Tourism in Northern Ireland is coming of age

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Misty Northern Ireland, often the forgotten stepchild of tourism in the British Isles, might finally get its day in the sun.

Rising overseas arrivals, an ongoing peace process and recent investment in tourism infrastructure distinguish Northern Ireland as an up-and-comer, say officials, travel agents and suppliers.

The destination comprises six predominantly Protestant counties that remained part of the U.K. after Irish independence in 1922.

The province, wracked for years by political and sectarian violence, usually has remained off the wish-list for most U.S. tourists.

But a turnaround began when the Irish Republican Army agreed to disarm in 1994. According to Tourism Ireland, the new overseas marketing body responsible for promoting both the north and south of the island, 112,000 Americans visited Northern Ireland in 2000, up from 32,000 in 1993.

Jim McGuigan, executive vice president, North America, for Tourism Ireland in New York, hopes to further the trend.

"We hope to see 8% to 9% growth in overseas arrivals this year," he said, noting Tourism Ireland will devote a lion's share of its $6.5 million U.S. marketing campaign to helping the north "catch up."

"The mandate we have is to help Northern Ireland achieve its tourism potential."

In particular, McGuigan wants to convince the 900,000 or so Americans who descend on the Republic of Ireland each year to visit the north, as well.

Belfast up close

To that end, about 100 recent travel agent graduates of Tourism Ireland's Shamrock Club specialist program were given a good dose of Ulster and its capital, Belfast, during familiarization trips in March.

"I was really impressed with Belfast, which was totally different than I imagined," said Virginia Lacy McKinnon, travel consultant with Isle Inn Tours in Alexandria, Va. "I thought everything would be bombed out."

Instead, agents found just another Irish city -- a hip, bustling and cultured one -- going about its business.

"I think this city is going to become more popular with Americans," said another agent. "You get the same Irish hospitality, plus a lot of history."

To be sure, there are telltale signs, immediately recognizable to London habi-tues, that peacefully distinguish Belfast, a British outpost, from its urban kin to the south.

Commerce is conducted in pounds sterling rather than in euros, and U.K. retail outlets such as Marks & Spencer dot the streets.

Even so, agent Maike Cenci, of Robinson Travel in Manhattan Beach, Calif., "was surprised I didn't notice that we'd entered Northern Ireland."

"I'd expected to see some sign of division, rock throwing or something," Cenci explained. "But Belfast is a beautiful city; I felt very safe there."

In fact, Belfast boasts the lowest crime rate of any major European city, said officials, and the once heavily guarded border with the Republic largely has been dismantled.

The troubles they've seen

That's not to say there isn't occasional unrest; for example, at press time, Protestant paramilitary groups had clashed with police in northern Belfast.

But visitors aren't any more likely to encounter sectarian violence in Northern Ireland than back home, said tour operators, which take pains to avoid strife-ridden areas.

"It's not in our interest to show clients places where there might be conflicts," said Ursula Blackburne, manager, East Coast, for CIE Tours International in Cedar Knolls, N.J.

Fam participants did, however, visit the Falls Road and Shankill Road neighborhoods, once divided by a "peace wall" separating warring Catholic and Protestant blocks.

Today, the few remaining vestiges of conflict are striking wall murals that colorfully trumpet both sides of the issue.

Ulster, I hardly knew ye

It was outside Belfast, however, that fam participants really seemed taken with Ulster.

Although some had sold trips to the Giant's Causeway, a northern "must" on any Irish itinerary, most seemed surprised that Northern Ireland was much like the rest of Ireland.

Siobhan Moore, co-founder and vice president of sales of Dedham, Mass.-based Siobhan Moore's Ireland, had never ventured north of the border, nor had she included Ulster in her 2002 brochure.

"I was surprised at how beautiful it is," she said. "On the Antrim Coast road, you could have been on the Ring of Kerry, except there were no motorcoaches; it's unspoiled."

Moore now plans to offer Northern Ireland for 2003.

Although visiting agents were impressed, the question remains whether Northern Ireland can be sold to U.S. travelers.

CIE launched an Ulster-only tour product a few years back, but it tanked, said Blackburne, so stops in Dublin and Galway were promptly added.

"We've continued to bring Americans to Northern Ireland," she said. "But obviously some clients might be afraid."

All-Ireland, all the time

The north sells best when incorporated with the rest of Ireland, said Tourism Ireland's McGuigan, who said his research showed 60% of Americans would prefer to see both regions, in contrast to the 2% favoring Ulster only.

At least one fam participant differed. "The bulk of my clientele are Presbyterian Protestants who have a strong heritage in Northern Ireland," said Linda Meadors of Huron Valley Travel in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Actually I could see several days in Belfast."

Jim Burke, Midwest regional sales manager at Celtic International Tours in Albany, N.Y., said he'd "look into developing programs where we go into Northern Ireland for a three- or four-night stay."

The Irish-born Burke said he found today's Ulster extremely impressive, particularly the hotels that are going up.

The number of hotel rooms in Belfast has doubled since 1997, said Tourism Ireland.

New investments include the $22 million, 120-room Ramada Belfast at Shaw's Bridge; the addition of 56 rooms to the venerable Europa Hotel; and the 177-room Forte Posthouse.

The Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau estimated hotel investment over a six-year period ending in 2004 will have totaled almost $200 million.

The change in Northern Ireland's fortunes was perhaps summed up in one fam participant's appraisal of the province.

"I was in Northern Ireland several years ago and found [Belfast] scary," said agent Collette Brown-Peck, of the Christopherson Travel Group in Salt Lake City.

"But the changes I saw on our trip were remarkable and very encouraging. I would not have any problem selling Northern Ireland to anyone who asked or was planning an overall trip to Ireland."

St. Pat's bridges cultural gaps

DOWNPATRICK, Northern Ireland -- In a land long associated with religious strife, a new attraction, the Saint Patrick Centre here, stands as a symbol of unity.

Steps away from Down Cathedral, reputed burial place of St. Patrick himself, the $9 million interpretive center explores the story of Ireland's patron saint from historical and legendary as well as Catholic and Protestant perspectives.

"We're Ireland's newest cross-cultural attraction in what's been a hidden corner of [the country]," said Tim Campbell, director. "The St. Patrick phenomenon bridges the north and south of Ireland as well as the Atlantic.

Besides an interactive, walk-through exhibit, the center boasts an art gallery, a restaurant and a 180-degree audiovisual presentation.

Although the Saint Patrick Centre works with operators such as CIE Tours and Brendan, Campbell isn't interested in mass tourism.

"We've turned some coaches away, because we won't push people through like cattle," he said.

"We're especially interested in pilgrimage, special-interest and religious tourists."

The center is open year-round, but operating hours vary; admission is about $6.50 for adults and $3.25 for children; group rates are available.

For details, visit www.saintpatrickcentre.com or call direct, (011) 44-284 461-9000. -- K.K.

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