Mr. Ancram

If ever I have responsibility for tourism and national heritage, I will be in a position to answer that question—today, however, I am answering questions on Northern Ireland. We do things well in Northern Ireland, and we do them well because we are different.

Mr. Worthington

Since 1991, the Government have said that one of their fundamental policies has been to target social need, and to focus on those areas and people most in need. Is the Minister aware of the report by the Northern Ireland Council of Voluntary Associations, which states that the Northern Ireland tourist board is the worst of all government bodies in targeting social need? The board makes no mention of targeting social needs in its key objectives, and meeting those needs is not one of its key targets. The board's most recent annual report contained not one reference to targeting social needs. Despite this week's cuts, is the Minister able to confirm that targeting social needs is still a Government priority, and what will he do about the Northern Ireland tourist board and all the other government bodies that have been shown to be missing the target?

Mr. Ancram

Overall, as the hon. Gentleman knows, targeting social need remains one of the three priorities of Government policy. If he thinks that one can order tourists to go in certain directions, I do not think that he understands fully what happens in the tourist trade. We can attract tourists to Northern Ireland, but we cannot force them to visit specific places. We are trying to ensure that tourists visit all around Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Did the Minister read the remarks of the Republic of Ireland's Minister for Tourism on the branding Ireland initiative? He said that he detected political benefits in such an initiative. Will the Minister assure the House—I understood that it was Government policy—that no all-Ireland tourist structure will be set up without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland? I should like to praise the Northern Ireland tourist board—with which I have worked very closely over the past year—for the high professionalism, drive and enthusiasm that it has demonstrated.

If the Provisional IRA would call a complete and permanent cessation of violence, it would allow tourism to make a real contribution to our economy.

Mr. Ancram

On the second point, I agree with the hon. Member and, indeed, I made the same point earlier. I hope that that message is heard loud and clear throughout Northern Ireland in all parts of the community from which violence can come.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has strong views on the initiative, but it is a great opportunity for the two parts of the island of Ireland to co-operate on tourism, to their mutual benefit. At a cost of some £500,000 over three to five years, it is likely to secure 720 jobs and to earn £27 million extra. That is good value for money in anyone's terms.