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Tuesday, October 26, 1999 Published at 04:34 GMT


Peace sells

The Antrim coast is the jewel in Northern Ireland tourism's crown

By Jane Black in Belfast

..No one is waiting on the outcome of the Stormont talks with more interest than Bob Isles. He and his wife Siobhan, who run the Whitepark House Bed and Breakfast on the beautiful coast of County Antrim, say their business depends on it.

[ image: Bob Isles at Whitepark House: Troubles put off tourists]
Bob Isles at Whitepark House: Troubles put off tourists
"We are at the crossroads for tourism," says Bob Isles. "What happens in these talks will be make or break. If a path to permanent peace is found, the whole of Ireland will attract the tourists. At the moment many won't come over the border from the South because they think there a risk."

While the world's media is camped out at Stormont preparing for an announcement, the people of Northern Ireland patiently await the impact it will have on their lives - and livelihoods.

Tourism in Northern Ireland has grown since the first IRA ceasefire in 1994 but the industry is hit by the ups and downs of the peace process. In 1995 after the ceasefire, Bob and Siobhan Isles were turning dozens of visitors away as the number of tourists rose by 20%.

But with uncertainty over the political future and the notorious Drumcree march just days away, there are no bookings at Whitepark House for July.

[ image: Giant's Causeway is one of Northern Ireland's great draws]
Giant's Causeway is one of Northern Ireland's great draws
The Antrim Coast, and especially the unique configuration of stones called the Giant's Causeway, is the jewel in Northern Ireland's tourist crown. To help promote it, eight local councils in County Antrim have launched a new company.

On Thursday, business people, from taxi drivers to executives from multi-national companies, met at a hotel at Coleraine, County Londonderry, to pledge their support.

"We have to go forward no matter what is happening in politics. It would be great if we had a permanent settlement but we can't afford to hold back and wait for it," Diane Poole, chair of the newly formed Causeway Coast and Antrim Glens Limited, told the meeting.

[ image: Diane Poole, chairman of Causeway Coasts Ltd: No time to wait]
Diane Poole, chairman of Causeway Coasts Ltd: No time to wait
"Northern Ireland has never been sold," added Ian Irvine, who was representing the Countryside Centre at the meeting. "Thirty years of the troubles put down thoughts of anything else. We need a deal to convince people how beautiful it is, how much we have to offer."

Tourism stands to gain most from a permanent end to violence. At the moment it contributes just 2% of the gross domestic product in Northern Ireland. But one forecast suggests that if peace holds, that figure could triple, adding 20,000 more jobs to the 10,000 already employed in tourism.

The 1994 ceasefire boosted business confidence. Local companies invested more and large retailers such as Safeway, Sainsbury and Tesco have opened up in Northern Ireland. Inward investment to the province doubled between 1994-1995 and 1997-1998.

But perhaps the biggest boost would come from the return to normal policing services. The Northern Ireland Economic Council estimates that £700m, now dedicated to "keeping the peace" would be freed for improving health and education.

"The peace is very important" said John Stringer, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. " It would not be true to say that if the politicians don't agree on something it will be the end of the world.

"We will enter a stalemate and that's not good. But business here is confident that the politicians will find a way and put the structures in place to move forward."

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