The Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College's announcement that it is to become an associate college of Ulster University is being seen as a tangible vote of confidence in the prospects of a lasting peace in the province. It is also the first such link between a further education and a higher education institution in Northern Ireland.
Following the ceasefires two years ago, tourism in Northern Ireland reached record levels in 1995. Martin O'Neill of Ulster University's school of leisure and tourism said that inquiries to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board rose by 59 per cent, the number of holidaymakers rose by 68 per cent in the first eight months of the year, and final figures are expected to show the number of visitors reaching 1.5 million.
But hopes of continuing success have been devastated by the return to violence. Inquiries have dwindled away, German tour operators have removed Northern Ireland from their itineraries, and only last week, an American theatre company was narrowly dissuaded from abandoning its performances at the Riverside Theatre on Ulster University's Coleraine campus.
In the light of this, boosting education and training for tourism may seem perverse. But the institutions are responding to a demand for increased professionalisation from the industry itself, which predates the ceasefires.
A decade ago, a review by the tourist board concluded that the province suffered from a low standard of service compared to the rest of Europe. Since then the tourist industry only sought more highly qualified entrants in a bid to improve what it can offer, and has demanded part-time courses for existing staff.
The university and college believe their partnership will allow more effective coordination of training for the province's tourist, leisure and catering industries. Already, half of the college's 400 full-time students are taking higher national diplomas franchised from the university, and from October, it will offer the first three years of a BA honours degree in hotel and tourism management, which it believes will boost its academic credibility with school leavers.
There has been growing interest in the diploma courses in recent years, and staff believe this increased substantially during the ceasefires. They are awaiting this month's school exam results to see whether the industry's image has been dented by this year's renewed violence. The college's director, Ciaran O'Cathain, is optimistic that recent trends will continue.
"The university has had overwhelming interest in its degree programme and was keen to make more places available through the college," he says.
The college will offer 20 places per year: the university has more than 900 applicants for its 37 places. Both institutions stress the good job prospects for their students.
"To date, there has been no unemployment among students leaving our campus," says Professor O'Cathain. "There are many more vacancies in the hotel industry than students to fill them."
The university is also launching postgraduate courses in tourism and in hospitality management in the coming session, each with expected intakes of about 30.
"This is seen as an area of opportunity within the province. There has been a decline in the traditional industrial base, and in the face of that, tourism is seen as the industry that can bring considerable economic wealth and regeneration," said Mr O'Neill.
"While its image has once again taken a battering in recent weeks, it's not the first time those involved with the industry have faced this problem, and I don't think it will feel any real long-term hurt."
He believes there is a "massive level of optimism" among people that the province will become peaceful and stable.
His views are shared by Adrian Palmer, who next month moves from De Montfort University to become Ulster's first professor of tourism. "Once normality is restored, it will become a normal tourist destination for British and European people alongside Scotland," he said.
"The potential is for activity holidays, such as horse riding and golf, and, of course, the ancestral market, for people who want to go back to trace their relatives. I think there will be selective development aimed at key target markets."