Every shop in Belfast city centre will be open on the Twelfth next year — if Tourism Minister Arlene Foster has her way.
The Stormont Executive member is determined to turn the Orange Order’s biggest day into a fully inclusive event and a major tourist attraction.
And it means that, apart from the stores, as many amenities as possible will be open to the public in future years as thousands of Orangemen parade through the streets.
With Belfast currently attracting an estimated 30,000 tourists to the city every day, the Twelfth has, in previous years, offered little to visitors in the way of shops, bars and restaurants.
That started to change last year with several retailers opening after, and prior to, the return of the main parade through the city centre.
And in a major development for today’s Twelfth celebrations, 80% of city centre stores were set to open for business, albeit with limited hours, as were some 65% of the bars and restaurants.
It is also thought that hotel bookings in Belfast are triple this year what they were a decade ago.
Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, Ms Foster said she was confident that businesses would seize the opportunity to cash in on the Twelfth celebrations more.
“I would encourage shops to open, as it would be of benefit to them,” she said.
“The cultural element is interesting to tourists because Northern Ireland offers something completely different.
“And once the parade is over, people should be able to shop. Next year we can only hope that even more shops open.”
City centre manager Andrew Irvine said most stores in core areas of Belfast will be open for business, representing a 30% hike on last year.
This development alone is widely expected to transform the central arteries of Royal Avenue and Donegall Place from a ghost town to a thriving hub.
“The general economy has been an encouraging factor in retailers’ decisions to open on the Twelfth,” he said.
“Not many business can afford to keep their shutters down on a day of potential trading, especially if an influx of shoppers is expected.”
He added: “There was nothing open in 2008. We thought it might take up to five years to change that, so we’re delighted that 80% have decided to open during year two.”
The Ulster Museum has today thrown open its doors as it’s a public holiday, despite the fact that it normally closes on Mondays.
Meanwhile, Belfast Zoo and W5 at the Odyssey are among the venues to adopt a business as usual approach.
Elsewhere, there have also been substantial efforts to avoid total shutdown, including those areas which are hosting the flagship demonstrations.
Despite this mammoth mood change, however, thousands of tourists flocking to Northern Ireland to enjoy the parades will still face widespread closures.
The landmark Crown Bar, for example, will be closed all day and there will be no city centre restaurants open after 4.30pm today.
Crown manager Colm Tolan said: “We find it easier to close on the Twelfth, and until they get it right we won’t change our policy.”
Economist John Simpson said Northern Ireland loses around £2m a day in tourist spending when the shops are shut.
“The daily tourist spend here is less than in the Republic and Scotland,” he said.
“We need to make Northern Ireland a warmer place for tourists to come.
“They may well enjoy the colour of the parades, but they want to be able to shop on the high streets as well.
“When we become a warmer place to visit, we’ll see a substantial increase in tourist spending.”
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts said the quicker normalisation of the Twelfth comes, the better it will be for the economy as a whole.
“There are a lot of tourists in July and we must ensure we provide them with a world-class tourism product,” he said.
“From a retailer’s point of view, having to close down for an entire day means they lose a good deal of custom, so we are happy with the progress that has been made. Now, we must replicate what we’ve done in Belfast across the rest of the province.”