Belfast’s rich and often troubled history, its maritime tradition and its intriguing Victorian architecture may prove to be a pulling point for many visitors. But there is no doubt that it’s the city’s newer attractions, particularly its growing number of shopping venues, which are helping to attract record numbers of tourists to the city.

Latest research from Belfast City Council shows an unprecedented 1.7 million people visited the city last year and spent £436.5 million (€507 million) during their stay. The figures show the overall number of visitors to the city rose by just 3 per cent in 2008 – but the volume of people visiting from outside of Northern Ireland increased by 43 per cent.

The number of people making “day trips” to Belfast grew by an incredible 143 per cent. According to tourism chiefs visitors from the Republic of Ireland accounted for more than 80 per cent of day trippers travelling to Belfast and also made up almost a quarter of those staying overnight.

This represents massive growth for Belfast over the previous 12 months – in 2007 visitors from the South accounted for 33 per cent of all day trippers to the city.

The euro-fuelled tourism boom, or the “Ikea-effect” as it is affectionately referred to in the city, has proved to be a life-saver for businesses in Belfast, particularly for the city’s hotels and restaurants, many of which have suffered because of the local economic downturn.

Rising unemployment and fears over job security have put a dampener generally on personal spending in the North and pubs and restaurants have been among the hardest hit. But Belfast has fared better than most.

According to councillor William Humphrey, chairman of Belfast’s development committee, the influx of visitors from across the Border made 2008 one the best years on record for tourism growth. “This growth can be largely attributed to the growing number of visitors from the Republic of Ireland, many of them taking advantage of the strength of the euro against sterling, especially in the run-up to last Christmas,” he added.

But it was not just euro-spending day-trippers which helped boost Belfast’s tourism revenues last year, the city also won more than a respectable share of conference business. Organisations ranging from the children’s group Early Years to the UK Institute for Small Business Entrepreneurs brought thousands of delegates to the city last year.

The latest tourism research shows that holiday and business visits were the main reason why the majority of people visited the city for more than a day.

Holidays accounted for 62 per cent of visitors from the Republic and 44 per cent of those from North America but business trips also brought 73 per cent of European visitors to the city.

Conference delegates tended to spend more on eating out and accommodation than holiday tourists but there is no arguing with the overall financial contribution tourists and visitors in general are now delivering for the city. The transformation in Belfast from a tourist no-go-zone to a must-visit destination has had a marked impact in the overall character and outlook of the city.

The fact that, this year, for the first time, stores, restaurants and pubs in Belfast city will stay open for business on the annual July Twelfth parades shows just how determined the city is to embrace its tourism potential.

This year’s “Orangefest” aims to be “a family friendly pageant”. It may not appeal to everyone but tourists visiting Belfast for the first time on July 13th this year, which is when the Twelfth will be commemorated, will find a city unrecognisable from where it was a decade ago. Belfast is at last open for business when it comes to tourism – whether it is the lure of Ikea or the possibility of Titanic experiences that bring visitors to the city.