Northern Ireland tourism promoters are hoping new initiatives will draw more visitors from the Southeast U.S., but numbers are already so high that Belfast, the province’s capital, needs more hotels to house them.
A decade of peace, one year of regional government and increasing efforts to market Northern Ireland as a safe destination are bringing record numbers of tourists to the region.
Susie McCullough, marketing director for the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, told GlobalAtlanta that visitor numbers have grown from 200,000 four years ago to 1.2 million in 2007.
The bureau is launching a tour package this summer aimed at drawing Americans of Scots-Irish descent, particularly in the Southeast, to Northern Ireland.
Ms. McCullough said that it has not always been easy promoting the United Kingdom province. A decades-long civil conflict between Irish nationalists and British loyalists known locally as “the Troubles,” kept visitors away and gave the region a reputation for violence.
The region’s major political parties signed a peace agreement in 1998 and formed a regional government in May last year. She predicted that tourism will continue to grow as people in the U.S. and elsewhere become aware of the political stability.
“On the plus side a lot of people know Belfast,” she said. “On the down side it’s mostly negative, so there’s still a huge perception-building effort going on.”
That effort is paying off in the region’s rapidly growing tourism industry. Ms. McCullough said that Belfast has become a hub for conventions and cruises, two non-existent markets during the Troubles.
She also said that she expects tourism to grow by 22 percent over the next year and, with only 3,000 hotel bed spaces in the city, construction is struggling to keep pace.
Seven new hotels are planned and three existing ones expanded to add over 1,200 available rooms in Belfast by 2010.
The new additions are to include U.S.-based hotel chains Holiday Inn, Marriott Courtyard, Premier Inn, Radisson Park Inn and Ramada Inn. Dublin-based Fitzwilliam Hotel Group is opening a Belfast location and Crumlin Road Courthouse, an abandoned legal building bought by local developer Barry Gilligan, is to be renovated for accommodations.
Europa Hotel has the dubious distinction of being Europe’s most frequently bombed hotel and is to add 35 rooms by the end of this year. Tour guide Billy Scott told GlobalAtlanta that the building was attacked more than 30 times by the Irish Republican Army, in attempts to discourage investment in the province and destabilize the government.
Mr. Scott said that during the Troubles Northern Ireland was “a tourist wasteland,” and he worked driving journalists to troubled areas to report on violence there. He now gives tours of Belfast on behalf of the visitor and convention bureau. Some of the city’s most distinctive features are relics of its turbulent past. Murals depicting paramilitary groups and icons meant to idealize their history painted over entire walls of housing complexes are common in nationalist and loyalist neighborhoods.
The murals have long attracted scrutiny from sociologists and historians studying Northern Ireland’s conflict, and now that the area is peaceful they act as a kind of public art.
The Black Cab Tours offered by the visitor bureau include visits to the murals, with guides like Mr. Scott explaining what they portray.
Ms. McCullough said that community groups in these neighborhoods are being encouraged to replace murals depicting violence or hatred with pictures conveying group identity and history.
The visitor bureau is marketing the city’s different quarters—areas it says offer a distinct culture and lifestyle.
The Cathedral Quarter is the oldest part of the city, including some of Belfast’s landmarks like St. Anne’s Cathedral, City Hall and Albert Clock—billed as Northern Ireland’s leaning tower because it was built on land reclaimed from the Lagan river and tilts east.
Queen’s Quarter is the area near Queen’s University Belfast south of the city center, with a large student population and many restaurants and bars.
The Gaeltacht Quarter in west Belfast is the Irish language-speaking district around the Falls Road, an area identified with the nationalist cause during the Troubles.
The Titanic Quarter is still in its infancy, but construction is under way to redevelop Belfast’s former shipbuilding center on Queen’s Island into a mixed-use development and memorial to the famous ocean liner built there in the early 20th century.
Plans for the Titanic Quarter include restoring the dock where the famous ocean liner was launched and building a memorial and museum to the ship.