Tourists follow ‘Game of Thrones’ trail in Northern Ireland

The Iron Throne is seen on the set of the television series Game of Thrones in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, Northern Ireland. (File/Reuters)
Updated 20 April 2019
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Tourists follow ‘Game of Thrones’ trail in Northern Ireland

  • Since the series began in 2011, fans have started to flock to the coastal caves and ruined castles of the British province where much of the show was shot
  • Tourism Northern Ireland estimates the magical show drew 120,000 visitors to the province in 2016

BELFAST: Wielding a replica broadsword, Indian tourist Akshay Mannur duels with friends — re-enacting scenes from “Game of Thrones” on the Northern Ireland pilgrimage trail for devotees of the blockbuster fantasy TV show.
Since the blood and guts series began its rise to prominence in 2011, fans have started to flock to the coastal caves and ruined castles of the British province where much of the HBO television production was shot.
“Every new step is like something new, it’s more than my expectations,” 23-year-old student Mannur marvelled.
“It’s a beautiful country — Northern Ireland is just amazing.”

Tourism Northern Ireland estimates the magical show — in its final season — drew 120,000 visitors to the province in 2016, generating £30 million (35 million euros, $39 million).
One in six visitors now comes to Northern Ireland to visit shooting locations, according to their estimates.
Along the largely coastal trail, a short drive outside the capital of Belfast, that popularity is clear to see.
A steady hum of buses and coaches are marshalled in and out of parking lots on strict schedules, and sleepy village shops throng with tourists.
“The last week, I think on Saturday past, we had a bus with 24 nationalities on it,” said tour guide Patrick Rogan at the mouth of the Cushendun Caves, the site of a pivotal plot point in the series.
“We had people from Patagonia, from New Zealand, from Japan, from Russia, from South Korea and Europe, so I think that tells its own story.”
Since 2012 his employer — the “Stones and Thrones” tour — has offered daily outings out of Belfast, manned mainly by guides who have acted as extras on the show.
Today they run at least two full buses a day, he said, competing with at least four other companies offering a similar service.
Other more bespoke tour services offer immersive experiences — axe-throwing, archery, and photo opportunities with a pair of wolves that starred in the epic series.

A popular comparison holds that “Game of Thrones” is to Northern Ireland tourism what “Lord of the Rings” has been to New Zealand.
But Northern Ireland’s very recent bloody past during the so-called ‘Troubles’ — when 3,500 were killed in 30 years of sectarian strife — makes the boom particularly welcome.
“The dark history that was here is coming out,” said Irish actor Liam Cunningham, a stalwart character in the series now feted as the most expensive to ever be filmed for the small screen.
“The place is blooming, and for us to have this show here and be part of that transition is joyful.”

Cunningham was speaking at the opening of a touring exhibition of costume and scenery pieces in Belfast, the same week as the new season of the series premiered.
Ranked displays of dragon skulls, intricately crafted weapons and interactive exhibits are preceded by a gallery of landscape prints, depicting the countryside shooting locations.
A caption on one image reads “Views to die horribly for,” whilst another reads “Sun, sea and savagery,” referring to the show’s reputation for bloodily killing off major characters.
They are testament to the canny local tourist board, making efforts to cement the link between their territory and the series.
“I think our association with such a global success helps to transform the image of Northern Ireland across the globe,” said John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland.
“In many ways that gives you PR that you just simply couldn’t buy.”
With the final season of “Game of Thrones” under way, the fever pitch devotion to the series may be about to end.
But with spin-off projects in the pipeline and a studio tour development due to open in Northern Ireland next year, the province still hopes for tourism revenues.
“We think this still has longevity,” said McGrillen.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.
“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.
In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.
Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.
“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.
Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.