Northern Ireland tourism shaped by decades of change
IRELAND: Marquee sporting events, beautiful scenery and unspoilt coastal resorts – it sounds like the sales pitch for a new Northern Ireland tourism campaign.
In fact they are among the attractions that have drawn visitors for decades, long before the days of budget air travel and cruise liners.
The Open Championship will bring more than 200,000 spectators to Royal Portrush and is likely to be the biggest sporting event ever held in Ireland.
But it is simply the latest in a long line of events that have attracted visitors and helped the tourism industry recover from the damage of the Troubles.
Tourism is expected to generate £1bn by 2020, with 2.7m people visiting Northern Ireland in 2017.
The Open’s previous visit to Northern Ireland in 1951, the North West 200 and the Ulster Grand Prix in Dundrod were all part of the draw for visitors in the 1950s and 1960s when tourism boomed.
“Our coastal resorts, bathing, getting outside, our scenery and coastlines were a key selling feature even from those earliest years,” says Dr Peter Bolan, director of International Travel & Tourism Management at Ulster University.
“It’s what we today call ‘wellness tourism’ – we were very on the ball in those terms.”
It was a continuation of the tourism that had existed in the north of Ireland since the late Victorian period, Dr Bolan said, drawing in middle and upper-class tourists from Great Britain in the days before cheaper air travel and the growth of resorts in the Mediterranean.
Those developments coincided with the Troubles, 30 years of conflict that put many people off from visiting Northern Ireland.
Dr Bolan points out that tourism “did not dry up completely” and benefited from family connections bringing in visitors from North America.
But even after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, it took a long time for tourism to really recover, aided by some big sporting events.
“Tourism NI ran a campaign called ‘Our Time, Our Place’ which coincided with the Irish Open coming north for the first time in many years to Portrush in 2012,” he said.
“Since then that has continued, we had the World Police and Fire Games in 2013, the GiroD’Italia in 2014 and now The Open.”
While some of Northern Ireland’s attractions remain the same, there has been a major new draw in the form of Game of Thrones.
The hit TV series was filmed in a number of locations in Northern Ireland, and fans of the show are keen to see where famous scenes unfolded.
“It has made a tremendous difference”, Dr Bolan said.
“Things like Game of Thrones are incredibly media friendly, it has made people look at Northern Ireland in a different light and opened us up to people who would not have thought of coming here before.”
According to Dr Bolan, many of the first overseas visitors to the north of Ireland in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were middle and upper-class tourists from Great Britain, who could afford to travel further afield by boat.
Arrivals by sea are another factor that has transformed tourism in Northern Ireland, with hundreds of thousands coming off cruise ships.
Ken Martin, chairman of Tour Guides NI, said it is one of the biggest differences in the tourist trade he has noticed in more than 10 years of guiding.
“Cruise ships are a big part of my work, I do about 50 in a year. We had two ships last week and there were 5,000 people coming off them.
“I would also say a difference I have noticed is that we are getting more of the average tourist now, not just the higher end.
“We are also getting more of the Asian market. Just recently I was taking a group from Bangladesh around.”
And there is also one global tourism trend which Northern Ireland can’t escape.
“The Instagram effect,” Mr Martin said.
“People want a photo outside all of the attractions. Before I have even described a building, people are taking a photo and sending it to family and friends around the world.”