BELFAST, Northern Ireland: Gerard McGlade stops his taxi opposite an Ulster Volunteer Force mural depicting gun-toting, black-clad fighters and begins rattling off statistics – 80,000 injured, 35,000 jailed, 3,795 dead.
He is recounting “The Troubles,” religiously and politically fueled urban warfare that saw Catholic and Protestant neighbors at each other’s throats. The violence gripped Belfast for three decades up until the brokering of peace with the Good Friday Agreement 15 years ago this month.
McGlade once made a living ferrying foreign war correspondents around the city. Today, his customers are curious tourists looking to making a day trip through Belfast’s most infamous neighborhoods.
“Good comes out of bad,” the 41-year-old Belfast native said. “Belfast is booming now, instead of bombing.”
McGlade’s is one of ten companies offering black taxi cab tours centered on the city’s tormented political history (the cabs themselves are a throwback to the Troubles when all other public transportation was suspended). And they are but one niche in an emerging tourism industry, which generated £401 million, or about $610 million, in 2011, a 40 percent increase since 2005. Officials expect the soon-to-be-released 2012 data to show 14 percent one-year growth.
“Tourism has become an important element of the economic fabric of the city,” said Fiona Ure, spokesperson for the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau.
The industry now accounts for nearly 5 percent of the total economy in Northern Ireland. It is a share comparable to that of the Republic of Ireland, and all the more significant given that it was non-existent a little more than a decade ago.
In 1999, Belfast had 19 hotels with 1,100 rooms, Ure said. Today, there are 33 hotels with 3,500 rooms. In 1999, two cruise ships stopped in the Port of Belfast. This year, 59 cruise ships carrying 110,000 passengers are scheduled to visit.
The city and its surrounding areas has a population of about 580,000. Among its flagship tourist destinations is the Titanic Belfast, a nine-gallery interactive museum which opened last year and has already attracted 700,000 visitors. It pays homage to the city’s once vibrant shipbuilding industry and its most famous project, the Titanic. The SS Nomadic, the tender vessel for the Titanic, was recently restored and will open as a museum at the end of May, Ure said.
Still, reframing Belfast as a destination remains a delicate dance, not least because its charged history still bleeds into the present. That fragility was no more apparent than in December when a vote to curtail the display of the British flag on government buildings triggered weeks of violent street protests by Protestant Loyalists which carried well into the new year.
“They absolutely destroyed us,” John McBride, owner of the South Belfast hostel City Backpacker, said of the flag protests. “From the weekend they kicked off through the end of January, I would say we didn’t have 30 people through the doors. People see it in the news. They think it’s back to the bad old days for Belfast.”
City government responded with a $2.25 million marketing campaign called “Backin’ Belfast” with the intention of reassuring people that it was safe to travel to and about the city.
“It has been hugely positive in kicking back the negative perception that the city was a difficult and unsafe place to be,” Belfast Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson said. “There is no questions there were issues, but they weren’t insurmountable.”
Some business owners expressed anxiety that unrest of the flag protests could carry into marching season, a two-week period in early July when the Protestant Orange Order stages parades through the city, which also coincides with peak tourism season. But most described the recent fray as a minor disruption rather than a momentum changer.
Aidan McCormack, 31, launched his tour bus company in 2009 with four vehicles. Today, he operates nine buses of varying sizes, and has plans to add two more. He employs up to 45 people, depending on the season.
“More than creating employment, it is inward investment,” McCormack said of the year-over-year gains in tourism in Belfast. “It is money that is coming in from outside the state. Also, there are intangible benefits to tourism in terms of people being able to represent themselves and tell stories and showcase their own city. It generates community pride.”
Officials said it is impossible to calculate what percentage of tourism is driven by Belfast political history, but business owners said it is significant. Among the attractions are the 18 miles of walls built in various sections of town to separate Protestant and Catholic neighbors, and the thousands of politically and socially themed murals that cover them.
The tourists include Irish from the Republic of Ireland who had never crossed the border north out of fear of being targeted, tourism company operators said. There are also Belfast natives who, because of deep community divisions, have never ventured into certain neighborhoods in their own city.
“Three quarters of our visitors would be looking to explore the Shankill Road and Falls Road,” said McCormack, referring to Protestant- and Catholic-populated streets at the heart of the upheaval. “Not because of voyeurism or negativity but because of the changes that have happened. It is witnessing change.”
Neil Wilson, 28, leads daily tours at the Crumlin Road Goal, a Belfast prison that held thousands of people during the Troubles and closed only in 1996. It opened to visitors in November, and regularly draws former prisoners, prison guards and their families.
“A lot of people would look on the Troubles tourism as being a very dark thing to do,” Wilson said. “But it is a vital part of our history. It is something that affected so many thousands of people’s lives throughout the years that I really think it would be more of a crime to brush it under the carpet.”
Tourism is helping Belfast move forward, not only as an economic driver in a city with a history of high unemployment, but also as a vehicle for reflection and perspective, Wilson said.
“Really, I think things can only get better from here on.”