Tour operators hope House of the Dragon will end long winter of low visitor numbers
In 2019, Northern Ireland seemed set for a sunlit future of Games of Thrones-themed tourism.
Devotees of the HBO fantasy series flocked to the show’s locations in castles, forests and harbours, spending £30m each year, with more expected once an official studio tour opened in County Down.
Then, to paraphrase the show’s trademark phrase, winter came. The eighth and final season disappointed fans, cooling ardour for the franchise. Then Covid-19 hit, freezing international travel. Tour companies went into hibernation.
Now, with this week’s launch of the show’s prequel, House of the Dragon, and the recovery of international travel, Northern Ireland hopes to bask again in the reflected glory of Westeros.
“We’re all hopeful that the Game of Thrones world will get its mojo back with the new show,” said Rob Dowling, managing director of Game of Thrones Tours, which runs coaches from Belfast and Dublin.
“It went through a very painful phase for a few years when nobody had anything good to say about it. Season eight was a huge disappointment,” said Dowling, echoing accusations that the original show lost its edge by letting so many protagonists survive. “People felt it had sold out.”
The first episode of House of the Dragon – which airs on Sky Atlantic in the UK – won largely positive reviews and stoked hopes that it will capture the spirit of George RR Martin’s sprawling novels. “There is a history of these big franchises recovering,” said Dowling, citing Star Wars.
From 30 coaches a week in 2019, his company now runs just seven. But Dowling is optimistic about a rebound. This week he took bookings for next year: “It’s only August. I’ve never seen that before.”
He was unsure whether to credit the new show, the end of travel restrictions or the opening in February of the Warner Bros and Linen Mill Studios’ studio tour in Banbridge, a 110,000-square-foot immersive experience that includes sets, props and scale replicas of the frozen North, King’s Landing and other settings.
Brad Kelly, the studio tour’s general manager, said visitor numbers rose this summer. “Whether it’s seasonal or the new show, it’s hard to say at the moment. Our hope is that the show will draw the global audience back into the world of Game of Thrones.”
House of the Dragon was filmed in England, Spain and Portugal – not Northern Ireland – but Kelly said Northern Ireland’s landscape was stamped in the fictional world of Westeros: “It’s a character.” The studio hopes to exhibit props and costumes from the new show in the near future.
Meanwhile, HBO is considering another spin-off show focusing on the character of Jon Snow.
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Tour operators are crossing their fingers for an upsurge. Norman Reilly, owner of Taxi Tours Belfast, said the numbers of visitors wanting to see the Dark Hedges and other locations had not recovered since 2019. “We’re hoping that will begin to change.”
Caroline McComb, director of McComb’s Coach Travel, predicted that the prequel, which focuses on the Targaryen dynasty, would boost numbers. “It keeps Game of Thrones in the forefront of people’s minds, and that can only be a good thing.”
This week, Belfast International Airport displayed a willow throne – a replica of the Iron Throne that was woven in 2019 and which usually resides at the Ulster Museum – to promote the spin-off. The museum has also put back on display an 87-metre woven and embroidered Game of Thrones tapestry that was made in 2017.
Elio Garcia, who helps run the fan site Westeros.org, welcomed any boost to the region’s tourism. “We’ve been to Northern Ireland several times … [and] were impressed by how the tourism and screen boards, and above all the locals, embraced the show. We’re glad to hear that tour operators are starting to see an uptick ahead of the new show.”
Garcia said he would like to return to Northern Ireland despite his disappointment with Game of Thrones. “I would still gladly visit myself to check out the studio tour, even though my own issues with the show led me to stop watching part way through.”

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