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.”