BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The day HBO's "Game of Thrones" introduced Northern Ireland's rugged landscapes and otherworldly beauty to the world is television history by now. The first season, filmed here in 2009, showcased the misty forests, mountains, haunting moorlands and abundance of castles found throughout the region's sparsely populated north.
The seventh and penultimate season has just finished airing, much of it filmed at Titanic Studios in Belfast, and the exposure has been a publicity windfall that has become a boon for tourism.
"Game of Thrones" fans add to the steadily growing numbers of those coming to explore Northern Ireland, a small country approximately the size of Connecticut comprising a sixth of the island of Ireland, with a mixed Protestant/Catholic population of 1.8 million. It consists of six counties (collectively known as Ulster by some) and is part of the U.K., along with England, Scotland and Wales.
Not all that long ago, visitors avoided it at all costs due to the ongoing, often violent sectarian conflict known here as the Troubles. But, following the IRA cease-fire in 1994 and the signing of the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement in 1998, those times have slowly but steadily been receding into the Irish mist.
The benefits of steadily growing tourism to the Republic of Ireland -- the north's far larger neighbor to the south -- are clear. In 2016, more than 10 million overseas travelers visited the island, with a growing number crossing the border, heading to Belfast and beyond.
This culturally curious audience is the target of Tourism Ireland, the cross-border body that promotes the island and its two countries as one entity, along with niche markets such as golfers, business and incentive travelers and the widespread diaspora of emigrants.
"We have seen an exceptional performance so far from North America in 2017, up 21.6% compared to the first half of 2016, making it another record year," Alison Metcalfe, executive vice president of Tourism Ireland for the USA & Canada, told me.
Ancestral heritage has always drawn visitors, as has Ireland's reputation for warm hospitality and animated pubs where the craic (good times) and Guinness flow. We have long admired the 40 shades of green that color the landscape in classic films such as "The Quiet Man" and "Ryan's Daughter." Of all Americans traveling to Europe these days, 10% are heading to Ireland.
"A record 250,000 North Americans visited Northern Ireland in 2016," Metcalfe reported.
Catherine Reilly, the managing director of Dublin-based Brendan Vacations, concurs.
"Ireland's popularity is on the rise at the moment," she said. "And when our [islandwide] visitor numbers increase, so do those heading to Northern Ireland."
Established in 1969 and today a leader in vacations to Ireland and Scotland, Brendan has offered both guided and self-drive vacations to this country since 1990. With 2017 departures to Northern Ireland sold out months in advance, capacity for 2018 is being increased.
"Ireland enjoys a high number of return guests, and when they plan a second trip to Ireland, [Northern Ireland] is almost always on their list," Reilly said.
It was on my list, this time following a guided vacation I hosted around Ireland as the global ambassador for Trafalgar, the travel company that is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. It was one of the trailblazers in the early years of tourism to Northern Ireland following the Troubles.
"There has been great success in developing a vibrant tourism industry in Belfast," Trafalgar global CEO Gavin Tollman told me. "With such a compelling history and warm and friendly people, there is no doubt that tourism in Northern Ireland will continue to go from strength to strength. We are currently looking into expanding our programs to Northern Ireland and look forward to sharing more of this region's delights."
The Travel Corporation, Trafalgar's parent, purchased Brendan in 2006, and Tollman and Trafalgar took over management in 2013. Trafalgar and Brendan "code share/coach share" all guided vacations for Ireland and Scotland, while Brendan additionally offers travel styles that include private chauffeur vacations, golf vacations and self-drive vacations.
As safe and welcoming as Northern Ireland proved to be, I cannot imagine experiencing it without a knowledgeable guide. Its history is not an easy one, nor is it brief or easily grasped by a non-Brit. Case in point is the 30-year period of the Troubles.
Commonly and mistakenly written off as a secular conflict between Protestants (loyalists who supported continued British rule) and Catholics (nationalists favoring unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south), the conflict was in fact primarily a social, cultural and historical feud that can be traced back centuries to when England first tried to settle the island.
As a guest of Tourism Ireland, I traveled with Billy Scott, an exceptional guide who tirelessly explained the country's centuries-old complexities (and many a "Game of Thrones" plot twist) during a six-day visit.