Mass invasion of 'Throners' sparks tourism bonanza
For diehard fans of the epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones, a visit to these shores is now a 'bucket list' pilgrimage.
The fifth series of HBO's hit fantasy drama is back this month and looks set to spark a further tourism boost.
'Throners' from across the globe have travelled in huge numbers to Northern Ireland - visiting the locations used in the Emmy award-winning show.
But there's also a lucrative spin-off for the Republic with many international visitors venturing south of the border or basing themselves in the south and then travelling north to visit the sets.
When international visitors started booking trips to see the spectacular backdrops, tourism operators were initially caught on the hop.
But in the last two years, a number of operators both in the North and in the Republic have begun catering specifically for Throner tourists, including the Game of Thrones Tour, which runs from both Belfast and Dublin.
Fans of the often gory and sexually explicit drama can also enjoy a banquet at 'Winterfell,' take in the castles of 'Westeros' on a boat tour and experience a Game of Thrones themed 'glamping' minibreak.
They can and even meet the actual 'dire wolves', which feature in the series.
"The positive effect of Game of Thrones on tourism in Northern Ireland has been significant with at least seven new tours and visitor experiences having started operating in the last 18 months, with one reporting an additional 10,000 customers in 2014 on top of their normal business," Tourism Northern Ireland's culture and creative vibe development manager, Martin Graham, told the Sunday Independent.
The Game of Thrones television series is based on George RR Martin's series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. It is shot in Titanic Studios, Belfast and Linenmill Studios, Banbridge, alongside other locations in Northern Ireland, including Downhill Beach, Tollymore Forest, Ballintoy Harbour and Castle Ward.
Northern Ireland Screen, Tourism Ireland, the hospitality industry and Tourism Northern Ireland have now joined forces to cash in of the cult following.
"When people see our Jurassic coastlines, crumbling castles, stately homes, mountains, forests and cityscapes on the TV, they see into the heart of our tourism offering, and that is something we are very keen to capitalise on," Laura McCorry, the Tourism Northern Ireland director of product development, explained.
"I think it's fair to say that if a fraction of these people get curious enough to take a trip to the locations they've seen on screen then we can expect to see more of these types of tourists in Northern Ireland," she said.
Game of Thrones is consistently one of the most searched terms on the Tourism Northern Ireland website, which features a dedicated web section and a 'Real Westeros' downloadable Game of Thrones film location trail map.
Game of Thrones' fifth series will air in the US on April 12, and viewers in the UK and Ireland can catch it on Sky Atlantic on April 13. The latest series will feature one of Ireland's best-known models, Latvian-born Irma Mali, in her biggest acting break to date.
Game of Thrones' seasons one to four have been shown in over 70 countries worldwide and now boasts 18.4 million viewers, 13 million Facebook fans and 1.8 million followers on Twitter.
During the filming of seasons one to three, an estimated £65m (€88m) was spent on goods and services on location in Northern Ireland.
'Game of Thrones: The Exhibition' at Belfast Waterfront in June 2013 attracted more than 18,000 visitors over just 10 days, with more than 30pc of these tickets sold to out-of-state visitors.
Last year, 11,000 tickets for the event were sold in just two hours.
Season four delivered the show's biggest audience to date, with the series première in April 2014 drawing in 6.6 million same-night viewers during its initial broadcast, making it HBO's most-watched programme since The Sopranos' series finale, which had 11.9 million same-night viewers in 2007.
Game of Thrones' has been the most pirated television programme worldwide for the last three years.
There are 11 key filming locations in Northern Ireland, which have been used throughout the series.