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Last Updated: Monday, 26 February 2007, 23:54 GMT
Tourism takes hold in N Ireland
By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News, Northern Ireland

Bobby Sands mural in Belfast
Even symbols of the Troubles are proving to be a tourist draw
There's a new kind of tourist in Northern Ireland.

They are the ones eager to turn their back on the usual tourist trail and head into the heart of Belfast's former trouble spots.

For a minimum of 25 they can hop in a black cab - the only way car-less locals could travel the Shankill or Falls Road during the Troubles - to see numerous murals and the peace line dividing the Catholic and Protestant communities.

"I wasn't too keen when the Black Cab tours started up - I thought it could almost be seen as terror tourism," says Jan Nugent of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB).

"But now it's seen as the edgy thing to do - people can go home and say, 'I toured the trouble spots.' It's given communities a real drive too. They're sprucing up their murals and their local area as well."

The switch from terror to tourism is a popular theme. Visitor numbers have increased since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, as has investment and cross-border co-operation.

Since 1998, tourist numbers have risen from 1.4 million people, spending 217m, to almost two million in 2005, generating revenues of 357m. Latest research from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) suggests the performance improved in 2006.

The region also appears to be following the example of the Irish Republic to the south and making the most of its famous sons and daughters at last.

Visitor draws

George Best and CS Lewis - author of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - are being pushed as cultural draws and Belfast has wised up to the potential lure of the Titanic.

Soon, a vast 1bn redevelopment project will pay homage to the ill-fated liner, replacing the plaques dotting the wasteland that currently marks the site of its creation.

Irene & Nan's bar, Belfast
Nightlife in Belfast could give London a run for its money

In fact, Northern Ireland's potential - all the benefits of the Irish Republic, but with less of the crowds - has already been noted by holiday gurus at the Lonely Planet.

Named as one of the guide's top 10 places to visit in 2007, Northern Ireland is described as "abuzz with life: the cities are pulsating, the economy is thriving and the people, the lifeblood that courses through the country are in good spirits".

On the streets of Belfast, the change is tangible. A cafe culture is taking hold in stylish new bars, shopping malls are getting facelifts and the waterfront is undergoing regeneration.

Drinks draw

While one of the most famous pastimes is the "craic" - entertainment or fun, as sampled by plenty of tourists - Northern Ireland's pubs are not the only place to find it.

Bushmills Distillery, in Co Antrim, experienced a "booming year" in 2006, says John Deegan, deputy manager of the distillery's tourist centre.

"In 2005, there were 116,900 visitors and by October, we were neck-and-neck with that," he says. "We're capable of handling 1,000 visitors a day."

1.8 million visitors - up 2% from 2004
Overall spend of 340m
Giant's Causeway most popular attraction with 464,243 visitors, up 4% on 2004
Source: NITB figures for 2005

Bushmills is not just reliant on tourists. First and foremost, it's a working whiskey distillery. Since it was taken over by Diageo in 2005, production has almost doubled - a fact that is hammered home as the bottles rattle past on conveyor belts.

But it still works hard to bring in the tourists, both from the island and overseas.

"We work very closely with NITB and marketing companies Causeway Coast and Glens market, on an international and local level," says Mr Deegan.

Next year should prove to be a big one as Bushmills marks 400 years, set to be marked by a special bottling and a birthday party.

However, Mr Deegan admits it's not all plain sailing. For example, most visitors make a special trip to the site, as there is little in the surrounding small village to lure the average sightseer.

"There are problems with infrastructure. There's no big hotels nearby at the moment, people are bussed in. But soon there should be developments on the north west coast - for example, there's plans for a 200-bed hotel in Portrush," he says.

Building ties

Northern Ireland itself has managed to tackle one key hurdle it faced in the tourism race.

US tourist Tom Brennan at Bushmills Distillery
In 2005, North American visitor numbers increased 14%

Instead of the north and the Republic marketing themselves as separate entities, the two teamed up in 2000 under the name Tourism Ireland.

The tie-up created one entity promoting tourism across the whole of Ireland worldwide, helping to give Northern Ireland greater promotion.

"Tourism Ireland is a distinct body set up with cross-border funding, but I believe just one body will promote tourism here in future," says NITB's Jan Nugent.

"It has been a benefit as it's brought in more foreign travellers. For example, boats are now stopping at St Anne's Docks as they do tours of the British Isles and Europe.

"Greater tourist numbers have also led to changes to help keep the tourists interested - for example, keeping the shops open later. Around City Hall used to be almost a ghost town in the evening until the later opening hours. It gives the area a much more metropolitan feel."

Border boost

But big cities are not the only places to benefit from the tourist boom.

Shops on the border are cashing in on the change in fortunes of recent years targeting a completely different breed of visitor, the cross-border tourist.

In fact, there has been something of a reversal of fortunes over the past few years.

Previously, shoppers crossed from north to south of the border in search of a bargain as prices were lower. But since the introduction of the euro, shoppers have been flocking northwards.

Quays shopping centre, Newry
All transactions at The Quays are dual currency

The Quays shopping centre in Newry is a prime example of the trend. Not only does it draw in the local trade, but improved transport links bring shoppers from further afield.

"Special offers in-store are used to attract buyers. Some shops will use strategic special rates for a couple of weeks where the euro is at 70p or 71p and advertise it aggressively on radio, TV and even mobile trailers," says assistant manager Colin Kavanagh.

The centre also relies on offering low prices, value for money and good customer service - such as free parking - to bring in shoppers.

The formula appears to have been successful, as the centre's owners are now looking to develop the centre for "substantial parking and more retail space".

The change in the area - once synonymous with sectarian violence and high unemployment - is highlighted by the fact that property prices in Newry are among the fastest-growing in the UK, surging from 123,334 in 2005 to 180,546 a year later.

Meanwhile, unemployment rates have dropped to between 2% and 1.5% compared with almost 30% in the 1980s.

And with a road linking both sides of the border set for completion in 2008, experts predict the town's fortunes can only improve.

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