Belfast Letter: fans of epic battles rally to North’s call

‘Game of Thrones’ continues to boost the tourism industry in North

Northern Ireland is fast becoming a big attraction for fans of epic battles, fierce fighting and “liars, lords and honest men” – even if they only exist in a fantasy world played out on the small screen.

Season five of HBO's hit television series Game of Thrones, which is filmed in the Titanic Studios Belfast and other local locations, will air next month across the globe and it is going to create yet another big opportunity to promote Northern Ireland to a new generation, according to one of the North's top tourism champions, Howard Hastings.


Today is his last day as chairman of

Tourism NI


after six years but he hopes the “phenomenon” that is

Game of Thrones

will run and run.

"It is huge and each year, each new season inspires more people to come and see for themselves where Game of Thrones is filmed – from the Causeway coast to Castle Ward estate and the Dark Hedges . . . Game of Thrones has brought them to a new audience who are really passionate and excited about coming to see them," he says.

Hastings says the show is attracting “location tourists” who want to experience exactly where the show is filmed and walk in the footsteps of their favourite characters.

Since its debut Game of Thrones has become one of HBO's most popular series and one of the most talked about shows on Facebook in the United States. Last April, to coincide with the launch of season four, Tourism Ireland got together with HBO to launch a Facebook and Twitter campaign aimed at promoting Northern Ireland's association with the television show.

The campaign, which ran for 11 weeks in Britain, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, generated one million clicks and is estimated to have reached about 100 million fans.

Tourism Ireland will again team up with HBO next month to unveil its 2015 campaign around season five. Hastings says there are no precise figures as to how many visitors came to Northern Ireland solely because they were fans of Game of Thrones. But if the number of business ventures that has sprung up based around the show – from coach tours to specialist accommodation experiences by hotels and glamping operators to medieval banquet adventures – are anything to go by, it would seem like a growth market.

“Northern Ireland is a much more acceptable destination today for younger people but, in general, during my watch as chairman of Tourism NI, the perception of Northern Ireland has changed dramatically. The 2012 NI Our time, Our place campaign was a game changer for us and we’ve never looked back,” he says.

“We’ve hosted fantastic events including the Irish Open, the G8 summit, the UK City of Culture in Derry-Londonderry, the Giro d’Italia, the Fleadh Cheoil in Derry and, of course, we also opened Titanic Belfast [which has just won an award as Europe’s best visitor attraction].

“With the overwhelming success of each event and new attraction, we are changing how people think about and view Northern Ireland.

“We still have further to go and sometimes the biggest challenge is the one that’s closest to home. For example there are 2.5 million people in the Republic who have never overnighted in Northern Ireland. But once, we get people to come here they always return,” says Hastings.


Hastings, who is managing director of one of the largest local family owned hotel groups,

Hastings Hotels

, has learned from past lessons never to bet on anything to do with tourism in the North but if he had to take a wager, Hastings is quietly confident that this is shaping up to be a pretty good year.

“I think Northern Ireland is well on the way to being a £1 billion industry by 2020. There is a swelling of civic pride behind the tourism sector – a real sense that people want to get involved and play their part.

“With Rory McIlory’s help, we’re getting ready to welcome some of the world’s best golfers to Northern Ireland for the Irish Open at Royal County Down in May so I think our tourism industry is just going to get bigger and better.”