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
The province, wracked for years by political and sectarian
violence, usually has remained off the wish-list for most U.S.
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
"The mandate we have is to help Northern Ireland achieve its
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
"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
Even so, agent Maike Cenci, of Robinson Travel in Manhattan
Beach, Calif., "was surprised I didn't notice that we'd entered
"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
"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
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
Although the Saint Patrick Centre works with operators such as
CIE Tours and Brendan, Campbell isn't interested in mass
"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
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.