Riots should only take place in ‘Game of Thrones’

This week tourists to Belfast may see a clash of cultures that has nothing to do with TV

Gwendoline Christie stars in Game Of Thrones – the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has jumped at the chance to exploit the appeal to promote the North as a holiday destination

Gwendoline Christie stars in Game Of Thrones – the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has jumped at the chance to exploit the appeal to promote the North as a holiday destination

Tue, Jul 8, 2014, 01:01

Record viewing figures for the hit television show Game of Thrones, partly filmed on location in Northern Ireland, suggest the North is the perfect backdrop for an epic battle featuring bitter disagreements and an ever-present threat of violence.

It is estimated Game of Thrones has generated £87 million in net benefits for the local economy since it first arrived in 2009 and, as the cast and production crew return this month to start work on season five, it could potentially deliver a further £20 million boost.

This apparently natural affinity for portraying discord has created something of a marketing opportunity for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB). Fans of the hit show, whihch is aired in 70 countries, take it very seriously, so the agency has jumped at the chance to exploit the appeal to promote the North as a holiday destination.

Earlier this year it persuaded HBO to lend its name and logo to a major Tourism Ireland campaign to encourage fans to visit some of the locations where Game of Thrones is filmed.

The Tourism Ireland Facebook and Twitter campaign aimed to persuade fans of the show to walk in the footsteps of their heroes and favourite villains at locations across the North. Last month, the organisation claimed the campaign had generated one million clicks, comments and shares and “reached up to 100 million” people across the world.

Fans’ visits

Whether it was a success or not can really only be measured if these figures ultimately translate into fans’ visits.

While it may be thrilling for fans to watch the violent clashes between the show’s leading players from the safety of your sofa, it’s highly unlikely that should they arrive as a tourist they would want to witness such events in person.

Yet this particular week, any tourist, Game of Thrones fan or not, visiting the North potentially runs the risk of experiencing a clash of cultures that has nothing to do with a fantasy TV show and everything to do with the political realities of everyday life.

Each year thousands of people peacefully take part in the Orange Order’s annual July 12th demonstrations. But in recent years the days preceding and including the Orange Order’s July 12th parades have been marred with violent protests and unrest sparked by members of the loyalist community unhappy with decisions about parade routes.

Images of disturbances and burning blockades on the streets have been broadcast and published around the world in recent summers.

It is impossible to estimate how much this negative publicity may have cost the local economy in terms of potential investment and tourism revenue. But to put it into context, the Northern Ireland Executive estimated that the three-day Giro D’Italia cycle race, which was held in May, could have generated “around £10 million worth of international media coverage”.

Weigh up then the likely cost of a week of rioting and the associated media images and reports it generates and the equation is pretty straightforward to work out.

According to Arlene Foster, the Minister for Enterprise, the executive’s target is to grow tourism to a £1 billion a year industry by 2020. Latest figures show the total number of visitors (from outside the region) who stayed at least one night grew by 6 per cent to just over 2.1 million last year.

The increase reflects the huge changes that have taken place in the local tourism industry, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Belfast’s Europa Hotel – once known as Europe’s most bombed hotel – is currently planting a new edible roof garden.

But a recent independent review of the NITB and wider tourism structures has exposed some serious weaknesses and challenges that may undermine the executive’s tourism targets. Not least of these, as the author John Hunter identifies, are worries over the “image” problem whether due to “outbreaks of social unrest over parades and flags, combined with continuing sectarianism and racial prejudice”.

This may explain the decline in numbers from the Republic last year, he suggests.

Outstanding issues

Local business leaders have repeatedly appealed to political leaders to work together to resolve “outstanding issues” such as flags and parades once and for all. Paul McMahon, the president of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, has again called for a solution to be found to “protect” the economy and businesses – preferably before this coming Saturday, July 12th.

But no one appears to be listening – least of all political leaders. All anyone with a stake in the local economy can do this week is hold their breadth – and regardless of their religious persuasion – pray for calm.

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