Buzzy Belfast finds a new optimism
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