Tourism in Northern Ireland – A Personal Reflection

by Fergal kearney

Come to Ulster Poster c1950

On Friday 4th September 1998 I made the journey from my Bellaghy home to Belfast for the first of many days at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, where I would also finish out my public sector career. My mission was to play my part in the development of tourism in Northern Ireland. On a tour of our beautiful North Antrim Coast with a young couple from Michigan USA towards the end of July 2022, I came upon this wonderful old tourism poster leaning against the wall of a shop in Bushmills. It put me in mind to write this reflection on my time with the organisation that was set up in 1948 (as the Ulster Tourist Development Association) to develop and promote this part of Ireland to visitors.

I had the great privelege throughout my working life of taking on roles that no one else had done before, so I have always been a pioneer of sorts, and a risk taker. I also joined the organisation just after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland had just emerged from 30 years of internecine conflict that had become known as ‘The Troubles’; three decades that had taken a terrible toll on our community and on our image overseas.

Re-imagining the destination

I was to take a central role in ‘re-imagining’ Northern Ireland, in a manner that would go some way to redressing this tarnished image. Turning this negative image of tourism in Northern Ireland around would require courage, ambition and authenticity and a huge shift in our collective imagination. We were assured by our colleagues in Bord Fáilte (now Fáilte Ireland) that we need do nothing as ‘all ships will rise with the tide’. In other words, sit back and relax; with peace they will come. A philosophy that we rejected outright.

The Old NITB Logo

Key to this re-imagining was to explore the unique and authentic experiences that our part of Ireland could offer. Our first task, post peace-agreement, was to develop a sustainable marketing proposition, focusing on stand-out experiences unique to Northern Ireland and that would differentiate us from the rest of the Island. Another consequence of the peace agreement was the creation of a number of cross-border agencies, chief among them Tourism Ireland. They were tasked with marketing and promoting the whole Island to all exisiting and emerging international markets.

The signature projects

What emerged from this lengthy period of sustained lateral thinking became known as the ‘Signature Projects’, five pivotal themes that would see an unprecedented investment in our tourism infrastructure during the second decade of the 21st Century. These initiatives were (in no particular order):

  • Titanic (Maritime)Belfast
  • Giant’s Causeway/Antrim and Causeway Coast Area
  • The Walled City of Derry
  • Christian Heritage/St Patrick
  • The Mountains of Mourne
titanic belfast signature project
Titanic Belfast was Regarded as ‘Fantasy’ by many tourism officals in 2002

Of course, settling on these five distinctive themes meant that other areas of Northern Ireland felt neglected, chief among them the Sperrin Mountains and the Fermanagh Lakelands. Managing this early disappointment – and indeed anger and resentment – was as key to the development of the region as the investment in the Signature Projects. Immediate engagement with all the stakeholders in these regions was an imperative – as was detailed future-searching to agree on ambitious development strategies for their areas. This latter was less about appeasement and more about a common-sense and all embracing approach to the future tourism offering across the region.

What could possibly go wrong?

It was an unprecedented period of aspiration and determination to get things done; and done well. Yet, when the ambitious development targets were agreed across multiple stakeholders, there was no actual money to deliver them. Begrudgers and naysayers whispered malevolently from the sidelines; they’ve overstepped themselves, they opined. Well indeed we had overstepped ourselves, deliberately. Now we had the most ambitious tourism development programme in the region’s history agreed and ready to go. And it was this fact that sealed the deal.

The New Centre at the Giant’s Causeway was beyond its capacity before a brick was laid

We had rallied the great and the good behind what we called ‘The Strategic Framework for Action 2004-2007’ with the 5 Signature Projects at its heart. The groundwork had been laid to take these ‘ideas’ and bring them to life and that is what we spent the subsequent 3 years doing. So by 2008 we were able to present these ‘ideas’ as actual costed ‘projects and programmes’ and get them fully written into the NI Assembly’s Programme for Government 2008-2011, securing a financial commitment of some £79million over that period. This levered a further commitment of some £80million from other public sector bodies and from the private sector.

what a time to work in tourism!

The year 2012 was a magical one for those of us fortunate to have lived and worked in the sector during the previous decade. In that year, we saw mere ‘ideas’ (sometimes even ‘crazy’ concepts) such as Titanic Belfast burst into life in a way that we could never have imagined way back in 2002. Great world-beating coastal drives; historic cities; scholarly and theological concepts made real. All came to life before our very eyes. We now had the world-beating, unique and authentic visitor experiences that could only be the envy of may other mature, and much larger, destinations.

The downside of course is often that the dreamers and the architects of the future become mere footnotes in history. By 2012, the original creators had gone. Perhaps their work was done in laying the foundations for the future of tourism in Northern Ireland. Or making the case for the unprecedented financial resources needed to make it happen? Or maybe just time for a change. I left the organisation in 2014 for health reasons, but in hindsight I had done my bit; and more!

