90% of some city hotels booked up by cross border visitors as PHA warn over gatherings
The re-opening of city centre pubs has turned Belfast into the ‘going out’ capital of Ireland with the thirst for a party knowing no borders.
With Covid restrictions still in place in the Republic of Ireland, the Sun newspaper has reported that some of Belfast hotels are 90% booked up by customers from across the border — and the numbers heading to the North are expected to soar after the Irish government halted the reopening of indoor dining earlier this week.
The NI Executive is expected to confirm the easing of restrictions on live music on Thursday which will only add to the rush northwards, but while the boost for business is welcome, it all comes against a backdrop of warnings after a rise in Covid cases was linked to social events attended by young people in the city.
The rush to Belfast started a month ago, with restaurant and bar owners welcoming a daily flood of visitors, eager to get some “normality” and satisfy their craving for a night at the pub and to dine out after being denied for so long due to strict Covid regulations.
The NI Executive relaxed regulations on dining on May 24 but people in the Republic face further uncertainty with another announcement now not expected until on July 19.
The Irish government halted plans to open up more hospitality venues on July 5 with Ministers urged to only permit fully vaccinated people to eat indoors due to fears over the Delta strain.
That has made a quick trip up the M1 appealing, with thousands making the around 160km journey north from Dublin to take in the night lift and restaurants of Belfast.
Tony O’Neill, who owns two restaurants in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, said it feels like there is “double the demand” as locals and those from the Republic are flooding the city to enjoy a welcome taste of freedom.
He was able to partially reopen Coppi and Buba on April 30 when outdoor dining was permitted but said the weather had made the re-opening difficult.
“We had a large marquee and we were able to feed people but it was a nightmare,” he said.
“Some days you were coming in and literally holding a tray over food to keep the wind and rain off it.
“Since we opened for indoor dining, it’s been fantastic. People are really coming in their droves.
The city’s popular Cathedral Quarter is usually a busy spot for night life and dining and the restaurateur said it had been sad to see it so empty during lockdown.
“We’ve definitely noticed an increase of people coming up from the Republic,” he said.
“You can see the car regs in the car park and people in the hotels.
“Demand has doubled on weekends but there’s certainly a lull during the week as a lot of offices aren’t back yet so we’ve stripped back our hours and don’t open on Monday or Tuesday anymore.
“I really hope the South opens even though we’re benefiting from it, it would be good to see the whole island back,” he added.
“I mean, at the end of the day, 30 to 40 minutes down the road and you’re across the border. It’s ridiculous. None of it makes sense.”
Among those making the trip to Belfast, Noel Murphy, 25, and Andrew Crosby, 23, drove for four-and-half hours from Cork for pints and said the journey was “completely worth it.
“The pints are lovely and we’re having a great time. The journey was completely worth it.”
Enjoying the summer sunshine at the Duke of York pub, Noel added: “We just went straight through the border and there was no hassle whatsoever.”
Longford man Eddie McLoughlin and his girlfriend Hannah Jackson, at the Dirty Onion, said it was a dream to go out again while Hannah, 22, from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, told the Irish Sun: “It’s absolute heaven. We’re enjoying it. It almost feels a bit alien.
“We were recently down in Cork and Killarney and we couldn’t even go out for a meal outdoors at that stage so it’s nice that we’ve come up here and been able to go indoors.
“There seems to be a lot more freedom in Northern Ireland compared to back home,” Eddie added. “It’s such a big change from home and the hassle of eating outside in the cold.”
The influx of visitors may be welcomed by the hospitality industry, but it all comes after warnings on social gatherings from the Public Health Agency.
This week warnings were issued after a sharp rise in Covid cases linked to a number of social events in North Down and East Belfast attended by young people last week.
The PHA warned that a further rise in cases is likely to follow in the next few weeks in South Belfast, Hillsborough, Comber, Bangor and the Ards Peninsula “through previous and new social links”.
“We really want people to continue to exercise caution and restraint to help limit the spread of coronavirus,” said Dr Gerry Waldron, Head of Health Protection at the PHA.
“Unfortunately, we have in recent days seen an increase in cases in the younger age group.
“This is a group which is less likely to have received both doses of the vaccine and with the increasing number of Delta cases in Northern Ireland, which we know to be much more transmissible, we are urging everyone to be sensible, enjoy the summer months, but do so safely.
“Over the next few days there will be temptation to get out and enjoy the warm weather, but if we see large numbers gathering or people abandoning public health advice, we could see a sharp increase in cases, so we all need to act with caution.”