Welcome to the home of Game of Thrones
As Game of Thrones wins legions of fans wherever it's shown, Ivan Little joins journalists from across the globe on a bus tour that shows its potential to bring tourists to Northern Ireland
The money-spinning, award-winning Game of Thrones – the TV fantasy series which has already pumped tens of millions of pounds into Northern Ireland's economy – could soon make financial dreams come true for the tourist industry here too.
That's because tourism officials have kicked off a new campaign to exploit the HBO blockbuster set in mythical medieval times as a springboard to put the province on the map for thousands of film buffs who travel the world to view movie and TV locations.
Twenty international journalists have spent the last few days in Northern Ireland, visiting places where the series about the violent struggle between two dynasties – based on the books of George RR Martin – has been shot.
And yesterday the reporters and camera crews will get a sneak preview at Titanic Belfast of an exhibition of props and costumes used in the series which has millions of fanatical followers right across the globe.
More than 12,000 free tickets for the exhibition in Belfast were snapped up inside just 24 hours. And 30% of the tickets have gone to fans from outside Northern Ireland.
The 10-day exhibition is being staged just yards from where much of Game of Thrones was filmed in the Titanic Studios.
The visiting Press pack from Poland, Finland, Portugal, Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark and Britain met crew members and actors including Liam Cunningham, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright and John Bradley, who are attending a special red carpet shindig at Crumlin Road gaol.
Tourism officials believe the response to the exhibition in Belfast is proof of the fervour for Game of Thrones and they're hoping to tap into that enthusiasm and lure fans to see the filming locations right across Northern Ireland.
Screen tourism has become a multi-million pound industry and Moyra C Lock, the head of marketing at Northern Ireland Screen who persuaded HBO to film in Northern Ireland, said: "I hope this is just the start and film and tourism will work closer together in the future.
"We have been working closely with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for some time now but it's not just Game of Thrones which could attract visitors. There's a lot of interest in other productions which have been made here including Blandings and The Fall."
It's hoped that Northern Ireland could find massive benefits from Game of Thrones in the same way that Cong in County Mayo became a major tourist destination for film-lovers wanting to see where John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara made The Quiet Man in the early 1950s.
The Tourist Board's Helen Carey said the journalists' visit and the exhibition will open the way for Northern Ireland to develop screen tourism.
HBO international marketing director Elana Loewenthal said: "The exhibition has been an incredible hit in places like New York where thousands of fans were queued around the block to visit it."
A number of bus companies have already expressed an interest in organising tours of Game locations and one, the McComb bus firm, have already drawn up an itinerary and put it on their website.
Only months after the Belfast Telegraph highlighted a lack of knowledge among local councils about what had been filmed in their areas, several of them have now published location guides for fans to visit on self-driving tours.
Yesterday I joined the world's media on a bus tour which could be the forerunner of regular trips to Game sites.
The tour concentrated on Co Antrim and the non-stop sunshine made the coast road look even more impressive.
Officials pointed out a number of locations along the way to the first stop at Cushendun caves, a real hidden gem unknown to many people in Northern Ireland.
The first glimpse of the chilly caves sent a frisson of excitement among the visitors who immediately recognised them as the atmospheric spot where Davos Seaworth landed Melisandre at night at Storm's End to give birth to the shadow baby.
En route to the next location, the bus passed through Ballycastle which officials pointed out was the hometown of actor Conleth Hill – who plays Varys – and his brother Ronan, who has won awards for sound on the series.
The next stop was Larrybane which was used at Renly's camp.
One of the stars of the show was Ballintoy Harbour which doubled as Lordsport harbour in Game of Thrones.
Bemused visitors on day trips to Ballintoy wondered what all the fuss was about and several admitted they had no idea that Games of Thrones had been filmed there. The lack of signage there or at any of the other locations will undoubtedly be reviewed by tourism chiefs.
After lunch at Bushmills, the bus tour went on to Downhill beach which was a virtual traffic jam of tourists' cars.
The breathtaking beach was used in Game of Thrones for the burning of the seven old gods on Dragonstone.
A Finnish journalist thought the Downhill scenery was unsurpassable. But he was wrong. The best was yet to come – at the Dark Hedges, the eerie and reputedly haunted avenue of overlapping beech trees near Armoy which has become a Game of Thrones must-see.
The question on everyone's lips yesterday – especially from a Sky TV news crew – was how HBO producers managed to get their cameras and lights onto the tiniest of country roads to film Arya Stark dressed as a boy making her escape from King's Landing.
The last port of call was Shane's Castle, the location of many Thrones scenes.
At the end of the day, several of the journalists who were clearly clued up on the Game of Thrones storylines confessed that the trip had been an eye-opener because they hadn't realised that Northern Ireland was the base for any of the filming.
They know now.
Through mud and blood to snap the sets
By Steven Alexander
IF you have ever wondered how those impressive sets on Game of Thrones look from behind the camera, one of Northern Ireland's top young photographers is about to reveal all.
Helen Sloan, who is originally from Ballymena, is the hit HBO show's principal stills photographer, giving her a unique perspective on events in the mythical land of Westeros.
Helen, who has followed cast and crew the length and breadth of Northern Ireland, said she had specially adapted a dog bicycle trailer with all-terrain wheels – just to get her equipment through eight-inch deep mud that had been curdled with fake blood.
"There is so much of everything on this show: sets, props, costumes, armour, people. It's like 360-degrees of cool. There is a photo waiting everywhere," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Everything about Thrones is unique. It's quite easily the biggest scale I've ever worked with. I think that's the case for most of the crew who constantly comment, 'There is no other job like this!"
Her exhibition – On Set –launches at the Ulster Museum today and is open to the public from June 9-26.