Belfast guide sold a vast 800,000 copies in 10 years
Northern Ireland is a tourism gem that should attract more visitors, as Heidi McAlpine, creator of a popular introduction to the region, explains to Una Brankin.
If Heidi McAlpine had her way, Northern Ireland's lurid street murals would be dismantled, brick by brick, and reassembled in an open-air museum - thereby consigning them to history and giving us another unique, large-scale visitor attraction.
The publisher and editor - named after the famous fictional Swiss mountain girl - is full of such good ideas for local tourism. Her surname is also well-known here as her father Colin is a highly respected journalist, working for a range of publications and broadcasters for four decades. Father and daughter hooked up this week to promote Heidi's brainchild, Belfast In Your Pocket, the popular visitor guide that's 10 years old this summer.
Launched in 2005, the magazine has notched up over 800,000 copies across 56 issues. As part of the international In Your Pocket group of visitor guides, its website, belfast.inyourpocket.com, continues to attract huge numbers of online visitors from around the globe - and it couldn't have a more qualified editor than Heidi.
If there's a visitor attraction worth its salt in Northern Ireland, Heidi McAlpine can always be found at the launch. Similarly she often appears at historically significant events - she was there for the openings of Titanic Belfast, Victoria Square, The Merchant Hotel, the Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre and The MAC Theatre. And, naturally, she was on the VIP list for the launches of the revamped Crumlin Road Gaol, Culturlann, Ulster Museum and Lyric Theatre.
"I watched Snow Patrol do a soundcheck at Belfast City Hall for the MTV European Music Awards, and I was there when Belfast City Airport was named after George Best," she says. "I've also seen the emergence of the Cathedral Quarter and the growth of fantastic events such as Culture Night, the Festival of Fools and the Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival."
It's all in a day's work for the mother-of-two from Ballyhackamore, who got the idea for her publishing venture during an eight-month trip across Europe with her then boyfriend, Ray Allen, whom she went on to marry in Greece (where, she says, holidaymakers should continue to visit). "It all began in 2004 when Ray and I took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow," she recalls. "We continued by train from St Petersburg to Tallinn in Estonia, but had no guide books to help plan our journey.
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"An American tourist gave us his copy of Tallinn In Your Pocket and we used it to find lots of valuable visitor information. We then looked for In Your Pocket guides in lots of other European cities during our trip."
Once home, Heidi contacted In Your Pocket's head office about launching Belfast In Your Pocket.
"I knew the city's tourism scene was on the up and felt the time was right," she said. "I had every faith the appeal would grow, but I couldn't have foreseen the extent. Like it or not, our tourism success is linked with the peace process.
"As long as it continues to hold, there's really nothing to stop us developing our unique product even further. And by unique, I mean our authentic charm, self-deprecating wit and unspoilt heritage. We have imminently walkable history-steeped cities within easy reach of stunning coastlines and countryside. But we have to stop fighting and painting provocative murals."
An Invest NI Go For It course helped Heidi put together a business plan and she quickly convinced the In Your Pocket team that Belfast was ready to be "pocketed". Over the past decade, Heidi has worked solo and with various business partners; she now runs the business alone, with Ray looking after the book-keeping.
The couple's first child, Scarlett (8), was born in the same year Heidi published Dublin In Your Pocket and co-launched Belfast, Northern Ireland and Dublin Visitor Maps.
The family (now including five-year-old Freddie) lived in Dublin then, but as a proud citizen of Ballyhackamore, and formerly of Carryduff, Belfast is where Heidi's heart lies.
"I grew up in and around local newspapers when my dad worked in the News Letter and Irish News, as well as freelancing at Downtown Radio," she says. "As a child, I used to be dragged to Irish League football matches, which he covered for the Press and radio, and sit silently in the Press box, bored to death, at Solitude, The Oval or my dad's beloved Seaview.
"I also have fond memories having a laugh with the printers in the Irish News, typesetting the old metal letter blocks and even coming up with the occasional headline. My dad is singularly responsible for my career." As Northern Ireland tourism has expanded, to the envy of Bord Failte, Heidi decided to rename her magazine's print edition as Belfast & Northern Ireland In Your Pocket. So what do we have that Dublin doesn't?
"A small-scale city that's easy to navigate and not overrun with stag and hen parties," she laughs. "And scenery that's exceedingly easy to visit, even on a day-trip or overnight.
"I love the revamped Crumlin Road Gaol - that's a fantastic example of the revival of a building with a big story to tell. Titanic Belfast has the undeniable wow factor, and I have always been drawn to the Thompson Dry Dock where men worked on Titanic before she set sail. The sheer scale of this huge hole in the ground helps visitors imagine the vastness of this mighty ship.
