BELFAST appears to be bouncing back after the devastating Primark fire, with pre-Christmas footfall around city shops up by almost 20% on last year.
Figures obtained by the Press Association indicate that shoppers are finally returning to the city centre in large numbers in the wake of August's blaze in the landmark retail store.
Footfall for the week beginning December 10 was up 19 per cent on the same period in 2017. Figures were also up seven per cent on the previous week. December 14 was the city's busiest shopping day of the year to date.
Despite the months of disruption caused by the fire in Primark's historic Bank Buildings, city centre footfall across the whole of 2018 is actually up five per cent on the year before, with Belfast apparently bucking a downward trend experienced on other UK and Irish high streets.
The fire that ripped through the popular store forced the closure of a main city centre junction for months, badly hitting trade.
Shops within a safety cordon around the building's charred shell were closed entirely, while other nearby retailers saw footfall badly hit as shoppers stayed away.
Primark, Belfast City Council and the Treasury have all contributed to multimillion-pound recovery efforts.
As part of the plans, the council launched an ad campaign and built a number of winter-themed visitor attractions in the heart of the city in a bid to attract people back in.
The increase in footfall came in the week after Primark opened a new store in the city and the council opened a walkway beside the fire cordon, re-connecting a main shopping thoroughfare. The walkway has enabled some of the closed shops to reopen.
Restrictions remain in place as Primark works to dismantle and make safe the Bank Buildings ahead of a major rebuild project.
The building has become an unintentional attraction in itself following the fire, with visitors keen to see and take pictures of its blackened facade.
The footfall figures compiled by Belfast One - the city centre's Business Improvement District (BID) - indicate that shoppers who had stayed away in recent months are now returning in force.
Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey welcomed the upturn in footfall.
She told PA: "These figures are great news with just days to go to Christmas and will provide a much-needed boost for local retailers who have faced a very challenging year.
Ms Hargey said the "Belfast Alive" campaign to draw shoppers back to the city centre had paid dividends.
"Plans are already being developed for how we can further build upon this approach, both into the springtime and over the next three to five years, to make Belfast a really vibrant place to visit, with work also still on track for the cordon to be further reduced over the next few months," she said.
Clare Maguire, managing director of Belfast One BID, said: "We are delighted that footfall in the city centre is showing a positive trend and hope that this continues right up to, and beyond, Christmas.
"The new walkway between Donegall Place and Royal Avenue has been a real success and it's great to see some of those businesses who were located within the Bank Buildings cordon are now back open and trading again."
McDonald's franchisee Paul Connan, who was forced to close after the fire, was able to reopen his restaurant when the protected walkway was constructed.
He said the area had been "very busy" since pedestrian access was extended.
"Business is up on the same time last year during peak times, due to our proximity to the walkway and the attractions nearby, which have been vital in drawing people back into Royal Avenue and Castle Place," he said.
"We still have a way to go to regain footfall in the early mornings and evenings, but our team are looking to 2019 with great positivity, and we look forward to seeing what's next for the city centre."