Northern Ireland news

Tour guide 'optimistic' about recovery of north's tourism post-pandemic

The pandemic and repeated lockdowns have had a devastating impact on tourism but, according to one tour guide, the green shoots of recovery have already begun. Claire Simpson speaks to Aidan Walker about his business plans and optimism for the future

Aidan Walker from Belfast Walking Tours. Picture by Hugh Russell

“There’s much more of a buzz. I’m much more optimistic than last year. It’s great to be back and showing the highlights of Belfast.”

Few industries have been hit as hard by the pandemic as tourism.

While a relaxation of restrictions last summer meant an increase in visitors from the Republic and Britain, overseas tourists generally stayed away.

A return to lockdown over winter meant that walking and coach tours effectively had to stop for several months.

Tour guide Aidan Walker, who runs Belfast Walking Tours, said he found the winter lockdown a challenge.

“I had to find other projects to do - house improvements and things like that to keep busy, lots of exercise, some reading and research," he said.

“I did a few tours online - an architectural tour and a pub tour. I enjoy the history and research and keeping myself up to date.”

A former senior marketing manager with BT, Mr Walker trained as a Blue Badge tourist guide four years ago. The following year he left his marketing job to concentrate on his tour guide business.

After a short summer season in 2020, Mr Walker carried out his last tour in early October last year and did not start hosting walks again until June.

He said the industry is slowly recovering as restrictions ease.

"Tours are starting to pick up and we’re starting to get more bookings." he said.

"At the moment I’m pretty positive. The numbers, certainly at the weekend, are back. If there isn’t another lockdown this could be a good second half of the year.

“There’s much more of a buzz. I’m much more optimistic than last year. It’s great to be back and showing the highlights of Belfast.”

His only fear is if the continued spike in Covid cases triggers a tightening of restrictions.

“The concern is if the numbers go up again and we go back to square one the cruise ships could be cancelled and the tours could dry up again," he said.

Mr Walker said the north did benefit from relaxing restrictions a few weeks before the Republic, leading to a surge in visitors from the south.

He has also been encouraged by the number of bookings he has received through Airbnb - a rise on the previous year.

"If you’re staying in an Airbnb they will promote experiences in that area," he said.

He added: “An awful lot more people are staying in the city this year.

"With Covid last year, people who did go away wanted to stay away from cities where it was busier.

"This year they seem to be back, which is pretty obvious when you’re in town."

Cruise ships returned to Belfast several weeks ago, although Mr Walker said most of the passengers he has met were either from England or Wales.

“Cruise ships are still not permitted to stop in Scotland… so they’re coming here," he said.

"There have been ships nearly every day for the last two weeks."

He said at the moment cruise ship travellers are only allowed to leave the ship on an official excursion.

As part of his work for travel company Excursions Ireland, he takes cruise ship passengers on coach tours including around the north coast, to the Gobbins outside Larne, Co Antrim, and around Belfast.

“There are lots of safety protocols," he said.

"We have to take lateral flow tests the day before the tour. Everybody has to wear masks the whole time and stay in a bubble.

“There is only 50 per cent capacity so you can only get up to 26 people on a coach.”

Mr Walker also runs two main walking tours - Belfast’s Troubled History and a Titanic Trail walk which draws on the history of Belfast's shipyards, particularly Harland and Wolff where his father and grandfather worked. He also hosts craft beer walks and tours of the Cathedral Quarter.

Although he offers private tours, he said most tourists are happy to take part in group tours.

“My experience is that people don’t mind being part of groups so long as others keep their distance," he said.

"I have introduced radio headsets - I have a transmitter and they have a receiver - so no one has to stand too close.

“I also have a loudspeaker for bigger groups.”

He added: “It’s all outdoors so you’re not taking people into an enclosed space."

He said restrictions on many popular overseas holiday destinations had encouraged people to take breaks closer to home.

“Most of the people (from the Republic and Britain) have made really positive comments, not just about the tour but about Belfast," he said.

"I think a lot of the people would not have normally come if they had other options.

“Lots of people are saying they will definitely be back and can’t believe how much Belfast has to offer.

He added: “Their experience has been much higher than what they were expecting.”

He said tourists particularly enjoyed Belfast’s architecture and history.

“There is some interest in Game of Thrones but the people I speak to are interested in the Troubles and the origins of it," he said.

Mr Walker said he takes pains to give a factual overview of the conflict.

“I am a Blue Badge tour guide,” he said.

“Our objective is to be objective - not take sides but just give the history and facts and figures," he said.

“It’s a balancing act."

For more information on Belfast Walking Tours visit walkingtoursbelfast.com.

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