Visitors are coming: fan tourism in Northern Ireland

In the first of a series of blogs on screen tourism, Bethan Jones reflects on the impact fan tourism has had in Northern Ireland thanks to Game of Thrones.

Screen tourism happens when visitors travel to a location because it appeared in, or was used in the production of, a film or television series. Although it’s been popularised by films like Lord of The Rings, screen tourism has been around for much longer: Paul Bolan argues that it was the post-war decades of the 1940s and 50s that saw some of the earliest significant examples of film influencing a desire to travel, citing Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man as a driver for tourism to Vienna, and 1965’s The Sound of Music saw an almost 20% increase in American tourists to Salzburg.

Screen tourism has become a well-established area of research, and this SIGN funded project builds on that. It explores how screen tourism can provide development opportunities for regional screen industries, help develop skills and training across multiple workforces, and offer new and innovative ways to tell stories across physical, interactive and immersive media.

Industry and media reports have highlighted the role screen tourism plays in economic and regional development in the UK. The Guardian reported that Birmingham’s visitor numbers increased by 26% between 2013 and 2018 as a result of the filming of Peaky Blinders, while research by Visit Cornwall found Poldark and Doc Martin were responsible for an increased number of visits to the county and revenue from tourists visiting Highclere Castle after watching Downton Abbey helped fund repairs to the stately building. Screen tourism can clearly have a long-term impact on the regions where filming takes place, just as it can have a long-term impact on the fans who visit there. In this blog I will focus on the economic impact Game of Thrones had on Northern Ireland.

I travelled to Belfast to do some fieldwork on Game of Thrones fan tourism, which included going on three tours run by Game of Thrones Tours. Established by Rob Dowling in 2014 the company offers tours around the Northern Ireland locations used in the series, run by guides who worked as extras on the show. Game of Thrones Tours bills itself as one of the largest Game of Thrones tours in the world, but several tour companies have been set up to offer fans access to filming locations: the Mulhall family, father William and his sons Ross, Caelan, and William Jr, who owned the Northern Inuit dogs used as direwolves in the show, set up Direwolf Tours; Flip Robinson, who was a body double for Hodor and The Mountain, created Giant Tours; and McCombs, which provided cast and crew transport during seasons 1-6, began offering filming locations tours.

In addition to the bus tours around Northern Ireland, however, other experiences were developed. Peak Discovery Group expanded into Game of Thrones tourism with Winterfell Tours, offering immersive experiences including archery at Winterfell (the National Trust’s Castle Ward in real life), a film locations cycle trail, a boat tour and Game of Thrones glamping. Offering Game of Thrones experience meant that Peak Discovery Group could increase its business by nearly 40% between 2014 and 2019 and grow its team from 5 to 16.

Game of Thrones Tours ran 30 buses a week at the height of the show’s popularity, though the Covid-19 pandemic had an impact and in summer 2022 the company was only running seven a week. When I travelled to Belfast in a cold March 2023, however, both bus tours I went on were well-attended with fans from the States and Portugal, as well as the UK.

A tour group is guided through a wood wearing long black cloaks

Game of Thrones Tours

While figures show that 1 in 6 travel to Northern Ireland because of Game of Thrones, it’s not just the tourism industry that has benefited from the show. The second tour I went on was the Glass of Thrones tour, taking in six stained glass windows depicting key themes from Game of Thrones that had been placed around Belfast. Intended to “bring the destination to the attention of Game of Thrones fans around the world”, the windows were funded by Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI in partnership with HBO and were stained by an artist in Bangor, County Down. It was clear the impact the show had on a range of people and industries, both during the time it filmed in the country and afterwards.

Andrew, my guide, told me how students who appeared as extras or were studying film and television production had picked up work experience on the show, and progressed from trainees or extras to experienced crew. Since the series began filming it’s created around 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs in Northern Ireland, “funding and developing a brand new, multi-award winning skilled workforce – from carpenters and armourers to hair stylists and makeup artists”. Northern Ireland’s film and television industry is growing, and recent productions include Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, Dalgliesh and Old Guy. HBO also continues to invest in the country. The Game of Thrones Studio Tour, which I also visited, opened in the show’s original filming location at Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge in February 2022. The Studio Tour, operated in conjunction with Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment, which also runs the Harry Potter Studio Tour, features original sets and props as well as interactive experiences and behind the scenes information on the production and filming of the show. 

A studio tour showing a set covered in rubble

The Game of Thrones Studio Tour

Around 180 staff are employed at the site, which also works with local businesses to bring in goods and services, and offers training opportunities in the creative industries, construction and tourism sectors to local schools and colleges. 

The final season of Game of Thrones aired in 2019 and while a prequel series was ordered by HBO filming has mainly taken place in Spain, Cornwall and Derbyshire. Still, Game of Thrones remains a draw for visitors and of benefit to the economy of Northern Ireland.