Belfast's troubled past now a must-see for tourists

“Over there is the Protestant area. And there, behind the wall in the middle of the road are the Catholics,” says Alan Hoy with a smile as he tells tales of Belfast’s hardest working-class areas.

His taxi carefully parked on the kerb, Hoy works for one of seven cab firms that now take the curious to north and west Belfast to explain all about what is still euphemistically called around here “The Troubles”.

From the Crumlin Road, to Shankill, the Falls Road and Ardoyne, Hoy’s route is well-planned. He stops in front of the derelict court house in Crumlin Road and the famous jail opposite, which is no longer taking guests of Her Majesty.

He then stops at the main murals painted onto the mish-mash of small brick houses in the fiercely Protestant Shankill area.

Next stop is the Ardoyne, former stronghold of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), where more gable-end frescoes celebrate the opposite political point of view.

Northern Ireland’s more than one million voters began casting their ballots on Wednesday, in what both Catholics and Protestants hope will restore power-sharing, and return self-rule to Belfast after a four-year suspension.

On the eve of the polls, Hoy recalled the hatred of the past, the deaths, the violence—but also the way Protestant and Catholic children still go to different schools despite the peace.

His tour ends by the largest so-called “peace wall”, which still separates the two communities along the Shankill Road.
In the last few months, it has even got longer and higher.

“The Germans are jealous of our wall,” he jokes, referring to the old Berlin Wall that separated West from East at the height of the Cold War. “You can take pictures. It’s safe to walk around.”

Locals going about their business don’t even look at the visitors. They’ve got used to it.

Each year, thousands of people now visit the areas in which the bloody pages of the Northern Ireland conflict have been written, says Fiona Ure, from the Belfast tourist office.

About 3 500 people died between 1969 and 1998, when the Belfast or Good Friday peace accords were signed, largely ending the sectarian violence.

“Some are seeing tourism as a way to help regenerate those areas and get the community involved,” said Ure. “It helps us change.”

One of the most recent, less political murals was of George Best, the genius Northern Ireland and Manchester United footballer who died in late 2005 after a decades-long struggle with alcoholism.

Another was of the doomed ocean liner Titanic, which was built in Belfast, or even of CS Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Tour buses are now taking detours into these areas. Former loyalist prisoners are even getting in on the act, giving their own guided tours in west Belfast.

But Ure is quick to point out that political visits are not the only things to see in town. The nine-year peace has helped open up Belfast to tourism and this year it was among the Lonely Planet guide’s top 10 must-see destinations.

The number of hotel rooms here has tripled in 10 years: in 2005, 6,4-million people visited Belfast—500 000 more than in 2004.

City bosses are hoping to break the eight million barrier this year.

“There’s confidence in investing in tourism,” says Ure, sitting in the vast tourist offices opened in the city centre in 2001.

“People are saying, let’s go somewhere different for the weekend, and think, ‘why not Belfast?’” - Sapa-AFP

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