Declan Lawn on his new BBC NI TV series Bus Wars about the rival companies vying for Belfast's sight-seeing trade
Bus wars and peace
It's a glorious summer's morning on Royal Avenue and there's a buzz in the air. A huge cruise ship has just docked, spilling thousands of tourists on to the streets of Belfast. They come from all over the world - from New York to New Zealand - and they all have one thing in common. They want to see Belfast; this town they have heard about all their lives; this city whose name has resonated over the decades for all the wrong reasons, like Beirut, or Baghdad.
And yet they know something has changed. They've been told that they have to come here, to see it for themselves, to experience a city that has been reborn in the space of about 15 years and that has a new-found swagger about it, but that still wears its scars openly, for all to see.
They've heard about this. They've read about it in travel sections of newspapers and on social media. They've discussed it, decided that all of those ecstatic travel writers can't be wrong. They've made a decision. Booked the holiday. Belfast, here we come.
Now, they're here, right in the middle of it and they need someone to put a shape on this experience. To package it and deliver it in a way that won't disappoint. And, yes, they're willing to pay good money for it.
That's where Owen Hamilton comes in. He works for Titanic and City Tours and for six years now he's been selling one particular product, day in, day out, summer and winter: Belfast.
He's been wrapping up the city's troubled history, packaging its modern attractions and tying on its lesser-known byways, all delivered in one 90-minute bus tour.
Owen prides himself on being the best bus tour salesman in town and it seems that this isn't a job in which a man should be troubled by humility.
"I could sell snow to the Eskimos, sand to the Arabs, and fries to us boys," he says. "When you're good, you're good." On this first day of the tourist season, I'm watching Owen at work and it's quite a show. First of all, I'm struck by the sheer number of potential customers he approaches. Over the course of an hour it must be dozens; over the day, surely hundreds.
One in 10 might express interest; fewer still might actually pay £12.50 for a tour. Even so, that's a hit-rate that Owen can live with, if it all adds up to getting 30 bums on seats over the course of a day.
He doesn't mind being ignored, laughs it off when people tell him to get lost (or more colourful versions of the sentiment) and buzzes with energy when someone stops to engage with him. He loves it all.
"This is the best job in the world," he says, as he hands out another leaflet.
"Or it would be, if it weren't for the daily battles with his bitter rivals - the salesmen from City Sightseeing tours.
To most outsiders - and certainly to tourists - the two open-top tour companies in Belfast look and sound the same. Both wear red and have red buses. Both do slightly different routes around the city, but take in many of the same sights.
For tourists, dealing with the two companies can be very disconcerting, especially because often they are forced to do so at the same time. More often than not, if a salesman from one company sees someone from a rival engaging with a tourist, he will walk up and try to muscle in on the sale, explaining how the tourist is making a huge mistake by considering an "inferior" tour.
There's even a name for this among the salesmen - "battling". To them, it's all part of a day's work, but as I film some of it for the first time, I see a range of responses from the tourists.
Some are put off by it and simply walk away to explore the city by themselves. Others seem to revel in it, cranking up the competition between the two and seeing how big a price reduction they can get.
The encounters stop short of physical aggression - mostly, it's a battle of wits. And often, when the battle is over and the tourists have made their choice, the same two salesmen will be seen chatting amiably just moments later - it's all part of the game.
It wasn't always like this. The bus tour industry in Belfast has earned a reputation for aggression and even violence, with allegations of attacks on buses and premises. Until relatively recently, there were altercations on the street, some of them resulting in convictions for those involved.
These days, though, it feels like some of the heat has gone out of the situation on the streets; while there's still a strong rivalry, it doesn't have the raw antagonism that it perhaps once did.
There could be many reasons for this; maybe it's that, these days, with tourist numbers at well over two million a year, there's enough business to go around; or it could be that the authorities who regulate the industry are keeping a close eye on what's going on.
Maybe even the ticket sellers are on their best behaviour because we're out here on the streets making a three-part series for television. That series, now called Bus Wars and due to be broadcast on Monday, came about because we realised that the Belfast tour bus industry may be part of a bigger story that needed to be told.
It's a story about the changing face of Northern Ireland and the slow, but inexorable journey we have all made together from terrorism to tourism. Against all of the vicissitudes of political life in Northern Ireland, the scandals and tantrums, the bitterness and acrimony, it seemed clear that a quieter, less visible and yet arguably more stable process has taken place out on the streets.
