Food and Drink Initiative to Attract More Visitors to NI

Ballygally Castle Hotel on the Antrim coast is offering ‘Game of Thrones’ afternoon tea and tourists are flocking there to sample it

Beefy bikers are not generally the type to be found sampling the delights of an afternoon tea in a 17th-century castle. But they are flocking to take part in a very particular gathering at Ballygally Castle Hotel on the Antrim coast.

The hotel has come up with its own version of a Game of Thrones afternoon tea, which capitalises on its location close to where many scenes from the hit television show have been filmed. Thousands of diehard fans of the show visit Northern Ireland every year to walk in the same, often ill-fated, footsteps of members of the Houses of Lannister or Stark.

Along the way it appears many of them, motorbike fans included, are stopping off to enjoy the delights of a Dothraki trifle with mini dragon’s egg, possibly a Winterfell jaffa cake or even a Kingslayer cupcake at Ballygally Castle Hotel.

Game of Thrones has become something of a tourist industry in the North these days and like a growing number of local businesses, it is a masterful marketing ploy by the hotel to theme one of its afternoon teas around the television show.

According to government statistics, food tourism currently contributes about £350 million to the local economy each year. But Tourism NI believes it could get a bigger slice of the “tourist foodie” cake. It is preparing to serve up a new initiative next year which it hopes will attract more people to come and sample a taste of Northern Ireland.

Kathryn Thomson, chief operating officer for Tourism NI, says the Year of Food and Drink 2016 initiative is designed to show visitors what they could be missing out on.

Thomson believes Northern Ireland has a well deserved reputation when it comes to world class food and drink production: the problem is not everybody knows about it yet.

She says the success local companies enjoyed in the recent 2015 Great Taste Awards – the influential, industry-wide competition which takes place each year to select the best food and drink in the UK and Ireland – speaks for itself. Some 70 Northern Ireland products won awards.

Thomson believes the food and drink initiative will help to celebrate what Northern Ireland has to offer, not least the two Michelin stars which arrived in Belfast last month – for Ox on Oxford Street, and Eipic on Howard Street, which is owned by the restaurateur and chef Michael Deane.

While Deane thinks the idea of next year’s food and drink initiative is wonderful, he is hoping is that it develops a “bit more of an edgier feel” to it and also gets the people on board who are making things happen in the food and drink sector – and not just civil servants.

“Northern Ireland is not just about wheaten bread and Guinness. It is a lot more cutting edge. There are no Michelin stars in Manchester, none in Glasgow, but we have two in Belfast and this initiative should be about the people who know the industry inside out, who understand it.

“The idea is wonderful but is it being delivered with enough passion? I believe if you can’t do something right, you shouldn’t do it at all,” he says.