Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tourism fixation?

Everything in NI these days seems to be justified by, or focussed upon, potential tourism. This is nothing new - the Ulster Tourist Development Association was the first tourism agency in the British Isles, founded back in the 1920s shortly after the establishment of Northern Ireland.

This is a small place and to prosper financially we need to attract money from beyond our own region. Tourism is important. However, to prosper culturally there are things we need to treasure, promote and recover for our own communal good, regardless of whether tourists care or not. But I'd argue that a culturally interesting and confident place will naturally attract people who want to come and see, and to enjoy being in that place, whether NI or anywhere else.

Marketing Northern Ireland as a cultural destination would have been difficult without 40 years of terrorism, which broadcast 40 years of urban and violent footage around the world and which became the paradoxical image for a place that is overwhelmingly rural and peaceful. But even before that it was hard to get the message out and for visitors to see a reason to get beyond the big iconic 'must-see' places.

I recently picked up a copy of Scotch-Irish, Third Letter by W. W. Watson of Salina, Kansas, published privately as a limited edition almost exactly 100 years ago on 6th November 1912. He begins his travelogue as follows:

"We were long undecided as to where we would spend our summer vacation. Being of Scotch-Irish descent, I was anxious to visit the land of my great grandfathers, Scotland and Ireland. After a great deal of discussion, we got off on the Kron Prinz Wilhelm from New York on July 16th. The Titanic disaster caused Mrs Watson to rather lean toward a summer trip to the Pacific coast, but as we had been to the coast so many times, usually returning over the Canadian Pacific, I held out somewhat unreasonably for spending our vacation this time on and across the Atlantic."

So far so good. He's stood up to his wife and has opted for a cultural quest to the old country.

After six days sailing they arrived at Plymouth, headed for two days in London, and then got a train to Fishguard in Wales. They took a ferry from Wales to Rosslare in the south of Ireland. From here they went to Cork, Blarney Castle, Queenstown, Bantry, Glengariff, Killarney, then to Dublin.

However, just when you think 'okay, the Scotch-Irish tourists have done the south, and now they're heading for a full immersion experience in Ulster, the province of their ancestors', it all gets a bit disappointing. They spent just 2 days here - they went to Belfast 'by far the liveliest city in Ireland, up-to-date and full of business', Portrush, Dunluce Castle, the Giants Causeway. They then took the train from Portrush via Ballymoney 'the home of President McKinley's ancestors' to Larne and sailed to Scotland, arriving at Stranraer. They whisked up the west of Scotland, back down to Edinburgh, then Melrose, and then back to London.

So, even 100 years ago, people from overseas were coming here to feel a connection with their roots and to enjoy some cultural tourism, but spent little or no time in Ulster at all, and when they did it was just for a quick look at Belfast, a spin up to the Causeway and away again. And that's what the majority of overseas visitors still do today.

There is so much more here than the big 'must sees'. But I wonder if these undiscovered gems will ever appeal to anyone apart from local daytrippers and the real hardcore heritage buff.