Will tourists follow James Nesbitt’s murder trail along the Ards Peninsula?

Henry McDonald
·4-min read


Along a crooked finger-shaped peninsula between a lough created by the ice age and the Irish Sea, locals are hoping for a post-pandemic tourism boost from a dark new TV drama about a Troubles-era killer emerging again in the present day.

Hoteliers, distillers, B&B owners and others living on the Ards Peninsula believe the BBC-produced Bloodlands will do for their bucolic corner of Northern Ireland what the global fantasy series Game of Thrones has done for other parts of the region.

Over the past decade, some of the most lavish scenes from GoT were shot in the north of Ireland and tourists from 145 countries have visited key film locations, such as the Giant’s Causeway, in that time.

With GoT generating an estimated £50m per annum in tourist revenue, pre-coronavirus, economists say the area around Strangford Lough in County Down could exploit a “Bloodlands bounce” from this latest BBC thriller.

It stars local actor James Nesbitt as Tom Brannick, a veteran detective in the Police Service of Northern Ireland who is on the hunt for a killer last active during the Troubles, known as “Goliath”. Screening on Sundays on BBC1 at 9pm, its first episode last week attracted almost six million viewers across the UK.

Mary Arthurs, who, along with her husband, has owned the 14-bedroom Portaferry Hotel for the last five years, said it was “perfect timing” that Bloodlands was being screened at the moment.

“Like many other businesses, we were planning for 2020 thinking it would be big year for us but, of course, along came Covid-19. We’ve needed something to give this beautiful area a push and now we have a programme seen by millions with this special place all over it. It might be a dark story but, as they say, all publicity is good publicity in this trade, especially with the prospect of us being allowed to open up again in May or June,” she said.

At the Echlinville Distillery, between the villages of Kircubbin and Portaferry on the lough shore, Peter Rogan was examining a tot of Dunville Whiskey, which is made from grain grown on fields nearby on the peninsula.

“We had great plans for 2020,” he said. “It was to be our major push for tourists with loads of coach bookings, with visitors who wanted to sample the whiskey, the Jawbox gin and the poitín [a powerful spirit once illegal that is made from Irish potatoes] distilled here on site. But coronavirus killed all that off.”

Rogan said Bloodlands had at least showcased the beauty of the lough and peninsula and that it couldn’t have come a better time as “we are hopefully seeing a chance now of getting out of lockdown”.

He said that between the first lockdown and last summer the distillery, in the absence of an international market for its products, switched to meeting the Covid-19-driven demand for hand gels.

Rogan added: “One of the advantages we have down here is that we are only a 40-minute drive to Belfast. Now, you have several million people across Britain who have seen the beauty of this place, our unique topography, our unique climate, and that has to be harnessed to give this place a tourism boost. You have some of the most stunning scenery anywhere on these islands and it is so accessible from ports and airports. Hopefully, after the year we’ve gone through, we will experience a ‘Bloodlands effect’.”

Graham Brownlow, a senior economist at Queen’s University Belfast, said that despite the show’s menacing undercurrent, cult dark detective stories set in specific locations can still attract tourists.

“I think the best parallel here is with Ian Rankin’s detective Rebus and his character’s impact on his native Edinburgh. Rebus’s popularity has brought new types of visitors to the Scottish capital, to poorer, darker parts of that city that were not on Edinburgh’s traditional tourist trail.

“As well as being impressed by the gorgeous scenery around the lough there will be other potential tourists attracted by the prospect of travelling around the drama’s most important locations, too.

“There is also, of course, the Game of Thrones parallel and the way it has brought in millions. All the figures indicate that about £250m [has been generated] since the show was broadcast.”

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney acknowledged the magnetic effect the area exercises on those who first visit it during the early 70s in his poem The Peninsula:

Related: Bloodlands: location of BBC drama kept secret to avoid tourist influx

“When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive

But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you’re in the dark again. Now recall…”

Tourism-reliant businesses and entrepreneurs battered by Covid-19 will be hoping that those who have seen the peninsula’s picturesque shorelines, some of its 365 mini-islands and its soft rolling landscapes through the dark lens of Bloodlands will recall them all when they book their post-lockdown holidays.