Millions from all over the world now seek out Northern Ireland for its unique visitor offer

I didn’t receive any invitations to any of the grand opening events. I was one of those historical footnotes whose energy and commitment had set the whole thing in motion. Was I resentful? Not a bit of me. By that stage in my life and career, I had become accustomed to it. Those like me who are early adopters, cheerleaders for sometimes bonkers concepts – ‘sure the bloody ship sunk Fergal’, the then chief executive quipped at a board meeting – but who persevere and lay the foundations for a great sea-change. That is reward enough!

The road ahead

We have had ten years and more since we set down the solid bedrock upon which our investment in tourism in Northern Ireland and our tourism economy has grown, well above and beyond those cautious early predicitions. Despite the ‘blip’ of the coronavirus and the disaster of the accompanying lockdowns, the confidence that arrived right across our tourism industry all those years ago has prevailed. Today we are fighting back, recovering as best we can and ready to protest any future molestation of our industry by dark forces.

Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy would have been unthinkable in 1998

And what of our Tourist Board? During our Troubles, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board became a ‘caretaker’, as benign as the school janitor, doing worthy but invisible work in keeping the candle lit. Today, I would suggest that it has reverted to being the caretaker, but one who carefully, somewhat beningly, looks after a mighty industry. I believe that the heyday for the development of tourism in Northern Ireland has passed!

Good luck to them!

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Seven Seas Voyager Head Melt

It’s remarkable that I hosted two tours off the same ship on different days at the weekend. Seven Seas Voyager arrived early in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Sunday morning 3rd July 2022 around 5.15a.m. carrying Anne and Jay Stevens from Boston/Chicago, who toured with me on Sunday. But on Saturday I had Cindy and Kirk Bellack Pratt from New Jersey who flew into Belfast to join Seven Seas Voyager on a new cruise, starting Sunday evening. Yeah go work it out! I’m so dizzy, my head is spinning🤣

Their tour choice

Both couples joined our Highlights of Northern Ireland tour over the weekend. On this private tour you can enjoy an optional tour of Belfast, taking in the Murals, the City Centre, the University Quarter and Titanic Quarter. Then we will follow the world famous Causeway Coastal Route, taking in the nine glens of Antrim and sea views across to Scotland (depending on the weather). You can marvel at the coastal scenery along the notorious Torr Head Scenic Route before your onward journey to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (viewpoint only) and then to the Giant’s Causeway. On your outward journey we take in the waterfalls at Glenariff, the Queen of the nine Glens of Antrim, and many more extraordinary sites that take you off the well beaten path. We can modify this itinerary to suit your individual needs through our CONTACT page.

In the Footsteps of Seamus Heaney

This full day tour offers an intimate and emotional journey through the landscapes and places that inspired the Nobel Prize Winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. You will be guided through your experience by Fergal Kearney, who knew the poet personally and has many stories to tell of these inspiring moments.

Seamus heaney tour

fergal kearney
Fergal Kearney

This is a private experience by private luxury vehicle and will take you to many places referenced in Seamus’ poetry collections, most of which are known only to your guide. Those who have taken this journey with us have often been overwhelmed by the beauty and complexity of Seamus’ writing, read aloud to you by your guide in the very places that inspired them. You will also enjoy a visit to the Seamus Heaney Homeplace where you can immerse yourself in the life and work of the poet in his own words.

Fergal will take you off the well beaten path for an intimate and moving insight into the life and work of Seamus Heaney.

Walk through the fields of Tamlaghduff within sight of Seamus Heaney’s family home at ‘The Wood’, perhaps enjoying a chance meeting with one of his brothers; stroll through the ‘squeaking sedge’ on the Strand at Lough Beg, made famous in Seamus’ eulogy for his murdered cousin; gaze out over the vast expanse of Toner’s Bog, from his eponymous poem ‘Digging’, now returned to its natural state in the total stillness of Ballymacombs. Or simply breathe the Bellaghy air that Seamus himself breathed as you immerse yourself in the totality of his amazing sense of place.

seamus heaney homeplace
A Visit to Seamus Heaney HomePlace is Included

Whether you’re a Seamus Heaney novice or a scholar of his body of work, this tour will be intimate, moving and arresting in equal measure, delivered with the characteristic humour, knowledge and subtlety of a fellow Bellaghy native.

Fergal says, “Having known and worked with Seamus Heaney over many years and having grown up in the same fields and lanes and knowing the same people in his native Bellaghy, I feel uniquely gifted to follow in the footsteps of the great man and to share his journey through my eyes. This is no stranger’s view of the poet in his place, but that of a generation that has been influenced by Seamus over the years and known him personally for decades.”

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Follow in the Footsteps of Hollywood Movie The Northman

Not only does our Highlights of Northern Ireland tour take in the many locations that made Game of Thrones one of the most watched television shows of all time, now you can enjoy the locations featured in Holywood blockbuster The Northman. Sadly, all of the sets featured in this stunning movie have been dismantled, but you can still visit the many filming locations featured in this short documentary…and of course in full real life high definition on our best selling Highlights tour!

