Belfast — "People think we exist under a great big mushroom cloud of smoke." Robert Hall, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), is speaking about the public perception of this politically troubled province.
Yet he is grinning almost ear to ear as he says it.
The reason: a fat report, as yet unpublished, on tourism in Northern Ireland lies on his desk. Drawn up by a group of independent consultants, its findings make him "very pleased." Among its conclusions:
* Visitors numbers increased by 27 percent in 1978 and another 17 percent in 1979. Last year's estimated total was 728,000 -- equal, Mr. Hall says, to "about half our population," and more than double the visitor/resident proportion for Great Britain.
* Direct expenditure by tourists contributes between 1 and 2 percent of the province's gross domestic product each year. Add tourism-related expenditures and the figure is even higher.
* Some 15,000 people are directly and indirectly employed in tourism here. Because of the twin problems of economic malaise and terrorist troubles, however , the British government has poured job-creating money into the province. The average cost of creating a job in tourism is estimated at about L10,000 ($22,500 ).
All this is music to NITB ears. Before "the troubles" began in 1969, there was little emphasis placed on developing tourism. The experiment of the past ten years was to see whether tourism was viable under such circumstances.
Tapping the report with his finger, Mr. Hall says, "They have come up with the definitive conclusion that tourism makes a substantial contribution to the economy."
In a volatile worldwide industry like tourism -- where even a rumor of an oil-slicked beach can chop advance bookings for a region in half -- the buoyancy of the Ulster market takes some explaining. Why, when now and then a hotel disappears (usually with forewarning) in a puff of terrorist-ignited smoke, is it doing so well?
For one thing, the unspoiled beauty of the place itself draws visitors. "One of the big attractions of Northern Ireland is that we are not a tourist-dominated country," he says, "and our board's view is, let's keep it that way."
Planning officer S. B. Belford points out that on rural Lough Erne, for example, there is one hired cruiser for every 90 acres of water -- a far cry from some English lakes which have four per acre. Although new funds have been set aside to subsidize hire cruise operators, "We want to keep it relatively empty," he says. The NITB has shied away from promoting conference facilities, bus trips, and even camping. "We'd rather have a limited number of high-spenders than a lot of low-spenders," says Mr. Hall.
Ulster is also within 1 1/2 hours flying time of 280 million Europeans. Other visitors come on "find a tombstone" geneology tours from the United States , where the NITB estimates a market of about 20 million people of Scotch-Irish descent. Not surprisingly, the board is stepping up its representation in North America.
Mr. Hall also notes that Northern Ireland's troubles, while still unresolved, are no longer front-page stories on the Continent. "We disappeared from their papers four or five years ago," he says. Ulstermen point out, too, that tourists from such countries as Holland and Germany, where terrorism is not unfamiliar, are not particularly worried about conditions in Ulster.
According to United States Embassy officials, Northern Ireland is no longer on the advisory list of countries considered dangerous for travel by embassy personnel.
One problem encountered abroad: Tourists from Australia, North America, and other faraway places still expect to see a map of the whole island of Ireland -- not one from the NITB and another from its counterpart in the south, the Bord Failte.
Mr. Hall is particularly pleased by increased cooperation between North and South on tourism. Within the past year, he says, NITB literature has been put into Bord Failte offices -- with a resulting large increase in visitors from the republic.