25 JUN 2019: Canadians continue to discover Northern Ireland in droves, with the latest numbers revealing that 66,000 visitors from this country made the journey in 2018 – an 8 percent increase on the year before, according to Tourism Ireland. Moreover, one in four Canadians who travel to the Republic also make the journey north to take in cities like Belfast and (London) Derry, plus the Antrim Coast and Giant’s Causeway, making Canada the fourth largest overseas market for the region.

“There are many reasons to go,” says Tourism Ireland’s Canadian director Dana Welch, who cites the three ‘F’s – “food, fun and festivals” amongst them, not to mention two ‘G’s, golf and genealogy. She also points to Derry, said to be the home of Halloween, as a place that celebrates the ghoulish event “like no other.”

The destination has also gained fame recently as one of the settings for the smash TV show “Game of Thrones.”

Another event not to miss is the Belfast International Arts Festival, whose artistic director and chief executive Richard Wakely visited Toronto recently to spread the word about the Oct. 15 to Nov. 3 event, which features close to 130 events spread over 20 days in the city.

Wakely describes the BIAF as the “granddaddy” of city arts and culture festivals, with 60,000-plus local and international visitors turning out for an event designed to showcase “an ever-broadening range of perspectives and experiences, sparking conversations and enriching lives.”

Featuring both Irish and international talent, highlights of this year’s fest will include headliners from Japan, France and Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard. A full program will be released in August at Belfastartsfestival.com.

Wakely says the size and diversity of the 57th annual event is symbolic of the “astonishing turnaround” of the city since the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Peace Agreement that officially ended an era known as “The Troubles,” which pitted pro- and anti-British forces against each other for decades.

And while the Titanic Belfast museum has notably emerged as the city’s top attraction since opening in 2012, the city retains a sense of its gritty past, with some 2,000 of the famous political wall murals still on display around town – a collection that Wakely calls “works of art in the their own right.”

A great way to see them, and get the lowdown on the city’s turbulent history, is through one of the city’s ubiquitous Black Taxi Tours, he notes.

But he concedes, “If you want something clean and antiseptic – whitewashed – then don’t come. But most people (in Northern Ireland) are eager to move on from the conflict and Belfast as a post-conflict city is really leading the way. Despite the past, and despite the differences, it’s one of the reasons to come to Belfast.”

Especially for his arts festival. “The capacity of arts and culture to bring people together…” he says, “We absolutely believe in that!”

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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