Northern Ireland pubs are in high spirits
Bars here are tipped to have a bumper Christmas and 2020
The Northern Ireland pub scene is to have a merry Christmas after data showed growth in the sector.
A steep decline in the number of pubs here appears to have gone into reverse, with a healthy increase in hostelries opening their doors.
According to research by Scottish digital start-up Stampede, there were 790 pubs in the province this March.
That was up by around five on the year before and during 2017, there had been an increase of 10 new bars.
This rise had followed a major slump here since 2010 from 965 in that year to 775 in 2017.
Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said the Stampede statistics had under-estimated pub figures here.
However, he said the industry had enjoyed a fantastic few years.
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"The pub sector is not without its challenges but local pubs have risen to that challenge and have reinvented themselves, benefitting from focusing on things like their food offering or the popularity of gin," he said.
"I expect they will enjoy a successful festive season."
Gavin Weir, head of pubs and hotels at GVA NI Property Consultants, said the addition of the new pubs could actually be older pubs being relaunched.
He said: "I strongly suspect that the five new pubs are actually an increase within a hotel like a front-facing pub, or operators reinventing an existing venue as new licences aren't given out in Northern Ireland.
"Our licensing law complicates things so it is hard to gauge what the five additional pubs are but generally speaking you must surrender an existing licence to open a new venue.
"The market is good and I am positive and upbeat for 2020.
"The pub industry has come through worse than this. Once we get this election sorted and there's clarity on Brexit, I see things being very positive and predict further price growth."
Kelvin Collins bought north Belfast bar, Ben Madigan's, formerly The Cavehill Inn, in July. He said business had been going well following a £600k refurbishment.
"Including the purchase of the building and refurbishment, it was around £600k plus we have gone from two members of staff to 22 now employed.
"There was definitely an appetite for somewhere like Ben Madigan's in the area and we have been received very well. We are re-opened four weeks after the refurbishment, and what has been heartening is that we have had a lot of repeat business."
Meanwhile, Clover Group has opened Pug Ugly's, Henry's, The Jailhouse, Margot's, The Fountain and White's around Belfast over the last 17 months. However, the openings have involved the relaunch of existing venues.
This week, Janine Kane, who runs Muriel's bar, The Spaniard, The Jeggy Nettle and Panama City Garden and Cafe in Belfast completed the purchase of The Chester Bar and Restaurant on the Antrim Road from the Diamond Group. JAR has bought Bob Stewarts outside Lisburn.
Mr Collins said he thinks the future is bright for Belfast pubs.
"We've turned a corner in the pub industry and it shows that a good pub, well-run, will do well no matter where it is.
"Christmas will be busy and I do think that pubs in general in Belfast will do well in 2020," he said.