Destination Belfast? Tourists flood in.
The I.R.A.'s promise to disarm gives a boost to the tourism industry, but officials shy from making 'The Troubles' an attraction.
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
For decades, most foreigners visiting this strife-torn province were either journalists covering the Catholic-Protestant conflict or diplomats trying to end it.
So when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) captured world headlines recently by promising to disarm, the news was welcomed by Ulster's nascent tourism industry.
The tourists visiting Belfast in rapidly growing numbers find a transformed downtown, filled with free-spending shoppers and revelers instead of gun-toting police and soldiers. New modish boutiques and swanky nightclubs line the streets, along with the historic pubs that Russell and Eowyen Scott of New Zealand looked forward to visiting.
The Scotts last visited Ireland in 1971, during the deadliest period of the northern conflict, and stayed clear of Belfast.
"We avoided it like the plague," Russell Scott says. "But we're comfortable here now."
After hearing friends rave about Ulster, the Scotts decided to make the short trip from Dublin, which draws a torrent of tourists that Northern Ireland is eagerly trying to tap. The number of visitors to Ulster last year - more than 2 million - finally topped the number of residents, a standard benchmark for stable nations.
"Our image has steadily been improving, though we lag behind the Republic [of Ireland]," says Alan Clarke, head of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. "We've got some catching up to do, even though we've made dramatic progress over the last few years. The peace is incredibly important and we've seen tangible increases."
One peacetime dividend is an explosion of direct international flights, hastened by the advent of Europe's low-cost airlines. Just 18 months ago, only Amsterdam was directly connected to Belfast - now, 15 foreign cities are. The first direct flights between Northern Ireland and North America began in June with daily flights on Continental Airlines from Belfast to Newark, N.J.
Northern Ireland plans to target its American diaspora, including some 20 million descendants of the Scots-Irish, known here as Ulster Scots. Scottish settlers were lured to Ulster by the promise of free land, but many later grew tired of battling the Irish natives and left by the millions in the 1700s to settle the American frontier.
To entice travelers, the province is touting its natural beauty and cultural heritage in advertising and promotional campaigns. Antrim County boasts some of Ireland's most spectacular coastline, which features Giant's Causeway - a famed geological wonder of naturally formed hexagonal stones leading into the sea, built by a giant according to Celtic myth. Londonderry's 17th-century walls make it Ireland's only encircled city, and St. Patrick made the north his home. Ireland's patron saint chose Armagh for the island's Christian seat and retired to Downpatrick, where a memorial stone marks the spot where legend says he was buried.
"We're trying to offer people something authentic, something they can't find anywhere else," says Mr. Clarke of the tourism board.
In Belfast, a full-scale model Titanic "ghost ship" will be built in the shipyard where the original was built, according to recently announced plans. In the now deserted Titanic quarter, dry docks and offices, including the drawing rooms where the ship was designed, will be refurbished, and a new hotel and conference center will be built.
The target year to finish the ambitious project, which also includes an exhibition area, is 2012 - the Titanic's centenary and the year London hosts the Summer Olympics.
Belfast has only just begun to celebrate itself as the birthplace of the world's most famous ship.
"It took us a long time to get over the trauma," said Una Reilly, Belfast Titanic Society chair. "We've now gradually realized that what happened was a tragic disaster but was not our fault. She was built to the highest specifications in a shipyard that was the Cape Canaveral of its time."
While they have embraced the Titanic, tourism officials still shy away from promoting The Troubles, the three decades of sectarian bloodshed that claimed nearly 3,800 lives. Enterprising taxidrivers and open-top bus tours guide visitors around the neighborhoods worst hit by the "Troubles," where "peace walls" separate Catholics and Protestants and war murals glorify outlawed militias. The tours are popular, but the province sees no reason to support them.
"People have heard of Northern Ireland for all the wrong reasons," says Clarke. "Now we want them to come and discover it from a fresh approach."
Northern Ireland trails behind the booming Irish Republic, but retains an old-fashioned charm that is fast disappearing in its nouveau riche neighbor, says Andy Pieprasik, travel editor of The Guardian, a British newspaper.
"The people are genuinely friendly and open, despite misconceptions about the place," says Mr. Pieprasik, who has traveled widely in Ulster. "Once you get out of the cities, it's like going back 50 years. It's fantastic to go there and slow things down and taste a different era."