After Avoiding The Country For Decades, Tourists Are Now Flocking To Northern Ireland

5 hours ago
Originally published on November 14, 2017 10:13 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we are going to Northern Ireland, which for decades was not something people wanted to do with their vacations. The violent conflict known as the Troubles scared most people away. Now the tourism industry there has been rebuilt, helped by Northern Ireland's rugged northeast coast.

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MCEVERS: You can also see shooting locations for "Game Of Thrones" and a museum devoted to the Titanic, which was built in Belfast. NPR's Frank Langfitt takes us on a tour.

STEPHEN MCNALLY: Right, the coach isn't moving until I get a good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning.

MCNALLY: Good morning, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Good morning.

MCNALLY: A little bit better (laughter). OK, guys, my name's Stephen.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Stephen McNally is guiding a bus load of tourists along the road that snakes up the coast north of Belfast. He pulls into a small harbor where "Game Of Thrones" shot this scene...

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MAISIE WILLIAMS: (As Arya Stark, gasping).

LANGFITT: ...In which Arya Stark, a central character, pulls herself from the water after having been stabbed by an assassin. McNally says this coastline of rolling green hills and grey cliffs used to just draw locals.

MCNALLY: We have had all these sites kept to ourselves for however many years because people couldn't come here to see them. Now they come. And as you can see some of the landscape when you're going along, all you hear is, wow.

LANGFITT: McNally's career mirrors Northern Ireland's shift from sectarian violence to peace following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics, which took more than 3,600 lives, drove McNally from his home town.

MCNALLY: The IRA tried to shoot me in 1987. That's why I moved. My father had to give up his job, sister and brother had to leave school.

LANGFITT: Why'd they try to shoot you?

MCNALLY: 'Cause I joined the army.

LANGFITT: How do you feel about all the change?

MCNALLY: I absolutely love it. It's good for the country. Personally, I don't have to check under my car every night for bombs.

LANGFITT: McNally works for McComb's Coach Travel, which transported at least 20,000 people to "Game Of Thrones" sites here last year. Tourist visits to Northern Ireland have risen by more than 40 percent since the peace agreement, according to the government, and annual revenue from visitors has nearly tripled to more than $700 million.

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CELINE DION: (Singing) The heart does go on.

LANGFITT: Another attraction drawing people here is a state-of-the-art museum devoted to the Titanic. Eimear Lewis is the museum's marketing manager.

EIMEAR LEWIS: It's an interactive experience. It's nine galleries. And you follow the story of the Titanic chronologically. So you start learning all about the history of this city and why Titanic was built in Belfast.

LANGFITT: The museum captures the city's heyday as an industrial boomtown. A cable car takes visitors through a replica of the shipyard, where you can feel the heat of the furnaces that made steel for Titanic's hull. And here, workers tell their stories amid the sound of rivets being banged into place.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You only had candles for light. And the constant hammering against the shell plates. You could hear it all over Belfast. Some of those boys ended up stone deaf, so they did.

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LANGFITT: You can follow the Titanic's maiden voyage, seeing a replica of one of the ship's state rooms, and read the final Morse code messages.

DIANE PINKSTON: It's wonderful. I think it's really special.

RACHEL LAWTON: Loved it. Thought it was great, really informative, interesting, lots of interactive information.

LANGFITT: That's Diane Pinkston, who's visiting from the U.S., and Rachel Lawton of Chichester, England. Felicity Sugden, a retired school principal, is browsing the museum gift shop. This is her first visit to Northern Ireland.

FELICITY SUGDEN: This was just a place you did not come to because of the Troubles. And even yesterday when I was getting on the plane my husband said to me, you know, you watch out. You're going to Belfast. I'm like, stop it. It's all absolutely fine. It's worse in London, you know, which is true.

LANGFITT: It is. The British capital has suffered four terror attacks since March. During the height of the Troubles, though, bombings in Belfast were routine. The Irish Republican Army repeatedly targeted the hotel Europa in the heart of the city. These days it's full of tourists and business people. Sitting in the hotel's cafe is Harold Good. He's a Methodist minister who helped de-commission IRA weapons as part of the peace process. Good is optimistic about the future. He says the more visitors the better.

HAROLD GOOD: We have just been hugely encouraged by the number of tourists who come from all over the world. I talk a lot to these folks. I always thank them for coming. The best way of changing the narrative is for people to come and see for themselves.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Belfast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.