Belfast: a city writing its own future

4 min reading time

Published on 03/10/23 - Updated on 03/10/23

Belfast: a city writing its own future

For decades, the Northern Irish capital was almost a byword for violence, bombs, and bloody civil strife. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which on paper put an end to the Troubles, Belfast has been seeking to forge a new path and rebuild its image. One avenue of renewal that opened itself up to the city, thanks to the evergreen attractivity of the island of Ireland as a destination, is tourism. The dawning of a new millennium signalled the turning of the page for Belfast and, over the last decade especially, it has risen to become one of Europe’s top alternative travel destinations. With this rise in popularity has come a boom in the city’s hotel market.

Numerous have been the industries that have shaped Belfast over the course of its history. From linen to shipbuilding to tobacco, the marks of the city’s industrial powerhouse past are writ large across its face and personality. Now, the use of several of Belfast’s most iconic buildings is changing.

The ‘Old Tech’ building, a prime example of Edwardian architecture, now serves as student accommodation and the red-brick former headquarters of Harland & Wolff in the city’s docklands is nowadays the Titanic Hotel Belfast. Over the last 20 years, hospitality has established itself as the heir to the city’s traditional industries and is now one of the prime drivers of Belfast’s economy.

According to the City Council, in 2019, the city recorded 1.7 million overnight visits, generating almost half a billion pounds for the city’s economy. The growth in Belfast’s hotel offering between 2015 and 2017 of more than 3,000 beds made such an event possible. The industry slowed down during the Covid-19 pandemic but is showing strong signs of recovery with 1.2 million hotel rooms sold in 2022.

MKG Consulting figures show that Belfast is performing strongly in the post-pandemic world. In 2022, the Northern Irish capital’s RevPAR bounced back stronger than before with a 23.8% increase compared to 2019 (61.9% vs. 50.0%). In terms of occupancy, the city’s stock also surpassed pre-Covid levels in 2022, with a 1.1-point increase in rate over the same period (77.2% in 2022 vs. 76.1% in 2019).

From war zone to Lonely Planet’s number 1 region to visit in the world

There is no one single macro cause that has led to Belfast’s booming attractivity since the end of the Troubles, but rather many smaller reasons that have accumulated to raise the city’s profile on the international stage. However, the cultural soft power of the big and small screen is doubtless one of the most important factors in this shift.

Starting from the colossal success of James Cameron’s Titanic to HBO’s Game of Thrones, Belfast has managed to market itself as the ‘home’ of several immensely popular films and series. In the case of the ill-fated passenger liner, it was built in the city’s Harland & Wolff shipyard, and after years of near dereliction, the city capitalised on this link by regenerating the docklands and opening Titanic Belfast in 2012. Since then, the museum has welcomed millions of visitors and was named the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016.

At the same time, attractive film tax breaks in Northern Ireland have tempted in major studio productions to the country. This policy has proved fruitful for the region’s tourism offer as visitors have flocked to see the studios and outdoor locations where hit shows like the aforementioned Game of Thrones were filmed.

Despite all of this progress, tremors from the seismic event that was the Northern Ireland conflict from 1969-1998 are still felt to this day, even in the hotel market. The visitor to searching for a hotel in Belfast might be surprised to see that the average price of an overnight stay in the city drops in July, the very height of the summer high season.

Indeed, the average daily rate in July is lower than that of six other months across the year. The reason being that 12th July is a contentious public holiday and, although the situation has eased greatly over the past nine years, the days around this date have often seen violent clashes between the police and the city’s Nationalist or Loyalist communities.

A trend that looks set to endure

Despite a slowdown in hotel openings since the pandemic (which could perhaps also be due to the high number of openings in the years immediately preceding 2020), the industry’s future in the city looks bright. In December 2021, the UK Government and NI Executive Ministers signed a 10-year £1 billion Belfast Region City Deal investment programme, of which tourism is one of the four key pillars. One project born of the deal, the Belfast Stories visitor experience due to open in 2028, will be aimed at encouraging visitors to stay longer and explore more of the region.

In parallel, some standout openings are on the cards for the city in the coming years. Among these are a £5.5 million Premier Inn with 81 keys that will soon begin construction near Belfast International Airport and a £20 million aparthotel in the city’s old HMRC building, which is being developed by Lotus Property.

Belfast has successfully managed to rebrand its image into one of Europe’s most interesting up-and-coming destinations. With large-scale projects, both in terms of accommodation and attractions, still to come, the city looks set to boost further its draw for visitors seeking a different kind of urban getaway.

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