Delights of the north: After The Troubles come the tourists

As peace takes hold in Northern Ireland, visitors are starting to flock to its beauty spots and the burgeoning night-life revitalising Belfast. By David McKittrick
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The Independent Online

The shadow of violence caused visitors to shun Northern Ireland. But in the post-Troubles era, that is about to change. The cutting-edge travel guide Lonely Planet has deemed the region one of 2007's "must see" destinations for tourists.

Belfast has also won the accolade of one of the guide's top 10 "cities on the rise". One tourist industry professional's reaction yesterday was: "How amazing is that."

Visitor numbers have already started to increase, and the local tourist industry hopes the guide's recommendation will help this trend to continue.

The surprise and delight arises from the serious lack of tourism in Northern Ireland caused by decades of serious trouble which broke out in the late 1960s. The recent increase in interest from abroad is despite disturbances that break out sporadically, for example last autumn in Belfast. But the outbreaks tend to be on a smaller scale.

Although Belfast people notoriously have difficulty getting along with each other, visitors from outside frequently describe the friendliness and hospitable nature of residents. Northern Ireland tourism lags well behind the Republic of Ireland, which has a highly developed industry, and copes with far more visitors each year.

Visitor totals in Northern Ireland have risen from one and a half million in 1995 to just short of two million last year. Most come from Britain and, to a smaller extent, the Irish Republic.

A calmer period ahead could produce a further increase of visitors from the Republic, many of whom have never set foot across the border and have been nervous of doing so.

The Lonely Planet guide said Northern Ireland was "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."

The guide's co-founder, Maureen Wheeler, who grew up in Belfast, said: "I love the city, its grittiness, its resilience and its beauty, and I love how Belfast people turn every social interaction into an excuse for a party.

"The landscape of Northern Ireland is astonishingly beautiful, the people are warm and genuine and yet it is still relatively undiscovered, which makes it the perfect destination."

Belfast has clearly come a long way since the days of the now-elderly joke about one of its residents giving his occupation as "rear-gunner in a bread van".

In tourist terms, a large part of its attraction is that its venues are rarely overcrowded. The most-visited of its destinations, the Giant's Causeway in Co Antrim, hosts about 750,000 visitors a year.

As this comparatively low figure suggests, venues are rarely packed and scenic areas hardly ever teem with tourists. This has a distinct charm for those who prefer to avoid the hurly-burly.

Although there has been a fair amount of financial investment in the tourist sector, many destinations are clearly underdeveloped and will require further investment to cope with any fresh waves of tourists.

At present, tourist chiefs are working on five main "signature projects" which they hope to develop. These include Belfast as the birthplace of the Titanic, locations associated with St Patrick, the Co Antrim coast and the walled city of Derry.

Belfast has benefited from the arrival of major new hotel chains in recent years, including Radisson, Hilton and Ramada, but these can easily be filled at times of events such as festivals and major conferences.

In many ways, modern tourism is at a very early stage in a city which is only just starting out on major development projects which will sweep away much of its Victorian past and provide new facilities. As things stand, for example, there is little to highlight locations associated with internationally known phenomena such as the Titanic and George Best.

Alan Clarke, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, said yesterday: "Northern Ireland has firmly established itself as a must-see destination and its unique selling points are captivating visitors from home and abroad. We can only look forward with optimism to another successful year in 2007."