The special anniversary event, organised by Tourism NI in association with Diageo NI, was held at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, where the inaugural awards took place in 1978.
The black-tie event, now regarded as the highlight of the tourism calendar, was presented by former BBC newsreader and Belfast native Maxine Mawhinney.
Originally titled the ‘British Airways Tourism Endeavour Awards,’ the annual event has recognised many hundreds of local businesses over the years for their inspirational contribution to the tourism industry.
Head of Beannchor Group and Merchant Hotel owner Bill Wolsey received the Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Award while a Tourism Hero Award went to Caitriona Lavery from Hastings Hotels.
Celebrating the huge step changes in the industry over the last four decades, the anniversary event received a record number of entries spanning 11 different categories.
Winners on the night included Titanic Belfast, which scooped the Best International Experience following its crowning as the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction, and the Museum of Free Derry, which lifted the Authentic NI Experience of the Year.
Derry City and Strabane District Council stepped up to the podium twice as its Slow Food Festival won the NI Food and Drink Experience of the Year and its renowned Halloween festival won Best NI Event or Festival Experience. The Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year title was awarded to Chris Wilson at Streamvale Open Farm, situated outside Belfast.
In the ‘Best Stay’ accommodation categories, Bushmills Inn earned the best hotel award, Dungannon’s Spice Cottages lifted best self-catering and the Water’s Edge in Glenarm won the best guesthouse/B&B award.
Speaking at the event, Tourism NI Chairman, Terence Brannigan, said: “Northern Ireland’s attractiveness as a tourist destination has come a long way in the last three or four decades. When you compare today with 1978, the step changes that have happened in our industry cannot be missed nor underestimated. In the last six years in particular the sector has performed consistently well.
“Today we are Lonely Planet’s Best Region in the World to visit in 2018 and we are preparing to host The Open Championship in 2019, the most prestigious golf event on the planet.
“Tourism is now one of the largest, locally owned, internationally traded sectors of our economy, supporting 60,000 jobs either directly or indirectly and offering Northern Ireland one of its best opportunities for economic growth.
“Considering the challenges that the industry has faced over the last 40 years, the achievements have been nothing short of immense.”
Jorge Lopes, Country Director, Diageo NI said: “What a fantastic evening for the tourism and hospitality industry in Northern Ireland. The Awards really served to highlight the significant strides the industry has made over the last four decades and Diageo is very proud to be a part of that journey. Congratulations to all the winners, indeed to everyone shortlisted for awards. I think we can feel extremely positive and excited about the future of tourism in Northern Ireland.”
2018 List of Winners
Authentic NI Experience of the Year [Sponsored by Diageo NI]
Winner: The Museum of Free Derry
Highly commended: Seamus Heaney Homeplace
Commended: ‘Artisans at Work’, Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust
Commended: Belfast Traditional Music Trail, An Droichead
Best International Experience [Sponsored by Tourism Ireland]
Winner: Titanic Belfast
Highly commended: Belleek Pottery Visitor Centre
NI’s Best Stay – Guesthouse / B&B
Winner: Water’s Edge, Glenarm
Highly commended: Blackrock House B&B
Commended: Ardtara Country House
NI’s Best Stay – Hotel [Sponsored by First Trust Bank]
Winner: Bushmills Inn
Highly commended: Merchant Hotel
Commended: Bullitt Hotel
Commended: Galgorm Resort and Spa
NI’s Best Stay – Self Catering [Sponsored by Hoseasons]
Winner: Spice Cottages
Highly commended: Blessingbourne Country Estate
Commended: Killyhevlin Lakeside Hotel and Lodges
Commended: Ballygally Holiday Apartments
Most Impactful Digital Innovation Award
Winner: Night Ride to Armagh: A Digital Transformation, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council
Highly commended: Motorhome Craic, Motorhome Parking Ireland
Commended: The MAC, Belfast
NI Food & Drink Experience of the Year [Sponsored by DWF]
Winner: Slow Food Festival, Derry City and Strabane District Council
Highly commended: Walled City Brewery
Commended: The Parson’s Nose, Balloo Inns Limited
Best NI Event or Festival Experience (International) [Sponsored by Tourism Ireland]
Winner: Derry Halloween, Derry City and Strabane District Council
Highly commended: Northern Ireland Open, Galgorm Castle
Commended: Ulster Grand Prix, Dundrod and District Motorcycle Club
Most Promising Authentic NI Event or Festival Experience
Winner: Armagh Georgian Festival 2017, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council
Highly commended: The Belfast Tattoo, XO Events
Commended: Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive, Outdoor Recreation NI
NI Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year [Sponsored by Ulster University Business School]
Winner: Chris Wilson – Streamvale Open Farm
Highly commended: Melita Williams – Bespoke Northern Ireland
Commended: Sean McLaughlin – Fullerton Arms Guest House
NI Tourism Heritage Property of the Year
Winner: Crumlin Road Gaol
Highly commended: Antrim Castle Gardens, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council
Commended: Blessingbourne Manor and Country Estate
Winner: Caitriona Lavery, Hastings Hotels
Outstanding Contribution to Tourism
Winner: Bill Wolsey, Beannchor Group