If it's Tuesday, it must be Shankhill

Simon Calder The Man Who Pays His Way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"THE IRA itself announced cessation of hostilities and its own disbandment. There have been no incidents for the past two years, and Ulster has breathed a collective sigh of relief".

The travel magazine from which that line is taken is the excellent US publication, National Geographic. The edition is dated August 1964, and the occasion was a celebration of the diversity of Northern Ireland. I dug it out because, 35 years and much grief later, the story provides useful ideas for the development of tourism in a now-peaceful region.

First, it is important to know the main reason people from the UK mainland are not rushing to a peaceful Northern Ireland - that wide, grey body of often-stormy water known as the Irish Sea. Crossing this barrier means taking a ship or plane, which in turn implies a broadening of choice: if you are going to buy a ticket somewhere, would Northern Ireland necessarily be your destination?

For people in the southern part of Britain, many of the cities of France, Belgium and Holland offer cheaper and easier access - and the cuisine is more celebrated, too. Even for those who decide not to pay the hugely inflated price of a British passport and to cross the Irish Sea instead, Dublin is better served by air, and has more to offer the visitor. Except, that is, when it comes to political tourism.

Now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, there is nowhere else in Western Europe that has so visible an ideological divide as west Belfast. The barbed wire and political slogans that scar the landscape between the city and the hills reveal a chilling and all-too-close history of conflict - and one which, for the visitor, is utterly compelling.

If you can set down the historical and emotional baggage that we have all accumulated in the past three decades, it is possible to regard the Falls and Shankhill roads as extraordinary tourist attractions.

Possible - but desirable? I'd say yes. It will not trivialise the broken hearts and broken dreams of Northern Ireland. On the contrary, increasing visitor numbers is an essential part of the healing process. The more tourists who can be persuaded to cross the divide, to confront close up an uncomfortable history, and to meet the people whom the headlines glossed over, the better for understanding - and for the region's economy.

Tourism depends largely on tradition, and many of the most popular celebrations around the world are actually political protests dressed up. In Northern Ireland, symbols of traditional enmity like Apprentice Boys' marches and Nationalist murals, could become attractions as notable as Armagh's cathedrals.

WHEN THE National Geographic returns to Northern Ireland, with luck it will stimulate enough demand to restore one of the world's strangest flights. In the mid-Nineties, a US airline started a triangular route linking Belfast with the Latvian capital, Riga, and New York. Did anyone ever take this flight - and, if so, what was the clientele like?

IT IS not the normal practice of this column to offer advice on festive gifts, but Britain's newest travel bookshop offers such incredible bargains that you ought to know more.

A curious place it is, too. The location is Waterloo Road in London, just outside the new Jubilee Line underground station. A battered white van is parked in a bus lane. On a line of trestle tables on the pavement, hundreds of brand-new guidebooks are displayed. Brand-new books from Dorling Kindersley, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, normally retailing at pounds 14.99, are on sale for a tenner - or even less if you buy in bulk.

Those of a suspicious nature might speculate about a possible connection between this retail outlet and a recent spate of robberies from London bookshops. But the Metropolitan Police have no evidence that the books were stolen, and - judging by the way they turn a blind eye to the traffic hold-ups caused by the van blocking a bus lane - seem happy to condone the operation.

IF YOU decide to get to Waterloo by Tube, your journey may be enhanced by impromptu humour from the train driver. GLR, the BBC's radio station for London, has reported an increase in ribaldry being broadcast on the Underground's public address systems.

At the distant eastern terminus of Upminster, for example, late-night revellers were welcomed with the words: "Wakey wakey, rise and shine, You've reached the end of the District Line".

More barbed was the comment of the driver of a crowded rush-hour train that was being delayed: "To the man in the grey coat: what part of `Stand clear of the doors' do you not understand?"

BY NOW, almost all the delegates from the Association of British Travel Agents' convention at Cairns have returned home from Australia, and attention turns to the Greek island of Kos, venue for the 2000 get-together.

One reason countries are so keen to host the travel agents' convention - an exercise that this year cost the state of Queensland pounds 600,000 - is the opportunity for the host country to preen at a special press conference, abetted by Abta's high-ups.

At this year's event Keith Betton, the association's head of corporate affairs, said that the distance between Britain and Australia should no longer be an obstacle to travellers. "Long-haul flights are a bit like sex," he explained to baffled Australian media folk. "Until you have done it, it can be quite scary, but once you have done it, it becomes quite boring."

This led to speculation that Mr Betton meant that the act could last for 24 hours with breaks for meals and films and involve stopovers halfway at places such as Singapore (airport code SIN) and Bangkok.

For men who are uncertain about their ability to qualify for the long- haul, mile-high club, assistance appears at the foot of the page on which the Cairns Post ran the story.

Beneath the caption reading "Keith Betton has a unique take on the joys of long-haul flights", there is an advertisement for "Australia's leading group of impotence clinics".

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