Byline: Peter McCusker
NEW figures show that so far this year visitor numbers to the North East have continued to rise and now look on track to break 2008's record four million-plus.
Last year saw a 10% rise on 2007 and the North East alongside London -which saw a 14% rise - were the only two UK regions to witness a rise in visitor numbers.
While the recession has hit the rest of the UK tourism industry, the North East continues to go from strength to strength.
The North East's tourism supremo Geoff Hodgson said: "When I bring foreign travel agents to the region their reaction is 'Wow, I wish we had known about this place before now'.
"They comment on the warmth of the welcome, the quality of what we have to offer and the hospitality.
"The region is really unique. We have the cities, the coastlines and the countryside and there is a real connectivity between the three. In the South West you might have the beaches and the countryside but you don't have the cities. From cities such as Newcastle you can be on Bamburgh beach in 45 minutes, a similar time in the car in London will not get you very far!" Massive changes to the North East's tourism offering in the last 10 years have also been a major boon to the industry.
Mr Hodgson, chairman of the North East Tourism Advisory Board, added: "If it rained during your visit to the North East 10 years ago you were pretty much stuck, but not now.
"There is a whole range of indoor attractions from the International Centre for Life and The Baltic on Tyneside to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and an updated RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh."
Mr Hodgson identifies a cocktail of reasons behind the rapid rise in visitor numbers to the region.
These include One North East's award-winning Passionate People, Passionate Places campaign which implanted into the nation's consciousness some of the region's staggering scenery and attractions.
It has also boosted the creation of a network of tourism partnerships in Tees Valley, Northumberland, Tyneside and County Durham and the change in perception of tourism from being an after-thought to a big industry with economic clout. The region's tourism sector now employs almost 61,000 people and contributes pounds 4bn to the region's economy. Going hand in hand with the rise in visitors numbers has been the sharp rise in hotel beds available, along with increase in bed and breakfast and self-catering accommodation.
In Newcastle and Gateshead there has been substantial investment with a 42% increase in hotel beds in the last five years and there are more developments on the way. A new 220-bed Jurys Inn hotel is set for Gateshead Quays and a 169-room, four-star hotel, known as the Sandman Signature, is to be built on the former Scottish & Newcastle Breweries site and is due to open to business in summer 2011.
Self-catering and bed and breakfast accommodation in Northumberland and the Durham dales is also showing record growth.
Figures released today for the third quarter of this year highlight this with self-catering occupancy rates up by 10% to 85% and guest houses and bed and breakfast up by 7% to 59%. Along with rising occupancy rates tourism chiefs have also noticed more people staying on a Sunday night which backs up claims that visitors are finding enough to keep them occupied in the region. …