Belfast - Unless they have family there, few South Africans visiting the island of Ireland even think about venturing up into Northern Ireland, which is a great pity because they’re missing out on a unique, beautiful part of the world with friendly people and rich history, tradition and culture.
That’s all set to change, though, as Northern Ireland looks to attract tourists from all over the world. And Northern Ireland’s Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, has just returned home from a successful trip to South Africa to promote her country.
Foster, a trained solicitor, comes from County Fermanagh, a province bordering the Republic of Ireland, which is home to some of the most beautiful lakeland scenery in Europe as well as some of its best golf courses… or so the minister and her colleagues insist. It’s no coincidence, says she, that top world golfer Rory McIlroy comes from Northern Ireland.
The minister said the recent hosting by County Fermanagh of the international G8 conference at the picturesque Loch Erne was a notable achievement for the country and for Northern Ireland.
“It was one of the most peaceful meetings yet of the organisation and it showed we are capable of holding big events,” she said.
Also, the success of the Titanic Museum in Belfast, which attracted more than a million visitors in its first year – against predictions of less than half that – had helped to put Northern Ireland on the tourist agenda, she said.
“It’s a really fantastic experience for anybody who is interested in the history and drama of the Titanic.”
The passenger liner was built in the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries and was said by its owners to be unsinkable. You can look out from the museum and see two massive shipyard cranes – Samson and Goliath – which have been declared national monuments.
Foster says Belfast itself is moving away from the image it had as a centre of sectarian violence during “The Troubles”, as people in the province call them. Today, there are still reminders of it in the striking murals in housing estates in both Catholic and Protestant areas.
But these days you can take a tour of the Falls Road area then cross to the Shankill Road area. It’s all water that has flowed under Belfast’s bridge, but it is history, and fascinating for that. And, notes Foster with some pride, Belfast is one of the safest cities in Europe when it comes to ordinary crime.
Other attractions in the province include the Giant’s Causeway, a strange collection of geometrically shaped rocks which emerge from the sea on to the shoreline and, as you’d expect from the Irish, are wrapped up in folklore.
Foster says Northern Ireland is hoping to attract more South Africans, either as a main destination or as part of an itinerary including the south.
She says we would like the fact that there are fewer tourists in Northern Ireland than in the south, and that the cost of living is lower than in the Republic of Ireland.
There are a number of airline connections to both parts of Ireland – Shannon and Dublin in the south, and Belfast in the north.
And, says Foster, “we’re looking forward to seeing you”.
l If you’re interested in seeing Northern Ireland and would like some advice, contact Helen Fraser or Gail Gilbert at Tourism Ireland on 011 463 1132 or e-mail email@example.com. As the tourist board for both the Republic and Northern Ireland, they are the best people to contact initially. They can then point you in the right direction according to the nature of the enquiry.
Website: www.ireland.com - Saturday Star