Visitor centre plans for the Giant's Causeway have moved a step closer with the award of a £3m grant to the National Trust.
An artist’s impression of how the new visitor facilities at the Giant’s Causeway will look
Popular attraction: Visitors explore the Giant’s Causeway stones
The allocation from the Heritage Lottery Fund is a key boost to the long-awaited north coast building project, which is scheduled to be completed by 2012.
Plans to enhance the visitor experience at Northern Ireland's top tourist attraction include new trail paths and a transport plan to counter local traffic congestion.
The previous Causeway centre burnt down in 2000 and temporary replacement premises are still in place at the site.
Protracted — and at times contentious — deliberations on a suitable replacement have dragged on for years.
A 2007 deal between the National Trust and Moyle Council on a way forward helped resolve the debate, as did a planning refusal the following year for a rival visitor centre tabled by property developer Seymour Sweeney.
The Trust's director for Northern Ireland, Hilary McGrady, welcomed the £3m grant as “a landmark announcement for the Giant's Causeway”.
She added: “Since taking the lead in this project less than two years ago we have made real progress. With funding from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment through the Northern Ireland Tourist Board nearly in place, as well as agreement with Moyle Council imminent, we will actually be able to start works on site in a matter of weeks.
“Heritage Lottery Fund, in announcing this funding of £3m, has today ensured that the Giant's Causeway and Causeway Coast World Heritage Site will truly be sustained, transformed and forever treasured.”
Ronnie Spence, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund Northern Ireland Committee, said: “This announcement is fantastic news for the people of Northern Ireland and highlights once again the positive impact our heritage has on our future.”
Mr Spence added: “With a strong focus on education and participation, this exciting project will enable people to learn more about and become involved with the spectacular natural and cultural heritage of the area.
“With HLF's support the Trust can now progress their plans to provide a world-class experience for visitors to this world-class attraction, and we are delighted to be involved.”
The funding will support the introduction of “imaginative interpretation” on the area's history, geology and biodiversity.
It is also planned to use visitor guides and live storytelling to reflect the relationship between the local community and the Causeway stones.
Outreach activities will include recruiting up to 100 volunteers to act as welcome hosts, storytellers, wardens and support staff. Local primary schools, colleges and universities will be invited to take part in a series of educational and environmental programmes.
The Causeway is Northern Ireland's only World Heritage Site, a designation awarded by United Nations body Unesco.
The overall cost of the centre development will be in the region of £18.8m.
As well as seeking grant-aid from a number of sources, the National Trust has been running a public fundraising campaign for the project.
The Trust owns the Causeway stones, while Moyle Council owns the adjacent car park and visitor centre site.