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Tourism sees Twelfth in lucrative new light

(Bimpe Fatogun, Irish News)

Would you recommend a holiday in Belfast this summer for the cultural spectacular that is 'the Twelfth'? With tourism bodies actively marketing the marching season for the first time, Bimpe Fatogun asks whether the annual July exodus could ever become a tourism influx.

What a difference a marching season makes. There was a time – not too long ago – when civic and business leaders were wringing their hands at the economic damage of a summer of marches by the loyal orders.

Traditionally a time for the north to shut down, in the 1990s the Twelfth fortnight saw thousands escape to foreign climes as violence and roadblocks brought many areas to a standstill.

In 2000 the then head of the tourist board blamed the Orange Order for violence around the bitter Drumcree dispute which he said "could have a catastrophic effect on the economy".

The violence has abated in many areas in recent years, although tensions remain – as does the fear of further rioting.

But while these issues continue to concern those living in Northern Ireland all year round, visitors from overseas are being offered a different perspective on an Orange summer.

Far from shying away from the controversial marching season, the latest edition of an international tourism guide goes out of its way to highlight the delights of the holiday.

In fact Belfast In Your Pocket – which despite its name gives tourism tips for all of Northern Ireland – dedicates an entire section to 'The Twelfth and the Orange Order'.

"No matter your affiliations," it tells visitors, "if you are in Belfast on July 12 you cannot fail to witness a spectacle like no other on this island."

It goes on to give details of where to get the best view of the parade through the city.

Belfast is just one of more than 50 cities which have their own dedicated ...In Your Pocket guide.

The latest guide focuses on how visitors can turn a stay in Belfast into a proper European city break – the Twelfth vying with the CityDance 06 festival and Belfast Carnival for attention.

The Orange Order believes there is no reason why its traditions should not be used to attract tourists to the north.

"We are in a lot of references [guides] of that nature and have been for some time," a spokesman said.

"The Twelfth is undoubtedly – whatever one's personal views – a huge, province-wide event and every year consistently attracts a lot of visitors.

"Obviously we are talking about a large number of people within the institution – guests, friends and relatives all come and last year we had people from Alabama come because they belonged to a lodge in the United States.

"But more than that it demonstrates a cultural tradition within Northern Ireland and is deserving of people's interest.

"There is really no difference to people coming over for the Twelfth or for St Patrick's Day."

Lisa McMurray from Belfast Visitor and Convention Centre said tourism bodies welcomed the opportunity to market anything that made the north unique – but it needed to be a positive image.

The centre is also actively promoting the event for the first time following a decision by the Belfast City Council to give funding to 'OrangeFest' this year.

"What we are aiming for obviously is to extend the number and types of events that we promote which are happening in the city and we are actively promoting this," Ms McMurray said.

"We've put it in our listings as well. It's here, it's not going anywhere and we might as well tell people about it."

This pragmatic approach, however, is dependent – unsurprisingly – on the wider situation.

"The last couple of years have been relatively peaceful over the Twelfth of July," Ms McMurray said.

"The negative is really when there's violence associated with it. That hasn't really happened in the last little while.

"Otherwise there is no reason why it can't be enjoyed as a spectacle."

June 20, 2006

This article appeared first in the June 19, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News