By Ian Graham
(Reuters) – Once blacklisted next to Baghdad and Beirut as a tourism no-go zone, Belfast has become one of the world’s must-see destinations thanks to its troubled past, great golfing present and impending anniversary of the tragedy of the Titanic.
During decades of sectarian violence few foreigners visited Northern Ireland, but a ceasefire and a peace agreement between Catholic and Protestant military groups have transformed the province, prompting a boom in tourists from 400,000 in 1998 to 1.6 million this year.
Next year, as the city marks the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, which was built in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard, the tourism authorities are looking for a bumper 20 percent rise.
Urging tourists to give Belfast a try in its “Best of the World 2012″ the National Geographic Traveller this month described the city as having “an incredible atmosphere.”
“I felt that this place was a treasure that had sort of been preserved,” said editor-in-chief Keith Bellows. “It hasn’t been trampled on by the big foot of tourism and so I really loved its purity.”
Belfast’s inclusion came three years after Lonely Planet sparked international interest in the city by putting it in its top 10 places to visit.
The explosion of budget airline flights Europe has also helped, providing an inexpensive opportunity for people to fly to Belfast.
The city plans to capitalise on the Titanic anniversary with a host of attractions — from Titanic tours to Titanic ale — 100 years after the liner sank with the loss of 1,5176 lives on its maiden crossing to New York on April 15, 1912.
The finishing touches are being put to the centerpiece, a 97 million pound ($152 million) visitor attraction, Titanic Belfast, overlooking a shipyard slipway where the liner and her sister ships the Olympic and the Britannic were launched.
Nine interpretive galleries throughout its six floors will explore the sights and stories of the Titanic and the people of the city that built her. A live film feed of the liner will broadcast from her final resting place 3,800 meters (yards) below the sea and 600 km southeast of Newfoundland.
“The Titanic will be a massive draw,” said Siobhan McGuigan of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board who forecast an additional 150,000 visitors in 2012.
To those who accuse Belfast of trying to profit from a maritime disaster, planners insist it is a celebration of a seagoing masterpiece and point to the oft quoted Belfast saying “She was all right when she left.”
Operators of open-top bus tours of Belfast say the Titanic theme and sites of the city’s more recent troubled past – from “peace walls” built to keep rival Catholic and Protestant communities safe from attack by the other, to murals depicting masked gunmen – were always the most popular with visitors.
“All the drivers will say the same, the chatter from the passengers falls off when we call at the murals and peace walls and when we go to the Titanic sites,” said one of the drivers.
On a cold snowy December day passengers braving the open top deck of one of the buses included a couple from Spain, another from Italy and an Indian family with a fascination for the Titanic.
“I used to read about the bombings and shootings and see it on the TV and would never have thought of visiting,” said Jose Alvarez, 58, visiting with his wife from their home outside Barcelona.
“Now it’s safe,” she said. “We will definitely come back.”
Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the city of Londonderry is gearing up to be UK City of Culture in 2013. A new multi-million pound visitor centre is to open next year at the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But it is sports not culture that is giving tourism the biggest boost.
Golf is booming on the back to back wins of the US Open by Northern Ireland pin-up golfer Rory McIlroy in 2011 and fellow Ulstermen Graeme McDowell the year before.
A New Yorker trying his hand at the Royal Portrush course on the blustery Co Antrim coast – home club for both McDowell and Clarke – said he was starting to understand why the province had created so many world beating golfers.
“If you can get round this course without making an idiot of yourself you can get round any course,” he said.
The decision by Chinese athletic bosses to set up their pre-Olympic training camp for their crack Gymnastic team in Lisburn, Co Antrim has been followed by a flood of interest in Northern Ireland by travel agents organizing holidays for China’s burgeoning middle classes.
“2012 represents an opportunity to change perceptions out there,” said Niall Gibbons, Chief executive of Tourism Ireland said. “We are on the cusp of something historic.” ($1 = 0.6380 British pounds)
(Reporting by Conor Humphries, editing by Paul Casciato.)