[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 July, 2003, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
From Troubles to tourism
With Belfast enjoying an unusual period of summer calm, the city is undergoing something of a renaissance as a tourist destination. BBC News Online's Lisa Mitchell found it busy even during the often tense period of the Protestant marching season.

Sightseeing in Belfast
"This being Belfast, we've not got any cute thatched cottages to show you, but we hope you've enjoyed yourself," says Billy Scott, the raconteur on board the City Sightseeing bus.

It was the end of a whistle-stop tour of Belfast on an open top bus and it had not rained, which "this being Belfast" was a highlight in itself.

The bus tour route began two weeks ago, bringing a sight familiar in places like London, Bristol and Oxford to the Northern Ireland capital.

The noise of commentary on a loud microphone from the top of the bus drew bemused looks from local people but owner Joe Lavelle was hoping they would soon get used to it.

He bought the bus a year ago but breakdowns in the peace process made him postpone its use until now.

And he appeared to have picked a good time.

The run-up to the traditional Twelfth holiday fortnight, when many Protestants celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, got off to a calm start when the Orange Order march at Drumcree on Sunday passed off without incident.

Bob and Sally Decker from Wisconsin
The most notable thing has been that police cars are armoured where they'd be a cruiser in the US
Bob Decker

Taxi drivers and shopkeepers were saying it was the calmest the city has been in years and the sense of renewed hope is palpable.

And that sense of peace appears to have filtered outside the province.

"We haven't heard anything about trouble for a while," said Bob Decker, 58, from Wisconsin, US.

"The perception we have in the States is that people are still talking."

He and his wife Sally, a special needs counsellor, were in Belfast as part of a five-week tour of the UK and Ireland.

"I didn't expect it to be more dangerous than anywhere else," he said.

"The most notable thing has been that police cars are armoured where they'd be a cruiser in the US."

'Image problem'

Lisa McMurray of the Belfast Visitor Centre, said there has been a perceptible increase in tourists this year.

More than 5,000 people visited the Welcome Centre in Donegall Place in the first six days of July.

That was up 17% on the same period last year.

"Something's on the turn," she said.

"The level of negative publicity about the city is way down. There was so little publicity in the run up to Drumcree, I actually forgot, and my colleagues in Dublin have noticed the same thing.

"A number of hotels and restaurants which would normally close over the weekend of the Twelfth are staying open this year."

Belfast "has had an image problem" she admits, but a statistic which would surprise many people is that Northern Ireland has the second lowest crime rate in the world - second only to Japan.

The tourist centre operates a scheme where police tell them if a visitor has been a victim, and they are taken out for a meal "to try to make it up to them".

They have only had to do it three times in three years.

"Nowhere else could offer that - they couldn't afford it," said Lisa.

However, last weekend two buses carrying American tourists were attacked in Londonderry, their windows smashed and belongings stolen.

Joe Lavelle said it had been worrying but he hoped the same thing could not happen in Belfast.

Colin and Val Harris from New Zealand
The Harrises had come specifically to see the Protestant marches

In its first week, his bus was pelted with water bags in the two residential streets made famous by the Troubles - the mainly Protestant Shankill Road and the mainly Catholic Falls Road.

"Sinn Fein sent men to stop it. They explained these people were bringing money to the area (Falls Road) and we haven't had a problem since," he said.

It is those areas of division the tourists want to see and in particular their political murals.

"It wasn't as bad as we expected," said Colin Harris, 59, of Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.

"People back home were concerned that we were going to the Troubles areas, but having been there, it's just the same as anywhere else and there's no need to be scared."

The red, white and blue kerbstones and flags of the Shankill Road take up just a small part of Billy's tour.

Other highlights includes the slipway where the Titanic was built - "It was unsinkable when it left Belfast, it was the English captain's fault" - Queen's University, the city's many churches and chapels, its pubs and restaurants and political seat of Stormont.

Billy also points out the Europa hotel which has the distinction of being the most bombed hotel in the world - 70 times - and the "only bomb-proof building in Belfast" - the Child Support Agency.

Then there is the Customs House where Anthony Trollope worked while writing Barchester Tales and the hill where Jonathan Swift is said to have got his inspiration for Gulliver's Travels.

He explains how the Australian expression Sheila came about and why the red hand became the symbol for Ulster.

For the answers, you too will have to go on Billy's tour.

Tourists' coaches vandalised
05 Jul 03  |  Northern Ireland
NI tourism showcase
09 May 03  |  Northern Ireland
A new dawn
05 Nov 02  |  Rob on the road
A rain-soaked summer holiday
12 Jul 02  |  Northern Ireland
Violence 'barrier' to tourism growth
21 Jun 02  |  Northern Ireland
'Growing confidence' in NI tourism
10 May 02  |  Northern Ireland

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific