For decades now, Northern Ireland has hardly been known as a tourist hotspot, but now the new National Trust director for Northern Ireland, Hilary McGrady, plans to change all that.
This week McGrady was in New York on a mission to promote the trust’s signature project -- the proposed new World Heritage Center to be built at the Giants Causeway in Co. Antrim between 2010 and 2012.
The renewed drive to promote the Causeway, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, is a smart strategic move, because with its welcome to all visitors it takes the heat out of all the ongoing local squabbles between Nationalist and Unionist representatives, placing the emphasis on the natural wonder of the 60 million year old Causeway itself as an international tourist above political point scoring.
The proposed new Causeway Heritage Center tops a list of five key projects that signal Northern Ireland’s renewed seriousness about promoting itself as an international tourist destination.
Other new tourists projects include the Titanic Quarter and Visitor’s Center in Belfast, the Derry Walls and Heritage Center, a visitor’s center at the Mourne Mountains and the proposed St. Patrick’s Trail, which will follow the life and legacy of Ireland’s patron saint, who preached his first sermon in Ulster.
“The Causeway is by far and away the biggest natural attraction in Northern Ireland,” McGrady told the Irish Voice and IrishCentral. “It attracts over 600,000 visitors a year.
“In the past it has been fraught with political arguments. The visitor’s facilities that were originally there in 2000 were burnt down. And there’s been an argument going on for nine years now about what the solution is going to be. But by 2007 the National Trust took the lead in this project.
“We see this as much more than just a visitor’s center. And we feel that short term political point scoring really misses the point.
“This is Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site, the place that people get excited about, and about all the myths and heritage that surrounded it. We have created a project that gathers all of that together.”
When visitors come to the new heritage center they will encounter a world-class experience, McGrady says. At the moment all there is by way of welcome at the Causeway is a portacabin (prefabricated cabin). If you’re lucky, she says, you might get a cup of tea.
“That is not what we need to be saying about tourism in Northern Ireland,” says McGrady. “We’re going to play our part as a new face for tourism in Northern Ireland.”
McGrady, who is clearly passionate about the mission to fund and complete the new heritage center, knows that the will and eventually all of the funding will be achieved.
“That’s the primary reason I’ve come to the states to promote the center and the region. Obviously I don’t expect to just find the £2.5 million we need to complete the project here right away,” she says.
“But the Causeway is an international site and we would welcome international support for it. I really would welcome the Irish American connection to come through and say this is important to them too. It would be a hugely important vote of confidence in the new Northern Ireland.
“It’s a neutral space, after all, one of the very few in Northern Ireland were everyone can say they have some ownership over it.”
What have the responses been since McGrady brought the project to New York for consideration by the private sector and Irish American business leaders here?
“This is my second day. We’ve met with leaders in the Irish business community here and the response has been as expected – they see it as a great project for Northern Ireland,” she says.
“Some have complained of the ongoing recession. But I think there has been a good, strong response from those who are connected to Ireland who are saying that Northern Ireland has a big part to play in the future of the whole island. There’s a sense of it being brought back into the fold again.
“It almost wasn’t a subject to talk about for a while but now its back. It’s not just the peace agenda now. Suddenly people are seeing the new opportunities that exist for tourism. This project is really relevant in that context. So the response has been good.”