From bus tours to hotels, to new pubs and restaurants, we are now drawing people in from all over the world and when they come here, they don't just seem to like it; they seem to love it.
Brian English has been a tour guide with City Sightseeing Tours for eight years and today he's flat out, with five consecutive tours of the city. He doesn't mind a bit. Brian says of his dream job: "After my first week on the job, I thought, 'I can't believe they are paying me to talk about the place'. I feel the same today. I love it."
When it comes to local history, he admits to being something of an anorak.
"When I get home from work, my family says. 'Please, please don't tell us any more facts about Belfast. Save it for the buses'."
Brian boasts that he never does the same tour twice - he does a quick assessment of the crowd on the bus and tailors things accordingly.
"An older crowd want to hear lots of detail about the peace walls, the murals - west Belfast, basically," he says. "They want to see this city they have grown up hearing about on the news. Younger people want something different - they are more interested in Belfast as it is now, what they can see, what they can do."
Today, on this first big day of the season, we have five cameras out and about all over the city. We don't just want to follow the bus tour operators, but also the tourists.
Joan is back in her hometown of Belfast for the first time in 60 years - she emigrated to Canada when she was eight years old. Now she has returned with her two Canadian nieces to look into their roots and they're starting with a bus tour of the city.
Joan may have left Belfast physically, but she reveals that she never left it emotionally. In fact, in more than 60 years of living in Canada, she never applied for citizenship there. She explains that, when she got off the plane and heard the Northern Ireland accents at passport control, she became transported immediately back to her childhood and was overwhelmed.
Her nieces are overwhelmed for other reasons - they can't believe how modern, vibrant and fun Belfast is to visit.
But today, the story isn't confined to Belfast - not even close. Up on the world-famous causeway coast, there's another battle going on. This one is between two private coach tour operators.
Allen's Tours is run by Benn Allen. He runs his business on a tight budget, using slightly older vehicles with a philosophy of getting bums on seats with cut-price offers. Close to his office on Belfast's Sandy Row is McComb's Coaches, a company that takes a different approach. They see themselves as provider of luxury travel for those who would like to pay a little bit more; their coaches have all mod cons, from water dispensers to deep leather seats.
Despite the fact that they are aiming for different markets, there is no love lost between the two companies.
Today, both of them have multiple coaches taking tourists to the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. This is another active front in Northern Ireland's Bus Wars and a lucrative one - McComb's alone took 70,000 people to see the Causeway last year. The question that both companies are exploring is which works better: the luxury approach, or the budget one?
For my own part, making this series has been an enlightening and quite a special experience. I have spent almost 15 years as an investigative journalist in Northern Ireland and taking a break from that line of work to make a series like this has made me realise a few things about this place we all share.
First of all, seeing it through the eyes of tourists as they experience it for the first time, made me see Belfast and Northern Ireland with new eyes.
I realised that we are extraordinarily blessed to live in a place of such natural beauty, from the dramatic backdrop of the city itself to the causeway coast, the Mournes and the Fermanagh lakes, to name just a few, all within a short drive.
Few places in Europe have so many dramatically different and beautiful landscapes within such a small area.
Secondly, there is something quite special about the welcome tourists get here; a warmth that isn't false, or fawning, a jokey, witty welcome that you don't really get in other countries, or at least not on the industrial scale on which we seem to deliver it.
The tourists love it - indeed, I'd say it's one of the things they love most. If we could bottle it, it would be our biggest export.
Thirdly, I realised that, whatever is happening at Stormont, there's another process that has changed the face of Northern Ireland in a fundamental way. It's based on economics, but it has a social element, too.
It's about making money, it doesn't care about religion and it's about quick-thinking entrepreneurship and enterprise. It's seeing a crack in an open door and getting your foot in it and making it work. And it seems to me that we need a great deal more of it.
While 2016 was in many ways a difficult year at home and abroad, making Bus Wars gave me a sense of great optimism. We spent a lot of time laughing and a lot of time hearing from tourists about how great this place is and how lucky we are to live here.
In the end, we came to agree.
- The new three-part BBC One Northern Ireland series Bus Wars starts on Monday at 10.40pm