Political Tourism in West Belfast

Eleanor Burnhill in the Edniburgh Review:

And there are other, less highly organised individuals, storytellers, musicians, dancers, ‘local characters’ etc, who are occasionally called upon to give performances. All such people act effectively as curators or custodians of the culture on behalf of the wider ethnic group.1

As those studying tourism marketing note, most research shows fear and insecurity are major barriers to travel.

For years Northern Ireland, and its capital Belfast, was a tourism wilderness filled with ‘anxiety and journalists’ but, like weeds and wild flowers growing out of cracks in a pavement, a tentative tourism industry that recognised the ‘curiosity’ factor of the Troubles began to grow in the early 1990s. Much of this was led by local community groups in areas most affected by the conflict. Perhaps uniquely in a European city, taxi drivers adapted their businesses to take tourists on political tours.

Nowadays, however, a much wider tourism industry in Belfast is thriving, despite years of underfunding, and visitor numbers have returned to a level not experienced since the late 1960s. Ten years after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which signalled a period of tentative peace for Northern Ireland, and in the two months before the March 7th elections for a new Legislative Assembly, I interviewed representatives from each of the four main political parties: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who traditionally represent unionists, and the main nationalist parties Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). I also interviewed those involved in community tourism and taxi drivers themselves, to find out what role they thought political tourism should have into the future.

Most agreed that the Troubles do have a role in Belfast’s tourism product, but unsurprisingly for a state so divided by political tensions, there are divergent opinions about how this should be presented and marketed as a draw for visitors.