Game of Thrones set draws tourists to Ireland

Giants, dragons and vengeful queens have populated Northern Ireland's folk tales for generations.

Now, such creatures are visiting the land in a different version - on the sets for the hit TV show Game of Thrones.

But rather than spells and destruction, they're bringing an economic boost to this British province still healing from its past of political violence.

Fans of the HBO fantasy drama will 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 the show's presence has helped foster a film industry that is catching the eye of other Hollywood productions.

And Northern Ireland is taking advantage of the attention by promoting the filming locations as tourist destinations.

The latest - and perhaps most illustrious - visitor is Queen Elizabeth II, who toured the studio sets. But thousands have already been visiting from across the globe.

US tourists Cara and Tom Collins 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 7.09 million viewers in the United States according to prime-time viewership numbers complied by the Nielson Co. That makes it HBO's most-watched program since The Sopranos in 2007.

But the numbers are likely higher since TV audience habits have changed since 2007 and Game of Thrones has fans globally who watch on local networks and via DVD or streaming services.

For Northern Ireland's tourism industry, that represents a huge pool of potential visitors. The province hopes to use the show's popularity to increase the number of tourists to over 2 million annually by 2016, from 1.8 million in 2013 - more than the region's population of just 1.8 million.

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 (A$158.4 million) in the local economy making the show. The benefits are likely much higher when including other factors, such as the knock-on benefits from higher employment.

Statistics can't do justice to the Game of Thrones effect on Northern Ireland's economy, says economist Graham Brownlow, from Queens University Belfast. He says the show is 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 says. "By creating a critical mass for film and TV productions it creates a good image for Northern Ireland, which stimulates further production in Northern Ireland, which improves the image of Northern Ireland.

That critical mass now includes Dracula Untold, a Universal Pictures movie with an October 2014 release date and Ridley Scott's new Halo feature, which is also expected to be released before the end of the year.