Ben Lowry: The glorious Twelfth celebrations should be a key part of Northern Ireland’s pitch to tourists

A part of the long Twelfth parade in the heart of Belfast yesterday, on Donegall Place. The march has extraordinary music, particularly the drums, yet there are never that many tourists watching it. July 12 2019
A part of the long Twelfth parade in the heart of Belfast yesterday, on Donegall Place. The march has extraordinary music, particularly the drums, yet there are never that many tourists watching it. July 12 2019
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Yesterday, from Belfast’s Barnett Park to Royal Avenue, crowds lined the route of the Orange parade, as they always do.

Some of crowd seemed to be tourists, but not a lot of them.

Northern Ireland now has many overseas visitors each year. The number of people in the world who can afford to travel abroad keeps growing, causing congestion in the most popular cities such as Venice.

In London, visitors are helping make that city hard to navigate, and are a reason why central sections of the Tube are always crammed.

More than a decade ago, I interviewed the late Billy Hastings about the potential for Chinese tourism here. Sir Billy, who not only helped keep the hotel trade open during the Troubles, but expanded it as Northern Ireland emerged from the worst years of the 1970s, said that NI never became part of golfing circuit for Japanese golfers, in the way Scotland did, despite us having two of the best golf courses in the world (Portrush and Royal Co Down).

We should, he said, try hard to tap the predicted 100+ million Chinese overseas travellers. A mere 1% of that is a million visitors a year.

In China a decade ago I travelled up a mountain in a group including a Chinese student who said she and her boyfriend avidly watched the supernatural ABC drama Lost.

Game of Thrones, one of the most successful ever TV series, has already helped bring global fans of the show to our Province.

No one is surprised now to see coaches of Chinese tourists at the Carrick A Rede rope bridge.

The return of the Open to Portrush after 68 years will further boost NI’s global profile.

There are other things we should do to boost our tourist industry.

My suggestion of a single transatlantic hub airport in Northern Ireland at Aldergrove, with motorways coming from north and south, M1 and M2, and a train link shows no sign of taking off. Keeping three airports means there will not be enough air passengers to justify reopening the rail line near the international airport, but even so numbers will rise and we should improve road access (like the 1739 Banbridge to Randalstown road mentioned on the next pages!).

I also think the upgrade of the A5 and A6 road from Aughnacloy/Belfast to Londonderry needs to be followed by a motorway that goes to (and loops past) Letterkenny.

It would help whisk golfers and others between the far points in Ulster, say from Rosapenna in Donegal to Slieve Donard in Co Down, and is a cross border scheme that would be as popular as the Belfast-Dublin motorway is now.

We also need to reform drink licensing laws, as the hospitality industry is seeking. There was a plan to give premises a small number of 2am late licences annually.

It was said to be good for tourists. But how? Which tourist who plans to come to NI in September will change their visit to August because a particular bar plans to use one of its limited late licences that month? Better to earmark one late night a week, Saturday, when 3am licences are available (to premises with sound proofing and no history of anti social conduct).Saturday would become ‘party night’.

We could build further on the Ulster American folk park and presidential homesteads. The Scots Irish link is not as known as it might be.

We could toughen legal protections for old buildings (Belfast still has so many grand old ones, and rural areas are full of fine churches) and tighten slack planning restrictions on standalone homes in our scenic countryside.

There has been recent disagreement over Troubles murals. My view is that they are a key part of NI’s divided story and appeal to visitors, and we need a strategy to keep the best that have local support.

Then there is the Twelfth. Some people loathe it – fine, they can stay away. But there is barely a spectacle in Europe like the snaking Belfast parade (this year complemented by a food and drink fair in City Hall).

The music is extraordinary, particularly the drums. Yesterday in Donegall Place, amidst other striking renditions I noticed Omagh Protestant Boys play Penny Arcade, Shankill Defenders belt out the Halls of Montezuma, Sydenham Blues and Royals play World In Union (tune of I Vow to The My Country) and Ballymacarett Defenders on Long Way to Tipperary.

The BBC schedules many hours of GAA and Irish language programming, which gives pleasure to enthusiasts of one or both. Yet live Twelfth coverage is only 75 minutes. Once a year, they should give much more to a day so popular.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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