Northern Ireland

Derry 'transformed' five years on from City of Culture

Hot air balloons in the sky above Derry city on June 21 2013. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Hot air balloons in the sky above Derry city on June 21 2013. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin Hot air balloons in the sky above Derry city on June 21 2013. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

MORE people visited Derry over 2016 than during its celebrated year as City of Culture, it has been revealed.

It is now five years since Derry began its reign as the first ever UK City of Culture, a year it was hoped would establish it as a centre for culture, music and the arts.

And while 2013 witnessed a number of high-profile difficulties, the two men who served as mayor believe it has transformed Derry’s fortunes.

Sinn Féin councillor Kevin Campbell was mayor for the first half of the year while the SDLP’s Martin Reilly took on the mantle of first citizen for the second half.

Mr Campbell said the big winner in economic terms was the hospitality sector, demonstrated by the number of new hotels and bars that have opened in and around the city centre.

“The year itself was a huge success economically. In 2013, there were 535,000 visitors to the city and 28,000 hotel rooms were sold out; that gives a sense of how good it was,” he said.

Derry’s tourism infrastructure underwent a huge makeover for the year of culture - a process that has continued since then. This has included an overhaul of Guildhall Square and Waterloo Place as well as the development of the city’s new maritime museum at Ebrington Square which is due for completion next year.

“The big events like the Clipper festival, the Fleadh and the Return of Colmcille during 2013 show that Derry is a 100 per cent different place from what it was before the culture year. 2013 has established Derry as a go-to tourism destination,” Mr Campbell said.

There were some problems during the year of culture including the high-profile sacking of its director of communications after he expressed concerns over the project’s marketing budget.

A number of members of the Culture Company established to manage the year also resigned after it was decided to wind the organisation up early. Some claimed the move would impact on the project’s legacy for the city.

However, Mr Reilly said the evidence of the year’s success is clear.

“To me, one of the big things was that last year (2016) there were more visitors here than in 2013; that speaks for itself,” he said.

The former mayor said the main legacy is the way in which the city’s image has been transformed. Before the culture year, Derry was better known as the birthplace of the Troubles while now it is looked on as a key tourist attraction.

“People view us differently; they now see Derry as a place to come and see. In the past, people may not have believed they would be safe coming to Derry.

“I think we also view ourselves differently; the city has a greater sense of civic pride.

"There has been the development of a sense of belief in Derry’s ability to host large scale events like the Fleadh, MTV and BBC One Big Weekend. The Hallowe’en carnival is better than in the past; the Clipper festival has come back again and again.”

As well as the economic legacy, benefits for the arts have included the drawing up of a 10-year plan for culture development to be launched in this month.

Mr Reilly conceded there were some disappointments including the fact that “The Venue”, a huge temporary arena erected for the culture year, could not be maintained after 2013.

“When Bruce Springsteen came to Ireland, he played Belfast and Dublin but we had no venue big enough to accommodate him in Derry."

Hope that Derry and Belfast could jointly be named European Capital of Culture for 2023 also appear to have fallen victim to Brexit.

However, both mayors believe the highlight of culture year was the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil and both are hopeful that it can return to the north west.

“We were hoping the Fleadh could come back to us in 2017 but obviously that didn’t happen but there is no reason why we should not be looking at 2020,” Mr Campbell said.