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," he added.
Tourism Northern Ireland estimates the magical show, in its final season, drew 120,000 visitors to the province in 2016, generating 30 million pounds (35 million euros, USD 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, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Europe, so I think that tells its own story," he added.
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 like 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," he added.