Paul McFadden - At least the tourists can go home again

To lose one tourist is a tragedy, but three hundred thousand? In the space of a year? That sounds like carelessness indeed. Or does it?

The latest, startling research, which was published by the BBC this week, showed that the number of visitors to Northern Ireland fell by almost a third of a million between 2008 and 2010. That was a 14% drop which, on the surface at least, seemed hugely disappointing.

However, on the bright side, it still meant that 1.7 million people – from the Republic, Britain and overseas – chose to come to the North for a break or on business last year, and that is an amazing figure. It is amazing for a number of reasons.

First of all, the heatwave which we’ve been promised every year since my 15th birthday still hasn’t materialised. As recently as a few weeks ago we were being assured that the region would be lightly grilled during a scorching hot summer. They even forecast what they called “a barbeque summer”. How wrong they were. There’s been so much rain we’ve been poached instead.

Secondly, the brochure advertising our ‘attractions’ to the rest of the world must make for very interesting reading indeed. The Programme for Government, drawn up by the Stormont Executive, had set a target of 2.5 million tourists visiting the North by this year. That objective now seems to have been highly ambitious. After all, when you can’t offer sun, sand and sangria, you need to have a rich cultural experience to set before your guests, and they’ve certainly been presented with that this week.

Consider some of the latest headlines: “Photographer Shot in City Rioting”; “Victim Stabbed As He Shook Hands”; “Woman Charged Over Glass Attack”; “Massacre Report Set For Release”. This is the stuff of nightmares, not of dreams, and the wonder is that any tourists came here at all. Those who do fetch up on our shores deserve our gratitude.

Having said all that, the people I feel sorriest for are not the 1.7 million tourists who landed on our shores and can always go back home again; the people I feel sorriest for are the 1.7 million residents who are stuck here. Like the Ryanair passengers who were urged to ‘Book to the sun’ earlier this year (by flying to Derry, Glasgow and Oslo!) we should be checking the small print in our contracts.

We were supposed to be enjoying the benefits of a peace process by now, and yet the guns were brought out again in East Belfast earlier this week for the fracas near the Titanic Quarter. I can’t see that appearing on a brochure any time soon! We were supposed to be enjoying the fruits of a peace dividend, but it’s made for very slim pickings indeed here in the North West (where we almost lost the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin, where the Magee expansion plan seems less and less secure by the day, and where even the A5 road project – underwritten by another government - looks bumpier than it should).

Being human, in times of crisis or uncertainty we tend to turn to the reassuring and the familiar for comfort and a sense of security – slippers and pipebomb. And so the summer solstice was welcomed in with a chorus of gunfire in East Belfast; the ‘stir crazy’ UVF decided on a daytrip to Short Strand. And the rest of us now have the uncertainty of a good, old-fashioned marching season to look forward to this summer. Ah, culture. At least we know where we stand now. Peace? Who needs it?

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