Fermanagh tourism providers have to “work harder” because the county is “not the first choice destination.” They agree that they need to do more to convince coach tours and Free Independent Travellers (FITs) to veer off the current popular route, and come into Fermanagh.

However, new European markets such as Belgium and Denmark are voicing an interest in the green spaces and outdoor opportunities here, and more Chinese visitors could be attracted by the Marble Arch Global Geopark. The lakelands continue to be popular among German tourists and the 2017 Irish Open will once again put Fermanagh on the international radar.

These were some of the views coming from atendees at the 2014 ‘Meet the Buyer’ tourism workshop, held in The Lough Erne Resort.

“Trying to sell Fermanagh is not the easiest,” a representative of German tour operator Skellig Reisen tells The Impartial Reporter.

Traditionally, tourists want to fly into Dublin and then travel up to Belfast, along the North Antrim Coast, into Donegal and back into the Republic of Ireland.

Ferghal Purcell, General Manager of the Lough Erne Resort adds: “We’ve got to work harder at what we are doing now. We are not the first choice destination. It’s not that we are any less, it’s just about airports and ease of access.” He adds: “As an industry we’ve got to become more active in NITB, more active in Tourism Ireland.” Over 140 tour operators from markets including North America, Britain, Europe and China were at the Lough Erne Resort on Monday to take part in the ‘Meet the Buyer’ workshop, organised by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and Tourism Ireland.

The trip involved a series of face-to-face sales meetings between buyers and industry representatives from across Northern Ireland (including 12 from Fermanagh). It was the first time the event began in Northern Ireland, rather than the Republic. Delegates were seated in a marquee, with a full windowed wall overlooking Castle Hume Lough. They were also taken out for a boat trip on Lough Erne.

One Canadian tour operator commented: “The advantage of a show like this today is, I get to see it personally and see how beautiful it is. From a Canadian perspective, the fact I get to see it and experience beautiful places like the Lough Erne Resort inspires me to focus on it and maybe give that experience to Canadians.” Sean Buckley, from Marine Tours, Germany finds that “the Erne has always been popular … even during the Troubles era.” He states: “The boat product has always been very good among Germans who are looking for the freedom [and] the scenery, which you get on Lough Erne. There’s been a big change in the quality of the boats within the past year, a better standard and a better service, which makes it easier for us to sell the area.” Before he leaves the Lough Erne Resort to manage the Ajman Palace in the United Arab Emeriates, Ferghal Purcell comments: “The most important thing is we’ve got the tour operators to Fermanagh. The common consensus is that they are blown away by the view and the hospitality.” He says that the Resort was up by 12-15 per cent in the first quarter. He has found that the Babson-Gazelle group educational conferences have led to two more bookings this June.

“They are hugely important. Out of every business conference comes a leisure opportunity,” he says, pointing to one attendee who booked 40 friends into the Resort to celebrate his 60th birthday party.

Overall, Mr. Purcell comments: “Creating an awareness of Fermanagh is a challenge for us. The road infrastructure has got better which helps, but we have to work harder because we are more out of the way.

“The rest of Northern Ireland is jealous of the Fermanagh Lakelands, but, as an industry, we’ve got to become more active in NITB and in Tourism Ireland.” He targeted the North American market by partnering with Fermanagh Tourism and Tourism Ireland this year. “We believe the North American market is beneficial to Lough Erne … but it takes three years to bear fruit.” He concludes: “We as hoteliers often sit back and say: ‘No-one ever comes’, but we’ve got to go out there and try to get it.” Brendan McCann, General Manager of The Manor House Hotel refers to “the Fermanagh touch”, which is “our own unique hospitality; it’s not pretentious, it’s a natural ability to welcome and to make people feel very special.” The tour operators he spoke to wanted to talk about how Fermanagh hoteliers handled the G8 and the forthcoming Irish Open event. “They are looking for quality hotels, first-class service, a showcase of culture and good quality local cuisine,” he reports.

Border Uplands Project Officer (Marble Arch Caves) Una Collier, found that the buyers were “really interested in nature, the geological heritage, environmental and cultural wealth that we have in this area.” They were also “keen on the outdoors opportunities offered through the Geopark, like Lough Navar and Magho viewpoint.” Asked what can be done to attract more visitors to Fermanagh, Tanya Cathcart, Marketing Manager at Fermanagh Lakeland Tourism replied: “Obviously we have a lot of coach visits coming into Belleek Pottery, so it’s engaging with those operators and trying to persuade them to stay overnight in Fermanagh.

“But a lot of these operators don’t necessarily only deal with coach business, they also deal with the FITs, who are looking for more specific venues such as Belle Isle Castle, or four and five star hotels, or to experience something different.” She believes that “Fermanagh is in a very good position” with the forthcoming Irish Open; the “unique” fact that it is “just as easily explored by water as by land”; and bespoke festivals such as the Beckett Festival, “which gave us an international profile.” The tourism trade in Fermanagh “are much more aware of providing a better level of product as visitors are becoming more discerning” and have become “a lot more marketing savvy in selling their premises and everything else that Fermanagh has to offer.” None of the international tour operators asked local tourism representatives about fracking in Fermanagh.

A ‘Destination Fermanagh Tourism Area Plan’ was also launched this week.