Belfast, the Christmas Market leader
Festive bazaar at City Hall sitting at No.1 in two UK-wide surveys
Belfast's Continental Market at the City Hall is on course for a record-breaking Christmas – despite renewed flag protests.
Organisers say the market is sitting at number one in two surveys of all similar markets in the UK.
Last year there was uncertainty over its future after loyalist protests decimated trade and forced stallholders to temporarily close at one point.
Visitor numbers in 2012 were buoyant before the protests but slumped after violence erupted in several parts of the city.
But even the pre-protest figures have been bettered this year.
A spokesman for the company running the Belfast market said traders are reporting an increase of between 30%-40% in turnover.
For the first time the Market Place company has had to introduce security measures to deal with the crowds.
A spokesman said: "Every weekend we have had to close the gates at the front of the market and introduce a one-way system in and out of the side entrances so that we can manage the crowds.
"There've been constant queues to get into the market and that's something we never had before."
On Saturday, the market operated as normal even though hundreds of protesting loyalists had gathered outside for the start of a protest march to mark the first anniversary of the decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag from City Hall.
Some 96 stallholders from 32 countries are selling food, clothes, crafts and drink from across the world at the market.
There had been speculation that the protest violence might scare off some business people from returning to Belfast this year and there were rumours that the market might be abandoned.
"We promoted the market heavily to dispel those stories," said the spokesman. "We have introduced 16 new stallholders to the market."
Last year the flag protest was blamed for a fall in the numbers of people visiting the market – down from over 600,000 in 2011 to 570,000 in 2012.
"This year we are well on target for exceeding 750,000," he added.
Two reasons may be behind the upswing in business at the market. "I think we are seeing a determination by Belfast people to demonstrate that they want a return to a normal Christmas. There's also the desire by shoppers to respond to an upturn in the economic climate by spending money again."
The spokesman said that the market's strong showing in two national surveys on websites operated by the AOL travel firm and by a national newspaper had been a major boost.