Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Why we punch above our weight on the tourism front

Tourist treasures: MTV has given us the chance to show off our sights

Why should tourists want to visit Belfast? What is there to do here? Is the place really attractive - or is it just another European backwater city?

A mischievous Stephen Nolan set out to wind up myself and others on his BBC radio show last week.

We were debating the impact of the recent MTV awards and whether it was money well spent by Belfast City Council and tourist officials.

So what are the upsides and downsides of visiting Belfast? Firstly, it must be said that the city's troubled past is an international fascination.

I find visitors want to know about our differences and the politics of conflict and peace; the Shankill and the Falls and all that.

Stormont, too, is special, surely one of the most recognisable parliament buildings in Europe.

The Titanic is still too much of a Belfast secret, but should be revealed to more people in the world outside in 2012.

The hills surrounding the city are every bit as dramatic as Cape Town's Table Mountain and might be even more so if tourists could travel up the Cavehill in a cable car.

The rest of Northern Ireland is easily accessible. The countryside is 15 minutes from the city centre, the stunning Atlantic coastline, the Walls of Derry or the lakes of Fermanagh at most 90 minutes away by car.

The River Lagan and Belfast Lough cycle way - 21-miles-long from Lisburn to Newtownabbey - is a match for Amsterdam's bicycling paths. In visitor numbers, the new £100m Titanic centre opening soon could be Belfast's answer to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

A night out at the Opera House, or the Odyssey, is worth a visit to Belfast in itself. The Crown Bar has no equal, although regrettably it and most other watering holes lack the kind of traditional music which foreign tourists crave when they come here.

At the risk of sounding like a tourist brochure, I cannot ignore the Odyssey's W5 for children, the Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra and the refurbished Ulster Museum.

Inside and outside Belfast - from Portrush to Newcastle - is Rory McIlroy, Graham McDowell and Darren Clarke land. Perhaps we still need more of the outside world to know that Northern Ireland has become to golf what New Zealand is to rugby. Those are some upsides, but the downsides cannot be ignored. For example, a hotel which doesn't measure up to its tourist grading.

Or taxi-drivers who don't smile, or who are too lazy to open the boot for luggage. Or staff in shops who barely lift their eyes to acknowledge a tourist's presence. Or bar and restaurant waiters who act as if serving customers were beneath them.

Then there are the sight-seeing spots which close, or have no services, on public and bank holidays. A lack of public recognition that tourism is the future and the life-blood of Northern Ireland's ever-so-fragile economy. A sense that familiarity still breeds more than a little contempt for the attractions around us.

Maybe it's because we are a small society that we harbour an inferiority complex. Maybe it's because some people have taken for granted the changing landscape of Ulster and need to open their eyes to the positives as well as the negatives.

Northern Ireland is a special place. If you don't accept this premise, stand at an airport next month and witness the smiles and tears of so many thousands of exiles returning home for Christmas.

That said, what if the question were posed to you: why should anyone come to Belfast? If you were planning a tourist's visit, what would be the itinerary? What would be your answer?

Attracting tourists to Northern Ireland isn't a job for someone else. It's about a willingness to showcase, to encourage and welcome visitors and ensure they enjoy the experience.

Sadly, that message seems to be embraced more noticeably in countries we visit rather than by ourselves at home.

  • Smokin' Joe Frazier, who died last week, found himself mightily put down in Northern Ireland some years ago.

On a singing tour of Ireland, he was due to put in an appearance at the Silver Slipper ballroom at Magilligan. At one stage, more people were assembled outside in the car-park surrounding the ex-world boxing champion's limousine than inside waiting to hear him sing on stage.

"We can see big Joe on TV anytime," explained one of the car-park crowd to a London reporter accompanying Frazier.

"But it's not every day in these parts that you get to have a close-up look at a Rolls-Royce."

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