From visionary director Robert Eggers, The Northman is an action-filled epic that follows a young Viking prince into adulthood on his quest to avenge his father’s murder. Often cited wrongly in trade ‘bibles’ such as Variety as being filmed exclusively in Iceland, the entire movie was filmed in our beautiful Glens of Antrim and Mourne Mountains (bar a few sweeping Icelandic vistas). During 2019, many of our guests got first hand views of the amazing sets at Cairndhu and Torr Head – and later as we emerged from the unforgiveable lockdowns in 2021. Regrettably – or rather, predictably – the production company dismantled them later in that year.

Holywood blockbuster The Northman
Alexander Skarrsgard on Set at Cairhdhu while filming The Northman

If you want to enjoy these views for real, you’ll first have to brave the hairpin bends of Torr Head Scenic Route as part of our Northern Highlights tour. This narrow, winding road between Cushendun and Ballycastle is a contender for Northern Ireland’s most beautiful and challenging drive. It’s part of the Causeway Coastal Route, a terrific 120-mile road trip from Belfast to Derry, which forms a major part of my private tour, leaving from either Belfast or Derry.

Book your northman adventure now

You can immerse yourself in these two epic sagas including Holywood blockbuster The Northman that have captured the imagination of millions from all over our world. Take in these amazing locations on our day long tour of the amazing Causeway Coastal Route. Book now on THIS PAGE and Embrace a Giant Spirit.

Great Tour from the Viking Venus

Enjoy a shore excursion in Belfast like Diana and Doug who travelled with us today. Two of the smaller cruise liners were in Belfast today, Fred Olsen’s Borealis and the Venus from Viking Cruise. I hosted the lovely Diana and Doug Hastings, from Nebraska USA who were aboard the Venus. A short day as they were boarding again at 4:30 but a truly enjoyable one for them both. On to Liverpool, then Dublin then Dover and home to America! Lovely day, lovely people, lovely ship! Loving what I do!

Diana and Doug enjoyed our Highlights of Northern Ireland Tour, which was shortened slightly to accommodate an earlier boarding time due to the tides in Belfast Lough. We made sure they were immersed in all that is best in our part of Ireland, with stops at The Andrew Jackson Centre and US Rangers museums in Carrickfergus. Further attractions included Carnlough Harbour and a call to the beautiful Ebb & Flow Gift Shop. Onwards to Glenariff Waterfalls, Carrick-a-Rede and Ballintoy Harbour then a quick trip back to board their ship in Belfast.

For further information on this tour and our bespoke tour options please use our Contact page.

Honeymoon in Beautiful Ireland

It was an absolute honour today to host Baltimore couple Stefanie and her brand new husband Jonathan Fischell who are honeymooning in beautiful Ireland. And what a day out it was as our lovely home beamed with early summer colour and the sun shone down. Happy onward travels my lovely friends and I hope you fulfil your promise to bring your yet to be conceived kids back some time in the distant future🙏❤️

Stefanie and Jonathan enjoyed our Northern Highlights private luxury tour.

honeymooning in beautiful ireland
Enjoying the view of the 15th Century Dunluce Castle

Majestic Day for Ladies from Colorado and Wyoming

What a stunning day to show my guests the very best of what our part of Ireland has to offer. The sun shone all day – until the end of the trip – and the air was so clear we could nearly see to the far side of Scotland away across the Straits of Moyle. It’s a gift doing what I do and enabling people to enjoy the stunning landscapes, coastline and the history and heritage of our home. Today I hosted besties Melissa Stark-Leeds and Stacy Kopper from Colorado and Wyoming USA. Their verdict ‘a majestic day out’!

Mel and Stacy at the wonderful Dunluce Castle on the Antrim Coast

Houston, We Have a Great Day

Lovely day today with Tina Deeds and her partner Joel Konkel from Houston, Texas, USA on board the amazing Emerald Princess cruise ship in Belfast. I love it that so many people from around the world are booking these massive cruise ships to visit Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool et al, so fair play to those who over many years have persevered in selling these ports to the biggest ship operators in the world. And helping tiny operators like myself into the bargain. Thank you guys for an extra special day and happy onward adventures👍☘️

Tina and Joel end their tour at Dunluce Castle
Back on board the amazing Emerald Princess

Thank You Mary and Fred from Georgia

What another lovely and life-affirming day today with Mary and Fred Simonton from Georgia, USA. From pickup to set down they were enthralled and moved in equal measure by the beauty of the place we all call home (pictured here at Bushmills Distillery). Back to Dublin tomorrow for both of these wonderful people and I thank them with all my heart for their generosity and kindness and I wish them all well in their future travels. Happy Birthday Mary and Happy Wedding Anniversary to you both in your double celebration in Ireland🙏☘️


carrick-a-rede tour

Welcome to our New Website

Greetings from InSite Tours Ireland and welcome to our brand new Website. Apologies for anyone who has had difficulty reaching us over the last few months as the old site was crippled by gremlins and became unuseable. We hope this new site is user friendly and easy to navigate. Don’t forget to get in touch with us through our contact page if you need any help in planning your next Irish trip – we do much more that just set itineraries and can help you design your entire visit, or as much of it as you would like. Or indeed if you have any questions about our tours before you book! We look forward to seeing you soon on one of our remarkable journeys through the wonderful Emerald Isle.