Hotels in Belfast will experience one of their busiest Mays yet as the Giro d'Italia promises to deliver a visitor bonanza for the city.
Occupancy rates for hotels across the city have already hit 85% for May 8-11 when the Italian cycling spectacular comes to our shores, bringing with it a huge influx of competitors, support team members and spectators from across the world.
The Giro is second only to the Tour de France in world cycling prestige.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has estimated that the extra business stimulated by the Giro will generate £2.5 million for the economy, together with some £10m worth of international media coverage.
Northern Ireland's biggest hotel in the heart of Belfast is almost booked out already, with two weeks still to go before the Grande Partenza – Big Start – of the massive race.
The first three stages will be held here before the event moves back to its native Italy
The Europa Hotel is 95% booked up, with owners the Hastings Hotel group expecting even more rooms to sell before the big event.
The Stormont Hotel, which is on the east Belfast leg of the race, has a 91% occupancy rate, and the Ballygally Hotel outside Larne on the Antrim coast road is almost 70% booked out.
Hastings Group marketing officer Julie Hastings said they were delighted, revealing that at the same time last year occupancy rates at its Belfast hotels – the Europa, Culloden and Stormont – averaged out at just 53%.
Around 200 riders from more than 30 countries will be competing in the Big Start, which includes the first stage race from Titanic Belfast to a finish at Belfast City Hall.
Collette Reynolds of the NI Tourist Board said 140,000 people were expected to visit Belfast to experience the event, with around 42,000 of them from outside Northern Ireland.
"It's a great event for the city and for Northern Ireland and our Think Pink campaign is encouraging people across the country to take part," she said.
"Over the next few weeks we'll be dropping leaflets at every door in the country and all our councils are being encouraged to run initiatives supporting the event.
"When the Giro d'Italia visited Amsterdam in 2010 it generated £7.5m for their economy, and although we can't directly compare the two cities we know we can expect around £10m worth of media coverage."
Janice Gault of the Hotels Federation said the race will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the province.
"The Giro has a massive audience so all the world's Press come," she said. "It really paints the province in a good light and as a result it is good news for tourism."
Bars and restaurants are also gearing up for the event and the local cycling industry is expecting a boost from Giro fever.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, called it "the biggest thing to come here since the World Police and Fire Games".
"Eighty per cent of tourists who come here visit a pub and there was so much demand during the games that one of our pubs in the centre of Belfast actually ran out of beer and had to close its doors.
"I'd expect similar demand during the week of the Giro."
The T-shirts in big demand and the ducks that took on a rosy tint, just for the quack
It may still be two weeks until the world's top cyclists pedal in to Northern Ireland but the parties are already being planned.
Maurice Gallagher, who owns Full Cycle on the Antrim Road, along the route of the Giro d'Italia, has painted his shop pink in anticipation of the event.
He has also designed special Giro Belfast T-shirts which are already selling like hotcakes.
On the day of the event he will be holding a barbecue for customers in front of his shop as the top riders whizz past.
"We are really excited. We have painted the shop pink and are working on some Celtic/Italian-themed artwork," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"We are going to be having a barbecue and launching our new coffee bar, and also a new series of Giro T-shirts.
"We have been working with a very talented artist who has come up with a range of Giro T-shirt designs.
"The T-shirts have been going really well. We are taking orders from bars across town who are kitting their staff out in them.
"We're hoping they'll become a must-have souvenir for people who have come to see the Giro – it's a once in a lifetime chance for many people to see such a big bike race."
Although Maurice's preference is mountain biking, he said he and his customers were really excited about the Giro coming.
"I think the build-up has been a bit late starting, but there is a real buzz going now," he said.
"We get a lot of road cyclists in the shop, it really is a big deal to people.
"I have never seen a big race like this before, so it's a first for me as well."
In other pink news, one of Northern Ireland's biggest hotel groups has launched a special Giro duck for the occasion. Hastings Hotels are known for their themed rubber ducks, and now they have come up with a pink Giro duck.
Marketing officer Julie Hastings said all the group's hotels were gearing up for the Giro.
"We will be making the hotels pink, having pink afternoon teas, with the staff wearing pink ties, and pink lighting," she said.
"Our little mascot is a duck so we have little pink Giro ducks for everybody that stays.
"Then we have a big pink duck for photographs.
"There is great excitement about the Giro."
Stunt riders and opera for the grand unveiling
Tickets for the Giro d'Italia launch event at Belfast City Hall will be released this morning.
There is expected to be a big rush for the free tickets to the opening of one of the world's biggest cycling events, which is coming to Northern Ireland for the first time next month.
The Giro Big Start, or Grande Partenza, will be preceded by the traditional presentation of the teams to the host city.
The nine riders from each of the 22 competing teams will be presented to the public in the grounds of Belfast City Hall on Thursday, May 8 from 6pm.
Fans can expect to see some of the biggest names in cycling with teams from at least 12 countries including Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Russia, Spain and the USA.
The riders themselves are drawn from around 30 countries.
The official Giro opening will be followed by a performance by one of the Irish Tenors, Finbar Wright (right), and stunt riders from the RampRage Extreme Sports Crew.
The Giro Opening – Come Meet The Riders event – will be the highlight of Belfast City Council's Get On Yer bike! Giro Festival, supported by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
The city will be getting into the spirit of the Giro with a programme of events and activities running from May 3-11 across Belfast embracing the themes of Italy, pink and bicycles through talks, films, tour and theatre.
The festival hub at Cathedral Gardens and Writers' Square will be home to everything from free arts and crafts workshops to cookery demos, bicycle maintenance, fashion and street theatre as well as expo stands.
e Free tickets for the Giro launch – limited to two per person – will be available at www.visit-belfast.com or in person from the Visit Belfast Welcome Centre in Donegall Square North from 9am today.
Those who are successful in booking tickets online will be able to collect their tickets from 1pm on April 24.
Tickets must be collected from Visit Belfast no later than Thursday, May 1 at 4pm. Tickets not collected then will be reallocated.