Belfast's new tourist office is truly something to sing about
It may have suffered a few telephone teething problems, but there are high hopes for city's visitor centre, says Ivan Little
They've spent nearly two million pounds on Belfast's new hi-tech, high-profile visitor and welcome centre but yesterday, after the razzmatazz of the opening of what's been hailed as the greatest information facility in Europe, they had to endure an age-old glitch to go along with the 21st century glitz.
For after the VIPs from Belfast City Council and Stormont talked big about tourist figures, the one number which didn't quite add up at the ground-breaking new centre was the telephone number.
After paying an unannounced visit to the visitor centre long after it had flung open its doors at a flashy party, I tried to ring its phone line for help.
But I simply couldn't get a connection. And after I finally got through an hour later, a receptionist admitted that their telephones had been temporarily on the blink.
As for my quest for information, no one at the City Hall or Visit Belfast seemed sure who was responsible for the centre's publicity, before an outside PR firm referred me to a council Press release.
But what is certain about the new space-age facility is that it's replacing an old one which was never the most welcoming of welcome centres.
Sometimes it seemed more like 'cead mile faults' than failte.
It was only round the corner in Donegall Place from the new centre opposite the City Hall, but it was so hard to find that many visitors simply gave up.
And the more persistent travellers had to negotiate an escalator before reaching their destination at the top of the house, which wasn't exactly top of the range.
For a start, tourist experts said its design made it notoriously difficult to negotiate. The staff did their best, but it was like a maze, a mish-mash of stands and shelves with information and leaflets which seemed to be in no particular order.
Also, there was often no rhyme nor reason about what the centre was selling or what booking services it had available for north or south of the border. It was in many ways a united Ireland of confusion.
In years gone by, ringing up for information was little more illuminating.
At times, I pretended to be a Yank called Hank seeking information about Orangefest, Game Of Thrones locations and CS Lewis, who might as well have stayed in the wardrobe for all the in-the-dark staff knew about him.
But officials behind the new centre have clearly seen the light with what they hope will herald a new dawn for tourism here.
Unlike its gloomy first-floor predecessor, even the most misguided visitor couldn't miss the new glass-fronted downstairs centre with its prime position, slap bang in the centre of the city centre.
A huge Visit Belfast sign above it and the attractive lay-out of the centre gives it the appearance of a place which looks the business, means business and will undoubtedly do the business if predictions of rising tourist figures are fulfilled.
Inside, the state-of-the-art centre is nearly as big an attraction as some of the tourist hotspots it's trying to promote, not just in Belfast but right across Northern Ireland.
Heaven knows, though, how many rain forests were sacrificed to produce all the leaflets extolling the virtues of up to 400 attractions – everything from 15 motorised tours to ghost walks and to raising spirits of a different kind in Belfast's churches or drinking them in the city's historic pubs. They're all arranged in a series of units which open at the touch of a button.
A touch will also unlock the secrets on digital screens of Belfast past and present. And any mysteries that might remain about the backgrounds of famous Ulster sons like Van Morrison and inventor Harry Ferguson are quickly resolved in the new tourist hub which has hundreds of Belfast-branded souvenirs and T-shirts for sale, including an entire wall devoted to the Titanic, not to mention a huge number of DVDs of movies made in the city.
The centre, which was partly funded by Europe, is expected to deal with 400,000 visitors in its first year, according to its chief executive Gerry Lennon. He added: "Visitors will see more, experience more and enjoy more in the centre, which will increase our capacity in meeting the demands of an increasing number of tourists coming to Belfast."
At the opening, Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir of Sinn Fein and the DUP Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster delivered the same message of optimism that the new centre would play its part in bringing more visitors to the city.
The elephant which wasn't in the room, however, was the empty flagpole just across the street, which has been at the heart of the violent row that is said to have scared even more tourists away...