Northern Ireland Assembly members have been urged to talk up the region and look to the future in a bid to restore a reputation damaged during the recent Union flag controversy.
Stormont’s Tourism minister Arlene Foster warned colleagues of the harm they could cause to visitor numbers and investment by making negative public comments.
Mrs Foster’s department in conjunction with Belfast City Council has committed around £1 million to an initiative to attract people back to the region’s capital in the wake of the trouble.
Loyalists have been protesting since early December following the council’s decision to limit the number of days the flag flies over City Hall. A number of demonstrations have descended into serious rioting with around 150 police officers injured to date.
During Assembly question time, the minister urged MLAs to play their own part in promoting the whole of Northern Ireland as somewhere safe to visit and to do business.
“There is no doubt that damage was caused towards the end of last year and we can all revisit why that is the case,” she said.
“I could stand here and talk about why Belfast City Council felt it was necessary to proceed with that vote, I could talk about the flag protest, but what I want to concentrate on is 2013 and how we can really get back into the market and get that positive, civic pride back into Northern Ireland.”
The minister said there was “anecdotal” evidence that the Backin’ Belfast campaign was working.
And she insisted the recent issues would not impact the number of athletes intending to come to Northern Ireland in August to take part in the World Police and Fire Games.
Mrs Foster stressed the particular importance of restoring confidence in the rest of the UK.
“Going back into our biggest market, going into GB, I think we had 40 days, if you like, of news coverage about Northern Ireland so really we do need to get out there with messages about the fact that Northern Ireland has the lowest crime level in Europe,” she said.
“And I think that is something we should be very proud of and we need to get those messages out and to say that if you come to Belfast you will get a very warm welcome, if you come to anywhere else in Northern Ireland you will get good food, good hospitality and those are the key messages that we have to get out.”
She added: “I would appeal to members right across this house to please look forward, to say.... whenever you are talking to potential visitors that ‘we need you to come to Northern Ireland because it’s a good place to come to, to work, to study, to visit and indeed to do business in’.
“Sometimes we can be drawn into a situation where we think we are only talking to our own constituencies and our own people here in Northern Ireland.
“What really brought it home to me was when I was speaking to one of our investors from the United States and they had a better knowledge of what was going on on the streets (during the protests) than I actually did because they pore over all of the press cuttings, they pore over all of the video footage on the web, the internet, so I think people need to realise that when they say anything in here (the Assembly chamber) or outside, it is going to get reported right across the world and that of course has an impact on Northern Ireland.”