We’re just over a month-and-a-half into 2018, and planes have been dominating the economic news agenda this year so far.
On the one hand, we’ve had the trade dispute between Boeing and Bombardier come to a head, following weeks and indeed months of hand-wringing about the potential impact of any tariffs on the Canadian firm’s Belfast operations. On the other hand, we’ve had another stream of good news on the tourism front, as more and more overseas visitors flock to Belfast and Northern Ireland.
On almost every metric you look at regarding the tourism sector – be that visitor numbers, bed nights, visitor expenditure, airport passenger traffic, or the number of cruise shops docking in Belfast, for instance – we are seeing record highs. In fact, every year now seems to be a record year when it comes to tourism in Northern Ireland. And the 12 months ahead are set to be no different. Indeed, Lonely Planet named Belfast the best place to visit in 2018.
The number of overnight trips in the year to September 2017 rose by 11 percent year-on-year. Over 90 percent of this increase was due to holiday-makers. Meanwhile one-quarter of the rise in overnight trips was due to the Republic of Ireland market which has increased by one third in a year – evident in the flow of southern registered automobiles crossing the border to our hotel as well as our shopping centre carparks. The fastest growing market is those holiday-makers from outside the UK and Republic of Ireland (+59 percent). Sterling weakness since the referendum has clearly acted as a tailwind for demand. Comforting news for hoteliers when you consider Belfast is creating more new hotels rooms this year than any city in the UK or Dublin.
In the past, the tourism sector in Northern Ireland has been disproportionately small compared to those in the rest of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland. So, in many respects, the huge growth that we have been seeing is a case of playing catch-up after years of under-performance. But this represents a real opportunity and that’s why we are seeing so many hotels being built in Belfast in present. In the past we had a shortage of visitors, visitor attractions and hotels. All of these are now being addressed.
This boom in the tourism industry is also good news from construction firms. The more planes we see landing in Belfast, the more cranes we will see in our skyline. Indeed, Deloitte’s Crane Count for 2017 showed that there are 25 schemes currently under construction in the city, 22 landmark developments due for completion this year, and over 1,000 new hotel rooms to be finished in eight Belfast hotels in 2018.
In addition to providing a boost to the construction sector, the influx of visitors to Northern Ireland has also been providing a boost to consumer spending. Whilst domestic consumer spending has been hit hard by rising inflation and stagnant wages, those visitors coming to Northern Ireland from overseas have helped compensate for this on the high street.
As the year goes on, our economy is going to become even more dependent on visitors’ pounds, as domestic consumer spending comes under even more pressure. New car sales are always seen as a key barometer of consumer spending, and we saw them falling at their fastest rate in six years in 2017. This trend of falling new car sales looks likely to continue this year.
Automobiles are also likely to become more prominent in the news agenda for another reason. The car industry will find itself increasingly at the forefront of the Brexit debate. Indeed, the Japanese Ambassador to the UK has flagged the concerns of Nissan, Toyota and Honda regarding the future viability of their UK operations.
In car manufacturing, auto parts are moved back and forth within the EU in a friction-free-way – free from tariffs and arguably more importantly, disruption to the supply chain. Brexit will potentially dramatically change how the industry operates, and how this will play out will become more apparent as this year unfolds. Indeed, the car industry will become a barometer for Brexit negotiations. Similarly, Northern Ireland’s aerospace industry and its supply chain – encompassing over 70 local firms – will be impacted by Brexit, but the degree to which remains to be seen.
Indeed, Brexit represents a major challenge for all of the aforementioned areas. For tourism, there is the potential impact on the supply of migrant workers in the hospitality sector – a KPMG survey suggests that over one-third of workers in the sector are currently EU nationals. Who is going to staff our new and existing hotels? Similarly, the construction sector is heavily dependent on workers from the rest of the EU, and an outflow of these workers from the UK will potentially suck skills out of Northern Ireland, with some workers in Northern Ireland likely to be tempted by higher wages and opportunities in places like London.
When it comes to planes, the issue of freedom of movement also needs addressed. At present, flights within the EU and between EU and some non-EU countries (e.g. US) are governed by EU rules. The UK leaving the EU means that a new arrangement is required, and fast. Otherwise, Northern Ireland’s tourism record performances could come to an abrupt end.
So, if there are three things worth watching in the months ahead, it’s perhaps planes, cranes and automobiles.
This article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 20th February 2018.