Most hotel rooms in Belfast are sold out as the city prepares to welcome hordes of cycling fans during the Giro D’Italia’s Big Start.
Accommodation providers are 85% full, a trade body said, and restaurants expect a busy weekend during Northern Ireland’s largest ever event. Up to 140,000 visitors - 42,000 from out of state - are expected to attend one of the world’s flagship races.
Thousands of pounds have been spent sprucing up shops and homes along the route of professional cycling’s second most prestigious stage race after the Tour de France.
Prominent buildings will be bathed in pink light, while some city trees are already garlanded with ribbons. Pink is traditional as it is the colour of the jersey worn by the leader.
Riders will shine their own light on the region’s dramatic North Coast as they sweep at the speed of cars past Atlantic beauty spots.
They will also colonise the slipways in Belfast’s dockyards where the Titanic liner was first floated a century ago - the scene of the launch of the race on May 9.
Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, said: “It is a good event for Northern Ireland. It is a good showcase event, the real advantage is that you get to showcase the province.”
The Big Start is often held outside Italy, before the action shifts to the Alps’ precipitous climbs and the Italian Riviera plus the sun-soaked Amalfi coast south of Naples.
Belfast plans to embrace two wheels like never before as part of a festival of cycling. It will include Italian cooking and films, cycling high-fashion for women and workshops for amateur riders.
An opening ceremony on May 8 featuring the first public appearances of the competitors will air on international television networks, a time trial will be held around Belfast the following day before riders depart for a scenic loop including the North Coast and the Antrim Glens.
On May 11, the action shifts to the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, Armagh, and competitors will race through a land of apple orchards and steep hills before ending in Dublin in the Republic.
Stormont Tourism Minister Arlene Foster said: “Pink-mania is spreading across Northern Ireland with talk of shops, restaurants, landmark buildings and even livestock going pink to welcome the Giro spectacle, and I have seen pink sheep on the north Antrim coast.”
Ms Gault said 85% of hotel rooms in Belfast were booked and added more people are expected to make last-minute decisions to come.
A total of 22 teams will compete in the three stages in Northern Ireland. Most of the top 200 cyclists in the world are expected to take part.
The three-week long Giro is hosted primarily in Italy but since 1996 the Grande Partenza (Big Start) has been hosted outside the country, most recently in Denmark.
It is the world’s second-largest cycle race and last year’s Giro was broadcast in 165 countries, with an estimated global audience of 775 million people.