Michele Shirlow for Farm Week 13 June 2019

What a beautiful setting the Palace Demesne in Armagh proved to be for the annual Northern Ireland Tourism Awards in association with Diageo Northern Ireland.

The superb event was held in the historic surroundings for the first time. And it was a tremendous evening which marked the outstanding achievements of the tourism and, of course, the food and drink here. It showed the dynamism and innovation now driving these hugely important industries.

Tourism is now one of Northern Ireland’s most significant and growing industries with almost three million people visiting from out of state, spending some £2.5 million per day and supporting 65,000 jobs here. Food, in addition, is now a £5 billion industry which contributes to employment of around 100,000 people.

Among the winners were several Food NI and Taste of Ulster members, I am delighted to report. It was a tremendous pleasure and great privilege to present awards to inspirational local business people like Helen Troughton of Armagh Cider Company for its immensely successful tour.

As we move towards the first-ever Taste the Island celebration, it was very encouraging to see so many splendid tourist attractions and food-based events recognised. We need to build on these to offer visitors even more events and facilities to enjoy while they are here. We want to create golden memories that will bring them back as often as practicable.

Winners included the superb Derry International Hallowe’en Festival, which scooped the Best International Experience, and the Balmoral Show, which lifted the Best NI Event or Festival Experience award. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council came out on top in the Food and Drink Experience of the Year for its Armagh Food and Cider Festival which is growing in popularity year on year. Congratulations to them all, it is fantastic to see their hard work paid off.

The awards, now in their forty-first year, have had a tremendously important impact on the tourism and hospitality sector here, providing a benchmark for all businesses to aspire to and delivering significant benefits to shortlisted and winning businesses alike.

We are hoping to add to the growing programme of eye-catching events here with the launch of Celtic Smoke at Glenarm Estate in Co Antrim on 13-14th July. Celtic Smoke will be the first BBQ championship event to be held under the umbrella of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the organisation which supervises barbeque competitions throughout the world. We are working with Smokin’ Yankees, the Northern Ireland team which has featured at a string of competitions in the US, Britain and elsewhere. Mid and East Antrim Council is also backing the competition.

We appreciate the enthusiastic support from our good friends Adrian Morrow and Nigel Campbell at Glenarm Estate and from sponsors including Peter Hannan’s Meat Merchant for what promises to be a really entertaining event for families as well as BBQ fans. We expect to have 10 teams from the US, Europe and Ireland competing for the Celtic Smoke title.  The teams will be competing by cooking a range of local meats, which will also showcase the quality and taste of our food.

Our aim is to develop this into an annual event which will attract many more teams from around the world, help to raise Northern Ireland’s profile as a ‘must visit’ destination within the international barbeque competition circuit and build upon our reputation as one of the top food and drink destinations in the world.