A City in Transition

Can Belfast be mentioned in the same breath as London, Paris, Madrid and Rome?

It’s not difficult to trot off a list of cool, uber-chic European cities. London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Rome. They pretty much trickle off the tongue. But is it conceivable that Belfast could ever be mentioned in the same breath as these tourist-magnet destinations? Well, just maybe it can…

A decade ago the ceasefire came and we relished in the fresh wave of optimism that cascaded over Northern Ireland. Plans of endless reshaping to our city became evident. We saw new pubs, clubs, entertainment centres and concert halls—along with huge interest from major European retailers, eager to tap into a previously untouched financial well.

Very fancy indeed, but it brings me to an enlightening moment concerning myself, as I strolled down Royal Avenue one day last year—sporting a pair of huge fluffy boots. There I was minding my own business, when a fully-grown woman lunged her bespectacled face towards mine and sneered, ‘Look at the state of you!’ As she marched past me in her perfectly pressed business suit, I was shocked, disappointed—but also intrigued.

Okay, so we are injecting major amounts of cash into Belfast, were making it a better place to be, aided by television ads and calls for more tourists to climb aboard—but do the inhabitants and consumers of Belfast really have the mentality to make it a stand out city of culture and diversity? Or, as my little story would suggest, are we still a place of insularity, crippled by too many years of intolerance?

There is much to be hopeful about in Northern Ireland. Belfast may still be a cut above every other town in the country, but no longer is it the only option. No longer is every other town an identikit carbon copy of the next when it comes to shopping—shoe shop, music store, Harry Corry’s then McDonalds. There has been a vast improvement. It’s an improvement many predicted. You can’t keep a good place down —or its people. Good things come to those who wait and waited we have.

A fine example of a resurgent city is Barcelona. The capital of Catalonia is currently a hotspot for tourists, but it was the city’s hosting of the 1992 Olympics that acted as a catalyst to this transformation. This historically industrial city has seen an economic boom and really come into its own. It received a major make-over—improving tourist facilities and transforming buildings.  It now stands as a vibrant, exciting city—arguably eclipsing even the Spanish capital, Madrid.

The Belfast boom has been underway for some time now. It has overseen the construction of the Odyssey complex—a remarkable building perched by the side of the River Lagan. It houses restaurants, night-clubs and a 15,000 capacity sports and music arena. For the first time we’ve seen Belfast have the ability to pull in some of the worlds biggest pop and rock stars.

The new age of couture culture is starting to pick up speed. Trendy Spanish based company Zara now sits proudly in Belfast’s city centre. Its country mate Mango is on it’s way too. Habitat left Belfast just over five years ago—only to come back last August.

It’s not just Belfast that’s bearing the fruits of a twenty-first century of (relative) peace and prosperity. Within the last few weeks the huge retailer H & M opened in Craigavon. There are rumours of John Lewis setting up a home in the province, while Antrim’s Junction One remains full of potential—although it hasn’t really fulfilled it as of yet.

All exciting stuff, but the question remains - is Belfast finally creeping up with other cities?  Perhaps the announcement last year of possible plans for IKEA to open a store here is proof of that, but it seems the ‘will it, wont it?’ fuss over the hugely popular furniture mega-store will keep us hanging on for another while. I got in contact with the Swedish company’s press office, only to be told they can’t release any information, as they haven’t submitted any planning permission yet. Spoilsports.

However, let me make one thing clear. It isn’t all about money and investment. The Czech Republic is a relatively humble country when it comes to the harsh measuring stick of economics, but its capital, Prague, is a wonderful city that has become a popular destination for many globe trotters. It may not be able to match the shopping big-hitters of Paris and New York, but it has warmth, beauty and character—and most importantly of all it is a city that embraces and welcomes travelling out-of- towners.

Belfast, with its new shops and buildings and the exciting possibilities of future arrivals, has the potential to grow into an outstanding city. But do we yet have the right mentality? I asked ordinary shoppers on the streets of Belfast if they felt the change. ‘I don’t know why anyone would come here’. ‘Nice Buildings, will they be used?’, were the kind of views that surfaced over and over again.

The new Belfast may satisfy the local shoppers—perhaps because we aren’t used to being part of a city of genuine eclectic differences—but what about the tourists? While there’s no doubt we’ve seen an upturn in oversees guests, is it greedy to ask we go that further mile and do all we can to attract even more? New York has Bloomingdales. London has Harrods. Perhaps what Belfast needs is that one killer store that will bring them flocking. Even Dublin has the designer cool of the Brown Thomas department store. What about us? Castle Court is good for a weekend amble, but would anyone in Europe be aware of its retail charms? I doubt it.

Right now Belfast is in transition. Its people are reaping the benefits of an exciting new city, new clubs, stores and attractions. We are slowly reaching a point of being satisfied with our capital. Lisburn or Coleraine are not just pale imitations of the Belfast shopping experience. There is choice and difference, but will it pull through? Rejuvenation not only means a new look—it needs to mean a change of mentality in the inhabitants.

We still harbour a negative—and not very PR friendly—image of our nation, and it’s one we need to shake off. Northern Ireland is no longer the bomb-ridden shell it once was. The Northern Irish are humble, friendly people. Ask any tourist—I’m sure they’ll agree. But right now change needs to start at home. Not only does the cash injection need to keep on coming, but we, as people, need to think more progressively. Our mindsets need to be more flexible, more cosmopolitan, more… European?

It won’t happen overnight, but we need to believe that one day Belfast will sit snugly within the catalogue of those great cities mentioned in my opening paragraph. Some may dismiss it as a long shot, but confidence gets you far.

Better believe it.

By Joanne Woods