|The border, hard to spot on the ground, is clearly visible from space, as satellite photos show.|
Spare a thought during this fine spell of early summer promise for the poor tourist circling forever on an M1 roundabout at Faughart. Or the other perhaps languishing and lost in the wilds of north Leitrim’s glens, both wandering and wondering how to get to this place called Belfast that their Satellite Navigation systems insist does not even exist.
It is surely a wonder of the modern world that our fickle frontier, unseen by the human eye, is so readily visible to electronic systems, including Google Earth. I have long marvelled that the border appears as a vivid white or yellow line on Google's satellite photos, surely rivalling the Great Wall of China as a man-made structure that is clearly visible from space.
|Even SatNav guide Hugo Duncan gets lost.|
Back on planet Earth, meanwhile, we simply follow the roads across the Border with an occasional nod to the change from kilometres per hour to MPH.
Yet many strangers on our shores do not even realise we are divided between political jurisdictions with their own jealously guarded geographies. They often have to rely on SatNav systems ranging from the dulcet British tones of Tom-Tom to our unique variations with ‘celebrity’ voiceovers featuring among others, Hugo 'the Wee Man from Strabane' Duncan.
|Arlene Foster – not for turning.|
These tourists are bemused at best by our presumption that if they managed to get here, then they should know how to get about. So we leave them to their devices on our labyrinth of highways and byways and expect them to pick up on our nuances of political positioning along the way.
A senior American travel advisor brought this to the notice of the Stormont Executive’s Tourism Minister Arlene Foster this month at a conference organised by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB).
The maid from Magheraveely – about one Irish mile from the Border as the tourist crow flies – wasn’t for turning. She insisted there would be no relinquishing on the ‘unique identity of Northern Ireland’ in the stakes to become 'a global holiday destination' this year.
The problem, as outlined by Roger Brooks, president of Destination Development International, is that we do not appreciate how visitors perceive our island. Add to this our failure to even agree on naming terminology for north and south – or even east and west and all places in between – only adds to the confusion.
A few years ago, there was widespread outrage when a young Canadian visitor was told at the Belfast bus ticket office that she could not board for Derry because no such place existed. The ticket-seller was making a political point, it seems, about our legendary Maiden City and took the consequences, although the problem persists. Our failure to tackle our multiple identity disorder has merely exacerbated the problem and now, it seems, Belfast has disappeared too.
|Just don't key in 'Belfast' and 'Ireland'.|
Roger Brooks, whose Seattle-based company advises countries on how to maximise their tourism potential, told the NITB conference that a funny thing happened to him on his way to the theatre.
He was setting off from Dublin to drive to Belfast using his rented car’s SatNav system: ‘I had to type in the city so I typed in Belfast and then I put in the address of the Merchant Hotel and then do you know what it said? It said there is no Belfast in Ireland.’
The story gets even better, or worse, depending on your vantage: ‘So then I went, let me type in Belfast, United Kingdom, and it said there is no Belfast in the United Kingdom, but we found one in Ohio. So I had to type in Northern Ireland and then it came up.
‘If I put in Ireland, it doesn’t find you,’ Roger Brooks told the conference and the Tourism Minister.
|Giant's Causeway goes missing.|
So in an age of Google holiday planning, the Seattle advisor advised, this probably means that even prime destinations north of the border do not figure under a search for the keyword ‘Ireland’. The Internet itinerary manages to gobble up the Giant’s Causeway, the Mourne Mountains and more and wash them away with Lough Neagh and the Erne, not to mention entire towns and cities.
He advised tourism operators in the north to buy keywords, including ‘Ireland’ so they get a look in.
‘You have to do that because we see Ireland as this great island and we don’t see it as countries,’ Roger Brooks said, ‘so we have a hard time finding your cities using search engines.’
One would expect that should practical advice would be widely noticed and acted upon. Yet the Belfast NewsLetter carried the only report I could find and it even sought a reaction from Minister Foster on what she had heard from Seattle's SatNav explorer.
She could see only one road ahead for her jurisdiction, the NI2012 marketing programme of Tourism Ireland, the joint promotion body set up after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
This, she said, ‘offers a unique opportunity to change perceptions and confidently put Northern Ireland on the global tourism map – and the signs are already encouraging.’
|The Creighton corner in Clones.|
I am reminded, however, of an anecdote from my native town of Clones – about two Irish miles from Arlene Foster's Magheraveely as the tourist crow flies. A local ‘character’ was loitering about the Creighton corner at the foot of Fermanagh Street when a large car pulled up from the Newtownbutler Road. The driver rolled down the window and called out, ‘Could you tell me how to get on the road to Dublin?’ The local guide was dismissive: ‘I wouldn’t bother my arse if I were you,’ says he. ‘Sure if you’ve got yourself lost in Clones, you’ll not have a hope down in Dublin!’