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Reborn Belfast now a magnet for close to 10m visitors a year

 

By Claire McNeilly

Belfast is on course to reach a milestone 10 million visitors annually - a prospect that would have been dismissed as a fantasy just a few years ago.

A £1 billion investment in infrastructure in the last 15 years is paying big dividends: hotel room sales are up by a third; more than 100 cruise ships dock every year, compared with two 18 years, and in Titanic Belfast the city boasts the 'world's leading tourist attraction'.

Business and leisure tourism generated £122mn for the city's economy in 2016-17, up £25m on the previous year, said Visit Belfast.

The organisation successfully bid for 77 conferences, ran 12 city break campaigns across markets in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain and Europe, and handled some 750,000 enquiries in 2016-17.

Two-time Belfast Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers said he expected further expansion in the sector. "If tourism continues to grow the way it has been, then I predict numbers will reach 15m by 2022," he added.

Councillor Aileen Graham, chair of Belfast City Council's city growth and regeneration committee, said hotel development was key.

"Under the Belfast Agenda, which sets out our vision over the next 20 years, we have identified tourism as a key economic driver, with the short-term goal of doubling the value of out-of-state tourism by 2021. To help meet this target, we need to create an additional 2,500 new hotel bed spaces," she said.

"Our planning committee gave the green light to amended plans for the new Grand Central Hotel in Bedford Street, which will allow it to increase its capacity from 200 to more than 300 rooms, making it the biggest hotel in the city. With additional hotel developments already under way in Brunswick Street, Hope Street and at City Quays, Ten Square undergoing a further extension and other projects in the pipeline, we are well on our way to fulfilling our ambition of making Belfast an even more vibrant, exciting and welcoming destination for visitors."

Council figures show that in 2015 there were 966,614 trips by out-of-state visitors, resulting in 3,731,664 bed nights and £238,945,631 spent.

Visit Belfast chief executive Gerry Lennon said visitors are now spending more than 4m nights in the city each year and hotel room sales have grown by a third in five years.

He added: "Tourism has been a rising star of Belfast's economy for some time now, helping to drive more than £1bn worth of infrastructure investment over the last 15 years.

"From increasing air access to world-class tourist attractions, there is an ever-increasing number of reasons to visit Belfast.

"The fact that Titanic Belfast was voted the world's leading tourist attraction in 2016 is evidence that Belfast is competing on the world stage, and that our reputation as a vibrant, exciting city break and conference destination is growing all the time."

Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen said: "The city is compact, intimate and offers a distinct sense of fun. Belfast now has 43% of NI's entire hotel stock and this is set to grow further, with up to 2,000 more beds planned by 2020."

The city’s top dozen

Titanic Belfast — The landmark six-floor building, featuring nine interpretive and interactive galleries, explores the stories of Titanic, as well as the city and people that  made her. Visitors can trace the liner’s story, discover the passion of those who designed and built her, and relive the excitement of the Titanic era.

SS Nomadic — The last remaining White Star Line vessel, SS Nomadic was the tender ship that ferried first class passengers to the Titanic in Cherbourg. Now fully restored, visitors can find out more about life in Belfast during the period.

HMS Caroline — Opened last June, HMS Caroline, a World War I light battle cruiser, is the last surviving vessel from the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

The new visitor experience in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter allows people to inspect a range of historic spaces including Capt Crookes’ cabin, engine room, sick bay and galley.

Belfast City Hall — A centrepiece on Belfast’s skyline, the City Hall dates back to 1898.

Visitors can take a free tour to explore its history, architecture and gardens including the Titanic Memorial Garden, where the names of all the victims of the tragedy are listed.

Ulster Museum — Situated in Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum is home to a rich collection of art, history and natural sciences.

Parliament Buildings Stormont — Home to the Northern Ireland Assembly, visitors can take a free tour and explore the surrounding woodland.

Crumlin Road Gaol — The jail  witnessed 150 years of imprisonment, conflict and executions before closing in 1996. Discover what inmate life was like and visit the condemned man’s cell and execution room.

The Crown — a Victorian gin palace that has retained its original features and charm.

Cathedral Quarter — packed full of fascinating architecture, its cobbled streets are home to great pubs and restaurants which come alive at night.

St George’s Market — one of the oldest attractions in Belfast, St George’s Market is home to great local produce and seasonal food.

Sightseeing tours — see the city on an open-top bus, or take a taxi tour to the various parts of Belfast. See the political murals and peace walls while you learn about Belfast’s past and present.

Great food and drink — Belfast’s vibrant restaurant scene offers everything from Michelin Star dining and exciting mid-level restaurants to the classic Ulster fry.

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