Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Beautiful Northern Ireland is back on the tourist map

The war is over. Tear down the barricades. Erase the frontlines. Welcome the tourists. Yes, I understand that centuries of conflict in Northern Ireland cannot be so easily assuaged. And naturally there is plenty of scepticism about Thursday's announcement by the IRA of an end to its armed campaign. No one can predict the response of the Loyalists or breakaway paramilitaries and how that might affect the appeal of the north of Ireland. But the apparent cessation of hostilities should provide a surge in tourism to the most neglected part of the UK.

Good for Northern Ireland, good for the visitor who opts to travel along the A2 from Larne to Cushendall, chiselled from the shoreline to become one of the world's great coastal drives; or drifts peaceably across Lough Neagh, the largest body of water in the kingdom; or takes a convivial and slightly wobbly cross-section through the capital on the Belfast pub tour.

In 1968, Northern Ireland welcomed more than one million tourists; within a few years of violence erupting, the numbers had dropped by more than half. It took more than 20 years for the figures to recover.

In the 21st century, air links to Northern Ireland's three airports are excellent, ferry fares have fallen and there is no longer any good excuse not to visit the coast, countryside and cities. The north deserves to become the beautiful and now tranquil playground for the British Isles. And the Republic of Ireland will benefit, too.

Astutely, once the journey to peace began, tourism promotion for both sides of the border was unified. Tourism Ireland celebrates the island as a whole. It is convenient to be distanced from Britain (though this was never the intention) at a time when the country appears to have become significantly more dangerous, and its travel infrastructure is collapsing.

PERHAPS YOU were booked on one of the 18 British Airways flights to and from Heathrow that were cancelled on Wednesday. The reason: the wrong kind of cement.

Plenty of work at the UK's busiest airport takes place overnight. Currently the task is to extend runways and taxiways to cater for the Airbus A380 "SuperJumbo". On Tuesday night, some quick-drying concrete failed to live up to its name. At dawn on Wednesday, one runway was "re-declared" - not exactly closed, but with its effective length curtailed. Larger and heavily loaded aircraft had to switch to the other runway, and things started going wrong almost immediately. With waves of 747s arriving from North America and the Far East, departing flights were delayed and the disruption snowballed. Plenty of travellers - and flight crew - got home very late that day.

DIFFERENT DAY, different reason, same effect: on Sunday, the Piccadilly Line to and from Heathrow airport was suspended because of signal failure.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the Forth Bridge - whose need for perpetual painting has given the language a shorthand for continuous activity - is still closed for, er, painting.

At least Brunel's fast-track to the West of England remained open. With British tourism needing all the help it can get this gloomy summer, I went along to Paddington station to buy a ticket for a weekend away. It was past 9pm, a time when the station is quiet and the queues have evaporated. Indeed, I was outnumbered by people selling tickets. Or, more accurately, not selling tickets.

I was the only customer, and had the temerity to try to book a train two days ahead. In mid-evening, this task is apparently beyond the technological capability of the train company at one of the main stations in western Europe's largest, richest city. It reminded me of a passage in Lonely Planet's new guide to the Ukraine which describes information booths at the nation's railway stations: "Sucking information out of surly attendants is a formidable task". What's more, you have to pay the equivalent of 30p for each enquiry. It could catch on here. But at a time when we need to impress every visitor to these shores, we seem collectively to be doing the exact opposite. Will the last tourist to desert Britain for Ireland please forgive our collective ineptitude?

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