Fake Irish shopfronts keep tourists coming

In Bushmills, windows and doors of empty houses and shops have been covered with artwork, complete with people observing passers-by outside, to make the tourist village more appealing. Farmyard animals are drawn coming out of some shop doors.

BUSHMILLS, Northern Ireland - One of the homes of Irish whiskey is fighting an economic downturn by investing in art projects to brighten up derelict shops and houses - an approach it says is boosting tourist numbers.

The idea of cosmetically enhancing villages in Northern Ireland, a British province still recovering from three decades of sectarian violence, gained much publicity before a meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) leaders there in June.

Bushmills, best known as the place where whiskey of the same name was distilled for the first time 400 years ago, has taken the practice to such an extent that the village is becoming recognised for highly detailed artwork and graphics that brighten up its main street.

It is notable for the scale of the project - around a dozen vacant units have been given a facelift, including an old-style cobbler shop where a worker in a flat cap mends shoes. A bakery with appetising bread and cakes is depicted up the road, with a barber shop and bookmakers nearby.

Windows and doors have been painted on to empty houses, complete with people observing passers- by outside. Elsewhere, farmyard animals are drawn coming out of shop doors.

"Being a tourist village, there was quite a lot of emphasis put on trying to bring about an uplift, and see if it could be the catalyst for further economic development in the town," said Mr Aidan McPeake, director of environmental services for the local council.

"That seems to be the case now, the village has been very popular this year. It's been very successful."

Two of the shops brightened up with art over the past year are no longer vacant, he said. The Northern Ireland government has spent £2 million (S$3.9 million) to tackle dereliction over the past two years and stickers were applied to windows in areas near the luxury golf resort where G-8 leaders met, to give the impression that business was booming.

The "Brighter Bushmills Project" was set up by residents last year and supported by the local council, which is among the least well-funded in the North.

They raised £30,000, some of which was donated by the local distillery, and the shopfronts depicted are more detailed and colourful than elsewhere. A second phase, developed with the help of government funds, was completed in March this year.

As a gateway to the Giant's Causeway, the famous collection of interlocking rock formations considered a World Heritage Centre by the United Nations' cultural agency, Bushmills hopes the initiative will make sure that the tourists keep coming.

"Obviously locals would much rather see the properties filled and in use all the time, but this is definitely the next-best option," Mr McPeake said.