The Isle of Man government has invested up to £70m in a brand-new ferry terminal in Liverpool which puts our own terminal in Belfast to shame.
Despite being delayed, the Liverpudlian ferry terminal is due to open next March and the route will operate a new £78m Diesel-electric hybrid ferry, called the MANXMAN, which will come into service this week.
This new flagship of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company is getting its final outfit in Southampton having travelled over 10,000 nautical miles from South Korea. Once in service, it will have a greater passenger capacity than the older ships and attract new visitors to the island.
The Isle of Man has been a longtime favourite for Northern Irish tourists, particularly during the TT motorcycle race fortnight. But the birthplace of the Gibb brothers, famed for their many Bee Gees’ hits, like ‘Stayin’ Alive’, has much more to offer.
The island’s capital, Douglas, has echoes of Portrush or Portstewart, with its long strand and impressive promenade, lined with 5 storey terrace townhouses looking out to sea. A short walk to the refurbished marine quarter, the Quay, provides a contrast to the traditional seafront with modern style comprising of thriving pubs and restaurants.
The place has an understated grandeur to it, where Art Deco buildings sit side-by-side with functional office or apartment blocks, making a collage of seaside living. But thankfully it hasn’t succumbed to Northern Ireland’s obsession with obtaining awards and world rankings for its tourist attractions. Unless our shipbuilding museum is the best in Europe, with the highest visitor numbers, or our rocky causeway has secured World Heritage status, they are not marketed to an international audience. And our golf courses are not golf courses unless they have hosted a major international golfing competition with Rory McIlroy striding down the fairway.
Despite being appealing, Douglas’s attractions are a little more traditional. Its historic steam train station, which is located just north of the marina, takes passengers south to the towns of Castletown and Port St Mary. The former town was the island’s original capital and is also home to the impressive Castle Rushen, which is thought to date back to the 10th-century. During the English Civil War the castle was one of the final strongholds of the Royalist cause of King Charles l, before being taken by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary forces.
Venturing to the north of Douglas, a quaint horse-drawn tram and an electric train weave their way out of towns and northwards towards the famous, and instantly recognisable, Laxey Wheel. Even if you know nothing of The Isle of Man you will be familiar with the huge 22m diameter wheel which was used to pump water from the Glen Mooar section of the Great Laxey Mines. After alighting from the Douglas train at the village of Laxey it is necessary to make a change to the mountain railway which ascends to the higher peaks of Snaefell. Just short of the summit the rail line crosses over part the famous TT motorbike racetrack. During my own visit, the top of the mountain was shrouded in low clouds, but was still outstanding, nonetheless.
Unlike Belfast, The Isle of Man is not a top destination for ravers or party-goers, but it has the feel of a place that is determined to grow and prosper. Housebuilding is evident across the 30m long island, giving it a sense of active progression. Its natural charm and understated beauty make it an ideal destination for a family vacation or for small group of travellers eager to relax and experience both traditional and modern modes of transport.
Undoubtably, both our tourism sectors, in Northern Ireland and in The Isle of Man, have a huge amount of untapped potential and, therefore, improving our transport and tourism links can only benefit both of our industries. Perhaps we could take a leaf out of our smaller neighbour’s playbook and celebrate our traditional seaside resorts and smaller destinations as well as our well-known landmark attractions.
Afterall, Glenarm Castle’s Walled Garden has been shortlisted for the prestigious award of Historic Houses’ Garden of the Year. Ballycastle’s beach was named as one of the top seven beaches in the UK, and the Navan Centre & Fort are considered the top visitor attraction in Armagh. We have strength in depth when it comes to wooing visitors from overseas. We must, therefore, ask ourselves, if Liverpool is getting a new state-of-the-art ferry terminal, then why can’t Belfast’s terminal be redeveloped?
The existing ferry terminal in Belfast is functional but lacks the type of top-end facilities that would attract greater volumes of visitors to both Northern Ireland and The Isle of Man. Disembarkation of foot-passengers can also take slightly longer than necessary for the current fleet of ships.
Therefore, when Stormont finally returns, and I really hope it does, one of its tasks should be to lobby The Isle of Man government to invest in Belfast’s ferry terminal. There is no doubt that Liverpool is leading the way, but Belfast can also benefit from the reinvention of Irish Sea travel.
Cllr Brian Pope is a Chartered Civil Engineer and a former councillor on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council