These NI tourist guides say it’s the best job ever

NITGA members Emma Downey Burns and Bronagh Masoliver with chairperson Catherine Burns (centre).

Catherine Burns loves Northern Ireland; her passion for the place is evident in the way she talks about her job as a tourist guide, introducing people from all over the world to the many charms on offer in our little Province.

“I love showing people around, I take great pride in it,” said the Belfast woman.

“I get a great sense of fulfilment out of visitors’ reactions when they realise everything that we have and the fact it’s so close at hand. You don’t have to travel for days, or indeed hours, to get anywhere.

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Catherine Burns

“The visitors tell their family, they tell their friends. Tourist guides are great ambassadors for our country, we are able to bring alive the culture, history and stories that make us unique.

“We are often the first local people that visitors may meet and it’s important that we give a lasting impression and a warm welcome.”

Catherine is chairperson of the Northern Ireland Tourist Guide Association (NITGA), which has been showcasing the Province’s history, culture and beauty to visitors for the last 30 years.

Virginia Moriarty, one of the founding members of NITGA, explained the organisation grew out of the very first Blue Badge tourist guide course run at Queen’s University in 1991/92.

Min Shen

“About a dozen of us took this course and when it finished, we wanted to keep working together to develop tourism and professional guiding in Northern Ireland,” she explained.

Northern Ireland Tourist Guide Association celebrates 30th anniversary

Virginia added: “We started at just the right time. In the 90s Northern Ireland was changing and more visitors were coming, which gave us the chance to tell them our story.

“Many people had perceptions about what they were coming to see. This was our chance to show them around and tell them about our history and culture. We tried to answer every question and explain the background. The reaction was simply fantastic. The beauty of our country and the standard of our visitor attractions is second to none. I’ve loved every single second of my work as a tourist guide.”

Mairead Sweeney

A number of factors helped boost visitor numbers: the arrival of the cruise ships in the mid-90s, the increased numbers of visitors doing tours of the whole island, the new attractions like Titanic and of course the interest in ‘Game of Thrones’.

The NITGA members rose to the challenge of the changing market and developed new tours and skills.

Becoming a tourist guide was a ‘total career change’ for Catherine, who had worked for 25 years as head of transport services for the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company.

“Whilst I was still working full-time in 2015 I went to Hillsborough Castle as an explainer. It was just for a couple of hours a week at the weekend.

“Then I was told about the Blue Badge Tourist Guiding course. I was interviewed and then signed up for that.”

Catherine secured her qualification, started guiding with NITGA, and hasn’t looked back.

“I love it, it is absolutely great. We are selling Northern Ireland – that’s our goal.

“We are trained for the whole of Northern Ireland. Part of my training was on Londonderry’s walls, Enniskillen, Armagh.

“Last summer I was all over the place when the cruise ships came in.

“I spent a week taking a group of Filipino doctors around Northern Ireland.

“I did the itineraries for them, making sure they saw the things they wanted to see.

“They loved the countryside and the food and the people, because we are just known for the warmth of our welcome here in Northern Ireland.”

And of the qualities required to be a tourist guide, she said: “I honestly think you need to really like meeting people, you need to like history 
and imparting that and you need to have a love of what you are doing.”

The Chinese man who left IT job to become a NI tourist guide

Min Shen is besotted with Northern Ireland, and has a special place in his heart for the Dark Hedges.

“It is so beautiful there and there is so much history attached to the area.”

Min, who is originally from China, has been living in Northern Ireland for 23 years. He studied at Queen’s, then worked in the IT industry.

But after deciding he didn’t want to be an IT engineer for the rest of his life, and having a passion for the history and culture of Northern Ireland, he decided to take a different career path and became a qualified Blue Badge tourist guide in 2016.

Min, who is one of a number of foreign language tourist guides, can speak to groups in Mandarin and Cantonese, and he is something of an expert on ‘Game of Thrones’, as well as local history and culture.

He takes visitors from mainland China on tours, as well as overseas Chinese people living in the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

“Quite a lot of tours come from the UK, with international students coming over here to visit the the ‘Game of Thrones’ movie sites, like Tollymore Park or the Dark Hedges, or the Banbridge studios.

“There is such a big audience market in Asia for ‘Game of Thrones’, especially China.”

Min, who is affable and loves a joke, said he likes to make the atmosphere on his tours “comfortable and friendly”.

“To be a good tourist guide you have to love this job, enjoy what you are doing, and you have to be a people person, you have to be customer-orientated.”

Former teacher Mairead ‘honoured’ to be an ambassador for NI

Former French and Spanish teacher Mairead Sweeney loves being a tourist guide, a role she has had since 2017, after taking redundancy.

Being a guide incorporates many of the skills she had from her teaching days.

“I was always bringing language assistants over, showing them around different parts of Northern Ireland, organising exchange visits, planning itineraries for them, and I just loved doing that work. I loved being with people.”

So for Mairead, who lives in Loughinisland, becoming a tourist guide was a “natural progression”.

“I feel so lucky that I found the right time to get into the profession. Everything fell into place.”

She added: “I could never have believed that there is so much variety in the work and then just getting the chance to use my languages and to plan itineraries, for all of those reasons, it’s something I feel and honoured to be doing. I am so proud to be showing off the country.”

Prior to the pandemic, most of Mairead’s tours would have been in French and Spanish, taking school groups, families, groups, independent travellers, even a French TV crew (to the Halloween celebrations in Londonderry), around Northern Ireland’s many beauty spots. She even took the parents of Spain’s Villarreal team round Belfast, when the team were playing Chelsea in the city.

“Visitors are enthralled by the stories, the beauty of the countryside, the food and the drink, our humour. You do appreciate much more what you’ve got when you work with them.

“Last year the cruise ships came back and that was English-speaking. Sometimes a small group might want to take a tour up round the North Coast to see the Giant’s Causway,

“In Co Down, I take tours round the Mournes and on down to Rostrevor and the Narnia Trail, the coastline and the beach. In Downpatrick, I do quite a lot for the Camino walks, through the St Patrick’s Centre. I do the Ards Peninsula and the stately homes at Castle Ward and Mount Stewart.”

Mairead also loves her native Co Fermanagh, the beauty of Lough Erne, the island town of Enniskillen, the stately homes of Castle Coole and Florence Court, all of which have featured in her tours.

“There are lots of other tours coming on stream like the Atlantic Culturescape offerings, including stone walling in Kilkeel, lace making with Rosie Bell and Dancing at the Crossroads with Josephine Brennan-King – all those will be really exciting.”

Again, she is a proud ambassador for Northern Ireland: “You are the first person a tourist is going to meet and you want to make them remember the place positively.”

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