Northern Ireland Tourist Board: Review of the Signature Projects

Mr Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller and Auditor General, today issued a report to the Assembly on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s (NITB) Signature Projects. Mr Donnelly said: ‘The Signature Projects represent the best way forward for tourism in Northern Ireland and have the potential to achieve international standout and increase visitor numbers. Substantial progress has been made, although there have been delays and no Signature Projects have yet been completed.’

The Signature Projects were first identified in NITB’s Strategic Framework for Action (2004-2007) as short to medium term investment projects intended to have a significant impact on Northern Ireland’s tourism performance. They are Titanic (Maritime) Belfast, Giant’s Causeway/Antrim and Causeway Coast area, the Walled City of Derry, Christian Heritage/Saint Patrick and the Mournes National Park area. When complete, they will cost £159 million, of which £71 million will be funded through NITB. This review identifies a number of recommendations for NITB, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and the wider public sector as well as a number of areas of good practice.

Projects’ Progress

The Titanic Signature Building and the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre are due to complete in March and June 2012 respectively. The Saint Patrick’s Signature Project is due to complete by March 2012, and Titanic, Giant’s Causeway and the Mournes Projects are expected to complete by March 2013. It is not clear when the Walled City Project will be complete.

Project planning, management and governance arrangements

The Strategic Framework for Action (2004-2007) provided little detail in terms of expected scope, content, implementation or timescale for delivery of the Projects. The overall concept was not translated into detailed action plans and it is therefore difficult to determine whether what was intencded has ultimately been delivered.

While operational level project management and governance arrangements were put in place for individual aspects of the Projects e.g. the Titanic Signature Building, governance arrangements at a strategic level have not followed best practice. DETI/NITB do not accept this.


No specific funding was identified for the Signature Projects at their outset. As a result early progress was limited. The injection of around £70 million through the Programme for Government (2008-2011) provided the necessary impetus to delivery. However, this did not cover the Walled City Project and its implementation has been delayed.

Performance management

As no overarching plans were developed for the Signature Projects programme, no strategic level targets were set. The objectives and targets set by DETI and NITB lacked clarity and definition and no clear baseline has been established to measure progress.

Value for Money/Sustainability

The overall value for money of the Signature Projects can only be determined once they are completed and their impact assessed. However, the Projects are being implemented in challenging economic times. There is a risk that their impact may fall short of the anticipated ‘step change’ in tourism in Northern Ireland. In particular, a number of issues could affect the value for money, impact and sustainability of the two largest single elements of the Signature Projects – the Titanic Signature Building and the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre:

Titanic Signature Building

’the building, which will be owned and operated by Titanic Foundation Limited (TFL) (a limited company with charitable aims), needs 290,000 visitors each year to break-even. Although Titanic Quarter Limited (TQL) – the building developers – would underwrite losses of up to £5 million in the first seven years; if predicted visitor numbers do not materialise, the long-term future of the building would be doubtful

Utilising £60 million of public funds, it will be more expensive and will deliver less financial benefits than a proposed alternative attraction at the Odyssey. The Titanic Signature Building option was chosen because DETI/NITB considered the non-monetary benefits to be significantly better than the Odyssey option.

TQL have exclusive development rights in Titanic Quarter, granted by the land owners, Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Without competition, TQL appointed an associated company, Harcourt Construction (NI) Limited to construct the building. Compared to other world class attractions, the Titanic Signature Building will be one of the most expensive relative to the number of visitors it expects to attract.

As a result of the economic downturn, large parts of the Titanic Quarter are currently undeveloped. When completed, the Signature Building and the other Titanic heritage assets will be surrounded by many acres of undeveloped brownfield land, which may detract from its appeal to tourists and will limit its overall impact.

Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre

’The Centre requires operating revenues of £1.6 million each year, if it is to cover its costs. This will be challenging in the current climate for tourism in Northern Ireland.

The report concludes that increasing visitor numbers and spend is the key success factor associated with the Signature Project programme. Effective promotion and marketing will therefore be vital in realising the economic potential of the Signature Projects.