Game of Thrones puts Northern Ireland on tourist map
Popular TV series brings huge economic boost to province as tourists flock to filming locations
Giants, dragons and vengeful queens have for generations populated Northern Ireland's folk tales. Now, such creatures are visiting the land in a different version - on the sets for the hit television show Game of Thrones.
But rather than spells and destruction, they are bringing an economic boost to the British province still healing from its past of political violence.
Fans of the HBO fantasy drama would recognise the landscapes from the fictional land of Westeros - the castle of Winterfell, the seaside cliffs of the Iron Isles and the King's Road leading to the north.
About 75 per cent of the show is filmed in Northern Ireland, both in natural settings and in the Titanic Studios in Belfast.
Since the pilot episode began filming in 2009, attracted by the local government's financial incentives, the show has helped foster a film industry that is catching the eye of other Hollywood productions. And Northern Ireland is taking advantage by promoting the filming locations as tourist destinations.
The latest - and perhaps most illustrious - visitor is Queen Elizabeth, who will tour the studio sets today. But thousands have already been visiting from across the globe.
Cara and Tom Collins, from Springdale, Arkansas, were in Ballintoy Harbour recently to see the rocky coastal setting used in the show for the Iron Isles, a kingdom of rugged sailors.
"You can just close your eyes and picture everybody there," said Tom.
The season-four finale of Game of Thrones last week was watched by seven million viewers in the US, making it HBO's most-watched programme since The Sopranos in 2007.
For Northern Ireland's tourism industry, that and a huge global audience represents a huge pool of potential visitors.
The province hopes to use the show's popularity to increase the number of tourists to more than two million annually by 2016, from 1.8 million in 2013.
Coach operators have created Game of Thrones tours, for which demand hit a record as the show reached its season finale this month.
"They are using some of our most iconic scenery in Game of Thrones, which is excellent," said Arlene Foster, minister for enterprise, trade and investment.
Beyond tourism, the direct employment of local workers has been very important for the local economy, she said.
At the end of series four, HBO is estimated to have spent about £87.6 million (HK$1.15 billion) in the local economy making the show. The benefits are likely much higher when including other factors, such as the benefits from higher employment.
Statistics can't do justice to the Game of Thrones effect on Northern Ireland's economy, said economist Graham Brownlow, from Queens University Belfast. He said the show was helping to improve the province's international image, which for decades had become synonymous with political violence and economic stagnation.
"The real benefits that Northern Ireland secures are the things that are most difficult to measure," he explained.
"By creating a critical mass for film and television productions, it creates a good image for Northern Ireland, which stimulates further production in Northern Ireland, which improves the image of Northern Ireland."