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The trouble is, tourists are not as interested in the peaceful side of Ulster

WITH THE promise of peace, no one will begrudge Northern Ireland its long-awaited boom in tourism. But many of Ulster's original tourists seemed to be more interested in seeing evidence of the troubles than anything else.

In Belfast, for example, to cash in on our curiosity, a "Living History" bus tour was designed specifically to take visitors to view the colourful murals of masked gunmen, the heavy metal shutters over shops and community centres, and the so-called Peace Walls (of concrete and steel) that are still being built to keep squabbling Protestant and Catholic communities apart.

The tour even enables tourists to view gruesome sites such as the shop on the Shankill Road where an IRA bomb killed 10 people five years ago, and the cemetery where loyalist gunmen opened fire on mourners during a funeral in 1988.

I don't think the Northern Ireland Tourist Board are particularly happy about the Living History tours. What about the real Ulster, they ask - a land of friendly people, green hills and Europe's lowest crime rate? And anyway, aren't these tours scandalously insensitive to the plight of the people who have to live through these troubles?

The answer to both of these questions is probably yes, but asking tourists in Belfast to ignore one of the world's longest-running guerrilla wars is as reasonable as expecting tourists to the moon to ignore the lack of air. In our hearts we outsiders equate Northern Ireland with conflict.

All right, so the chances of a casual tourist witnessing a bomb explosion are slightly less than the chances of being mugged in Heathrow Airport before departure, and residents of Belfast are no doubt sick of foreign tourists tiptoeing on to the Falls Road before scuttling home to tell their world that they had seen Belfast and lived.

On the other hand, who makes for a more insensitive tourist - the person who goes to gawp at tormented, divided communities, or the person who goes to have a marvellous holiday oblivious to the fact that there is anything at all amiss?

The Middle East is another "living history" zone with below-par tourist figures. This year, we are seeing the rare coincidence of Christian Easter, Jewish Passover and Muslim Eid al-Adha falling in the same week. Are the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem teeming with the millions of world pilgrims that we would expect? Hardly, but I have to confess that on my only visit to the Holy Land I was a lot more interested in the gun-toting Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinian youths than I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In fact, I have never felt so ashamed to be a tourist as when I watched starry-eyed Americans and Europeans sauntering along the via dolorosa with their guidebooks, marvelling over 2000-year-old events while entirely ignoring the real people who were still living there.

That is why, when I go to Ulster, I will eventually visit the Giant's Causeway and the old saloon bars of Belfast - but only after I've taken a good look at those murals and walls and ghettos demarcated by Union flags and Irish tricolours.

All of which needn't imply that Belfast (and Jerusalem) will become less interesting places when their troubles are over; merely that the focus of interest will move to more conventional tourism: "dead history" to be precise.

We will know that this chapter of history is really dead and buried when those iron shutters, watchtowers and "peace walls" have been reconstructed as theme-park curiosities, manned by "people from the past" who will explain to wide-eyed visitors of the 22nd century what it felt like to breathe the same air as mistily remembered local characters like Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. When that day arrives, will we feel nostalgia for the days when there was living history on the streets of Belfast? Or will we prefer our history dead?