Buzzy Belfast finds a new op­ti­mism

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projects that are open­ing up new dis­tricts along the city’s wa­ter­side, with the busi­ness hub of City Quays at­tract­ing a grow­ing num­ber of top-end com­pa­nies; and Ti­tanic Quar­ter, a 185-acre de­vel­op­ment in the har­bour, where the world’s most fa­mous ocean liner once set sail.

Tourism con­trib­uted a record­break­ing £926mil­lion to the North­ern Ire­land econ­omy in 2017. Ma­jor con­trib­u­tors were Ti­tanic Belfast, an in­ter­ac­tive at­trac­tion that opened in 2012 in the Quar­ter, as well as the HBO block­buster Game of Thrones, which was filmed on its me­dia cam­pus and con­trib­uted an es­ti­mated £110mil­lion to the econ­omy. It also helped es­tab­lish North­ern Ire­land as a world-class lo­ca­tion for film and TV pro­duc­tion.

“Five years ago, you wouldn’t have seen the ac­tor Liam Nee­son drink­ing in one of the wa­ter­front ho­tel bars but that, along with all the cranes across the sky­line, is a mea­sure of just how much Belfast has moved for­ward,” says Cathy Magov­ern, the mar­ket­ing man­ager for an in­sur­ance com­pany.

“I grew up in Belfast dur­ing the Omagh bomb­ing era, and I have seen the dra­matic changes. It’s far more cos­mopoli­tan than it was be­fore, yet it’s still a small and in­ti­mate city, less touristy and less ex­pen­sive than Dublin, where you pay £13 for a G&T these days.”

Magov­ern has just bought her first home in Lis­burn, to the south-west of the city, a new £150,000 three-bed­room town­house. “I have been look­ing for nearly three years but prices have been fast mov­ing up; the same prop­erty would be £210,000 in a cen­tral Belfast post­code,” she says.

This is still more af­ford­able than in many UK cities. “Belfast is the only UK city not to have re­cov­ered back to its 2007 level at the mar­ket’s peak,” says Neal Mor­ri­son of Sav­ills. Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from Na­tion­wide, prices in North­ern Ire­land are on av­er­age 38 per cent be­low 2007 lev­els, com­pared with the UK av­er­age of 16 per cent above.

To catch up with Dublin, where house prices have been ris­ing fast, “we re­ally do need to have a foothold in Eu­rope af­ter Brexit”, he says, al­lud­ing to the uncer­tainty of the border is­sue. One plus has been the drop in the pound since the ref­er­en­dum, which has given the re­gion’s tourism an ad­van­tage over the Repub­lic of Ire­land.

Other great strides have been made. “Three or four years ago, Belfast didn’t have a big stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, but with the new Ul­ster Uni­ver­sity Belfast cam­pus be­ing built in the city cen­tre, we do,” he adds. “Around 4,000 new stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion rooms are be­ing built, and rental schemes will fol­low, which the city also needs. We have a grow­ing tech sec­tor and R&D mar­ket, and Belfast has be­come the Euro­pean leader in cy­ber se­cu­rity, led by Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast.”

This lo­cal ex­per­tise, com­bined with cheaper oper­at­ing costs than most UK cities, has spurred big in­ter­est from Amer­i­can com­pa­nies, with a de­mand

Belfast Har­bour Ma­rina, main; City Hall, be­low; plans for the Wa­ter­side, be­low right

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