Once avoided, Belfast is now firmly on the map for thousands of tourists. Peter Cheney asks a range of first-time visitors about their impressions and finds that the pace of change and the warmth of welcome from local people stand out.
City of contrasts
Graham Cameron from Vancouver (pictured at right) had just completed a bus tour with his wife and friends.
“We went up the part that you get troubles with,” he said of the north and west of the city. “It’s a pretty grungy area and every city has them but it’s part of the past. We understood that.”
Queen’s University Belfast, Parliament Buildings and the City Hall were all “beautiful”. They had a friendly welcome and enjoyed an “excellent” lunch in a local pub. He would recommend Belfast as a stopover rather than a destination.
Ken Wilhelm from Edmonton, Alberta, said that the peace walls made “a bad impression right away” but he had enjoyed walking round Queen’s University’s grounds. Ken added: “We got dropped off downtown and then we were going to have fish and chips – so everybody recommended the Crown.”
Almost 20 years after the ceasefires, Northern Ireland is still seen as a trouble-spot among Carlene Nelson’s friends in Florida.
“Even back home now,” she said, “when you tell people you’re going to Ireland, they’re saying: ‘Well, you’re not going up north, are you?’”
In contrast, the Titanic Belfast visitor centre was “awesome” and “beautiful” and her group was also “very impressed by the murals.” Carlene added: “Our guide is extremely knowledgeable about the history of Ireland so we’ve learned a lot from him. We’ve enjoyed everything we’ve seen so far. We’ve only been here since yesterday.”
Sunshine in Ireland was also a surprise: “We’re thrilled with the weather but we’re happy to hear that it’s not what it used to be and it seems to be getting a lot better all the time.” A friend, Merilynn Kleinhample (at centre) had no second thoughts about visiting the province: “We’re on a tour so we figured that if the tour was going here, it must be ok.”
Friendly atmosphere welcomed
Shirley and Edward Haimsohn from San Diego were also newcomers to the city, having visited Dublin before. For Shirley, a bus tour around Belfast was “very interesting” for giving an “initial feel” for the place but they didn’t understand its politics. She added: “We certainly weren’t disappointed, that’s for sure. I think it’s a beautiful city. People are so friendly and I can’t tell you how helpful everybody is: everybody we talked to.” Edward agreed and added that his impressions were “mostly on the favourable side.”
With its gorgeous weather, Belfast “exceeded all expectations” for American tourist Bobette Robinson. “It’s interesting because I was in the South maybe eight to 10 times and never thought of coming up here,” she recalled, looking back to the 1980s and early 1990s.
“It wasn’t that safe but now I feel very comfortable.”
Her husband, Hank, was making his first visit to Ireland. “The only thing better than the food is the service,” he commented. “Outstanding.” His highlight was a visit to Carrickfergus Castle.
Full of history
“What makes you think we’re tourists?” said Cole Barton, from North Carolina as he relaxed with his wife Sydney in front of Belfast City Hall.
“It’s terrific, it’s full of history which we’ve enjoyed,” he added. “The older British architecture is particularly appealing and we walked by an area down by the river that’s been renovated, and that’s beautiful.”
Weather-wise, Cole was also “glad that we’re not catching Belfast on a typical day.” As with other visitors, he found the city’s people friendly and approachable.
“This is one of the highlights of our trip,” Sydney remarked. “We knew we wanted to come to Belfast because of the history.”
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, they saw the Troubles on TV and “just wanted to come here and get a feel for what the city had gone through during that time.”
Ursula Miemsch (pictured at right) from Leipzig, Germany, was also enjoying the sunshine beside City Hall.
“The inspiration for the trip was a film from 1974: Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour,” she quipped. She and her two friends were spending a day in Belfast before heading on to Dublin, Donegal and then back to Berlin.
A married couple from Coventry, who preferred not to give their names, had two different perspectives on Belfast but were both pleased to see it progress. “I used to live here so this was like coming back to see where we lived,” the wife said. She had lived in Dunmurry for two years but had moved back to England as her dad was working in the hotel trade. The city was now almost unrecognisable to her but had changed for the better.
Her husband explained that he had brought his wife back for her birthday. “I learnt more about Ireland on the bus tour than all my life in England,” he quipped. “I hope the Irish people get on because to me they’re all the same.”