Game of Thrones has put Northern Ireland firmly on the map of players in the international tourism game. By Madeleine Barber.
To call George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones television series a raging success would be a dramatic understatement. The HBO show is broadcast on Sky Atlantic in 170 countries worldwide, it holds the record for the most Emmy awards (38, to be precise), and for each episode of season six – the series aired in 2016 – 25 million viewers tuned in.
It has had a significant impact on the tourism industry in Northern Ireland, where parts of the series are filmed in 25 iconic locations across the country.
Since Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, fans from all over the world have flocked to the rolling green hills and sweeping coastline to experience the land of the Starks for themselves. Although the tourist board doesn’t have access to statistics for arrivals directly linked to the series, it’s clear that visitors to Northern Ireland in general are on the rise; in many opinions thanks to the show increasing awareness of the destination.
In 2016, the country saw record levels of international arrivals, which were up 12% year-on-year in 2016 at 2.6 million. The money that tourists are spending there has also seen a rise, of 11%, and some £851 million was injected into the Northern Irish economy last year. This equates to £2.3 million spent every day.
Hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs saw a 10% increase in rooms sold in 2016 compared to 2015, and the average room occupancy reached 70%.
To support the rise in arrivals driven by the series, more than 24 new Game of Thrones visitor experiences have been developed since 2013, and the Tourism Northern Ireland (NI) marketing strategies to make people aware of this generated impressive results. Twitter even uses its 2016 campaign as a case study to attract new business.
This international campaign, “Doors of Thrones”, ran over 10 weeks and reached 126 million people worldwide.
It saw 10 Westeros-style wooden doors (made with trees from The Dark Hedges site in Stranocum that were felled by Storm Gertrude in January 2016) placed in local pubs near to the filming locations and a “Journey of Doors” souvenir passport introduced, allowing visitors to explore the doors and collect stamps at each venue. Originally intended as a short-term promotion, the doors are now visitor attractions in their own right.
For 2017, Tourism NI has launched the “Tapestry” campaign. Tying into season seven of Game of Thrones, its central asset is an 80-metre-long Bayeux-style tapestry depicting the show’s most epic scenes and iconic characters. The textile is on display in Belfast’s Ulster Museum until February 2018.
John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, said: “Game of Thrones has been transformative for Northern Ireland as a screen tourism destination. The show has provided an opportunity for the tourism industry to develop new and innovative visitor experiences based on the Game of Thrones theme. The recently launched tapestry gives visitors another way to explore the series’ story in Northern Ireland, adding to the 25 stunning filming locations and the Journey of Doors passport.”
With an impressive track record in marketing success and tourism growth, the good news is set to continue for the nation. Early reports suggest that 2017 will show similarly spectacular growth across all sectors, with news of Northern Ireland hotels achieving record-breaking sales between January and March this year.
As Cersei Lannister says: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Northern Ireland, it seems, is geared up to win.
The Dark Hedges near Stranocum as “The Kingsroad”
Following the death of her father, Arya escapes King’s Landing. Travelling on the Kingsroad, Arya starts her long and arduous journey north.
Portstewart Strand as “the Coast of Dorne”
Cersei Lannister has dispatched her brother, Jaime, to bring his “niece” Myrcella back from Dorne to King’s Landing. Having recruited Ser Bronn of the Blackwater on his mission, they arrive on the coast of Dorne.
Binevenagh as “the Dothraki Grasslands”
Fleeing from the Sons of the Harpy in the fighting pits of Meereen, Daenerys Targaryen was rescued by her dragon, Drogon, and brought to his lair north of the city in the Dothraki Grasslands on the continent of Essos.
Murlough Bay as “Slaver’s Bay”
Tyrion Lannister and Ser Jorah Mormont, having been attacked by Stonemen as they sailed on the Old Valyrian Canal and lost their boat, have made it ashore and are continuing to Meereen on foot. As Tyrion explains to Jorah how he came to be in Volantis, they are spotted by a slave ship and then captured.
Ballintoy Harbour as “the Iron Islands”
Ballintoy Harbour on the Causeway Coast has become synonymous with Pyke and the Iron Islands. The nearby beach was used as the Iron Islands when Theon reaffirms his loyalty to his family by being baptised into the religion of the Drowned God; as well as for Dragonstone, when Melisandre presides over the burning of several of Stannis's bannermen.
Visit Northern Ireland delegates on the Tourism Ireland stand UKI400