"If visitor figures are anything to go by then, the Titanic story will continue to fascinate. When the cruise ship berth is built, and more cruises add Belfast to their itinerary, Titanic Belfast will continue to be the must-see attraction. Then, people drawn by its existence - the so-called Guggenheim Museum 'Bilbao effect' - will explore further afield and even rebook a second, third or fourth trip."
She welcomes the Belfast Bike scheme, which had it busiest day yet this week, with over 1,000 bike rentals in one day.
"That's a welcome change in the cityscape - as long as they stay on the road. It would also be lovely to re-introduce trams, like Manchester and Dublin, but I suppose the economic downturn has put paid to that dream.
"As a regular Metro Bus user, I say extend our public transport infrastructure and continue to dissuade cars from driving in the city centre. And make the front of City Hall and along Donegall Place one big pedestrian piazza."
That only leaves the $64m question: if Heidi were in charge of Northern Ireland tourism, what would she do to attract more visitors, and how? "Well, firstly, I would say: do not fear our recent history but galvanise it, so people curious about the Troubles can discover its every facet through credible and top class visitor experiences - whether they be tours, attractions or events.
"Secondly, offer visitors beautifully crafted and locally sourced food and souvenirs. This growing sector will be rightfully celebrated in 2016's NI Year of Food. And that also applies to our accommodation. We have some exquisite hotels, guest houses and B&Bs that are harnessing this 'keep it local' mantra - they know what visitors want.
"Most importantly, though, is to continue to promote Northern Ireland - and use our famous faces - in established and emerging overseas markets and attract more direct flights. They won't come if it's not easy."
With the opening of The Gobbins cliff path, the launch of several new landmark city centre hotels, the global impact of Game of Thrones and the imminent return of The Open to Royal Portrush, Heidi's confident that the next decade looks certain to drive tourism to a whole new level.
"Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined Belfast and Northern Ireland attracting such high visitor numbers - and become a destination for cruise ships," she concludes.
"The plans for the Grand Central Hotel at Windsor House look fabulous - I just hope they open a top floor bar overlooking the city. Belfast needs a public room with a view."
Heidi's favourite hotspots
This is like asking me to pick a favourite child. I'll say the next one that opens. We need them all - from five star to budget. Beyond Belfast, the Lough Erne Resort is great. And Tepee Valley near Markethill has brought imaginative glamping to the masses.
I love Newforge House in Moira's dedication to elegant decor, excellent food and exemplary customer service. I recently enjoyed a relaxing night at Ballylagan Organic Farm Guest House. Their exceptional food provenance and stylish bedrooms were a real find. Then there's Shola Cottage in Portrush, Saddler's House in Derry, Cairn Bay Lodge in Ballyholme. Northern Ireland is dotted with fine B&Bs and wonderfully welcoming hosts.
Ox is as tasty as it gets, and unpretentious. Mourne Seafood Bar continues to deliver our exceptional coastal bounty to the city's grateful locals and visitors. And speaking of seafood, fish and chips at Long's in Belfast should be on everyone's list.
I had a lovely lunch at 4 Vicars, opposite Armagh's Church of Ireland Cathedral. Closer to home, Belfast's General Merchants, Bangor's Guillemot and Newtownards' Haptik have taken cafe culture to a new level.
Pedro at The Sunflower continues to weave his magic when it comes to galvanising the city's cool set with great beer and crowd-pleasing live music. The Hudson has single-handedly revamped city centre north, and is sitting pretty for the Ulster University move.
Along the lough from the Big Fish to Clarendon Dock. Or the view from Napoleon's Nose at Cave Hill.
Space Craft and Studio Souk for unique, locally-made finds. And Aunt Sandra's Candy Factory for brothers David and Jim's unstoppable enthusiasm for the sweeter things in life.
Ballyhackamore, where I live. Everyone I know who lives here loves, loves, loves this place. And rightly so.
Going to Victoria Park and watching planes take off and land at George Best Belfast City Airport. And driving round the industrial heartland of Queen's Island to admire the Samson and Goliath cranes.
Research, research, research then engage with the locals, throw out everything you 'know' and go with the flow. Adventure is always round the corner.
The start of the journey...
- In Your Pocket was founded in 1991 by German Matthias Lufkens and Belgian brothers George, Oliver and Nicolas Ortiz over several beers in Vilnius, Lithuania, a town that then had no telephone directory
- It is now Europe's leading provider of urban information, supplying locally produced, practical details at www.in yourpocket.com and in more than 70 publication guide books across 23 countries
- Its lively, honest style has received praise from Le Monde, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the BBC, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet