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Game of Thrones reigns supreme in Northern Ireland's tourism boom
Belfast, Northern Ireland
WIELDING a replica broadsword, Indian tourist Akshay Mannur duels with friends - re-enacting scenes from Game of Thrones on the Northern Ireland pilgrimage trail for devotees of the blockbuster fantasy TV show.
Since the blood and guts series began its rise to prominence in 2011, fans have started to flock to the coastal caves and ruined castles of the British province where much of the HBO television production was shot.
"Every new step is like something new, it's more than my expectations," 23-year-old student Mannur marvelled. "It's a beautiful country - Northern Ireland is just amazing."
Northern Ireland estimates the magical show - in its final season - drew 120,000 visitors to the province in 2016, generating about £30 million (S$52.8 million).
One in six visitors now comes to Northern Ireland to visit shooting locations, according to their estimates. Along the largely coastal trail, a short drive outside the capital of Belfast, that popularity is clear to see.
A steady hum of buses and coaches are marshalled in and out of parking lots on strict schedules, and sleepy village shops thronged by tourists.
"The last week, I think on Saturday past, we had a bus with 24 nationalities on it," said tour guide Patrick Rogan at the mouth of the Cushendun Caves, the site of a pivotal plot point in the series.
"We had people from Patagonia, from New Zealand, from Japan, from Russia, from South Korea and Europe, so I think that tells its own story."
Since 2012 his employer - the Stones and Thrones tour - has offered daily outings out of Belfast, manned mainly by guides who have acted as extras on the show.
These days they run at least two full buses a day, he said, competing with at least four other companies offering a similar service.
Other more bespoke tour services offer immersive experiences - axe-throwing, archery, and photo opportunities with a pair of wolves that starred in the epic series.
A popular comparison holds that Game of Thrones is to Northern Ireland tourism what Lord of the Rings has been to New Zealand.
But Northern Ireland's very recent bloody past during the so-called Troubles - when 3,500 were killed in 30 years of sectarian strife - makes the boom particularly welcome.
"The dark history that was here is coming out," said Irish actor Liam Cunningham, a stalwart character in the series now feted as the most expensive to ever be filmed for the small screen. "The place is blooming, and for us to have this show here and be part of that transition is joyful."
Mr Cunningham was speaking at the opening of a touring exhibition of costume and scenery pieces in Belfast, the same week as the new season of the series premiered.
Ranked displays of dragon skulls, intricately crafted weapons and interactive exhibits are preceded by a gallery of landscape prints, depicting the countryside shooting locations.
A caption on one image reads "Views to die horribly for", while another reads "Sun, sea and savagery", referring to the show's reputation for bloodily killing off major characters.
They are testament to the canny local tourist board, making efforts to cement the link between their territory and the series.
"I think our association with such a global success helps to transform the image of Northern Ireland across the globe," said John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland.
"In many ways that gives you PR that you just simply couldn't buy." With the final season of Game of Thrones under way, the fever pitch devotion to the series may be about to end.
But with spin-off projects in the pipeline and a studio tour development due to open in Northern Ireland next year, the province still hopes for tourism revenues.
"We think this still has longevity," said Mr McGrillen. AFP