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It's a glorious Sunday morning in spring and visitors descend on Belfast city centre... only to find ghost town


Jan and Pat Clarke are visiting Belfast from Perry Sound, Ontario, Canada

Jan and Pat Clarke are visiting Belfast from Perry Sound, Ontario, Canada

Marco Dupont, with his sister Laurance, are also visiting Belfast from Canada

Marco Dupont, with his sister Laurance, are also visiting Belfast from Canada

Jan and Pat Clarke are visiting Belfast from Perry Sound, Ontario, Canada

It's 10am on Sunday morning – the sun is shining and tourists in Belfast are raring to go. But the only problem is the city's business owners are still snoozing.

While visitors from around the globe wandered around Northern Ireland's capital city yesterday, they were presented with closed shutters.

The usual bustling Royal Avenue and Donegall Place area was a shadow of its weekday self.

Liliana Anania-Mucci, who lives in Canada, was among those looking for something to do in Belfast yesterday morning.

"In some places the shops open around 10.30am on a Sunday, but 1pm is a little late," she said.

"Everyone is up early and wants to get the best out of their day."

Joan Lansden (47), from Queens in New York, said: "Tourists come through so early it would be nice for them to interact and to be able to see more than this."

Bernadette Sheahan was along with family and friends visiting from the Republic. The group left their shopping until Sunday without realising the restricted opening times.

"We came up yesterday to do some sightseeing and thought we would hit the shops, but maybe it's for the best that they are shut," she said.

"Most places are open at about 10am. It would be better if they were open after breakfast time. It feels like you are waiting for something to happen."

While some weren't in the city to shop, the closed stores didn't go unnoticed.

Diego (33), from Germany, said Belfast looked "dead".

"It's okay to have a rest on Sunday as long as there is a few basics available," he said. "It's very quiet – dead. I get the impression it's dead in a bad way, like it's abandoned."

Jan Clarke (72) and Pat Clarke (left), from Perry Sound, Ontario, Canada, said while they weren't surprised shops were shut, it would be better if they operated a little earlier. "We expected that on a Sunday, that things wouldn't be open as they open on a weekday," they said.

"It would nice if they were open a bit earlier."

Fellow Canadian Laurence Dupont (21, right), who was visiting with his sister Laurance, added: "I've never seen shops open up as late as that before."

Owen Hamilton (30), who works for Titanic and City Tours, said tourists were constantly baffled as to why Belfast was not open for business.

"They say 'what else can we do'? There is nothing else except for the bus tours or to look at Belfast City Hall. Belfast would benefit if it was open like it is on a Saturday. They want to get an early start before they catch a plane or a boat."

But for one couple it was a "refreshing change."

Carole (67) and Kerern Oliver (69), from the English Midlands, said: "It's not a problem; in England the shops are open 24 hours a day."

Kerern added: "We like the atmosphere on a Sunday morning in Belfast, the people are incredibly friendly."

Change in mindset essential to benefit tourism, says Peter Bolan:

If we're serious about tourism we need to get serious with opening hours.

With tourism seeing tremendous growth, particularly in high-profile events, it is time to take a serious look at opening hours. This is the case for our morning and evening economy and particularly with Sunday opening.

Northern Ireland has seen criticism before from tourists saying there is little to do on a Sunday.

Arguably, this is not the case for a Sunday afternoon, with retailers allowed to stay open between 1pm and 6pm and most major tourism and leisure facilities open at such times as well.

Isn't this a bit outdated, though, in terms of restrictions?

Increasingly our visitors want to engage in the morning before 1pm, and they certainly want to in the evening as well.

International visitors are used to being able to do so in their own countries and they will expect the same while visiting here.

Our archaic laws and restrictions need to be rethought, and indeed in some cases a change of mindset is required as well if we are serious about developing as an international tourism destination. This applies to our shops and retail outlets, our cafes and coffee shops and our leisure and tourism facilities too.

If visitors want to wander around our towns on a Sunday morning or indeed any evening, shouldn't we ensure they can get a decent cup of coffee, do some shopping, and not encounter closed shutters and empty streets?

This is especially the case during the ever-increasing high-profile events that Northern Ireland is hosting. From the Irish Open to the Giro d'Italia, retailers and service providers need to be willing to extend opening hours if they are to capture additional spend and maximise experience levels for the event-goers.

Peter Bolan is director of International Tourism Management Studies at University of Ulster

Belfast Telegraph