For millions of fans around the world the wait is almost over, as on 6 April the fourth season of HBO's fantasy drama Game of Thrones returns to TV screens. The series is lauded for its epic scope, shocking twists and multitude of complex characters; but perhaps less well recognised are the stunning locations where the show is filmed.
Morocco, Iceland and Croatia have all been used to represent the vast fictional continent of Westeros, but the majority of the filming is done in Northern Ireland.
It is estimated that "set jetting" tourists contribute about £1.8bn a year to the UK economy, and there's now hope that Game of Thrones can provide an Ulster tourist boom to match the effect The Lord of the Rings had on New Zealand.
Game of Thrones Tour
McComb's Coach Travel is a family run tour company that has been offering tourist trips to the Giant's Causeway for the last 19 years. From 5 April they will be launching a brand new Game of Thrones tour that allows visitors to see some of the sites filmed in the show.
"More and more people who came asked about the Games of Thrones locations, because so many of them are in that Causeway coastal area. So the more people who asked about it the more we thought there was an opportunity here to elaborate on the popularity of the series," says Caroline McComb.
"Advance bookings have been phenomenal. It's been very, very popular," she adds.
The tour takes visitors to some of the show's most famous sites. These include the Dark Hedges, a beautiful avenue of beech trees that in the show is used as the Kingsroad; the coastal town of Ballycastle, where actors Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) and Conleth Hill (Varys) are from; and Ballintoy Harbour, used to represent Theon Greyjoy's time spent on the Iron Islands. The tour concludes with the breathtaking basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway, which despite not featuring in the show as of yet, is an essential part of any tour of Northern Ireland. All of this comes for £35 per person.
McComb's Coach Travel previously did the tour as a special request on a private basis. "We've had people from New Zealand, China, Japan, many American people, all from business people to backpackers. There's no typical Game of Thrones fan. People just love it," says McComb.
Game of Thrones is estimated to have so far generated £65m for the local economy, and McComb says the extra tourists flooding in because of the show have allowed them to expand their business. "The success of Game of Thrones and the introduction of this new tour has allowed us to invest in two brand new coaches for the tour. We can see a real knock on effect on our business of Game of Thrones. It's easy for us to see the rewards of it for us," McComb says.
Tourism Growing After the Troubles
It's a far cry from twenty years ago when at the height of the Troubles the country was embroiled in conflict between overwhelmingly protestant unionists who wanted the country to remain part of the UK, and majority Catholic Republicans who wanted to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
It has taken time since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but the country's tourist numbers are growing. The redevelopment of Belfast's Titanic Quarter saw the 2012 opening of the £97m Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, a riverside entertainment district, and the Paint Hall Studios, a film studio where a lot of Game of Thrones of the scenes for Game of Thrones are shot.
A Game of Thrones exhibition in the Titanic Quarter last June was visited by over 18,000 fans from across the globe, and tourism bosses will be hoping to further capitalise on the success of the show to attract more tourists in the future. Around 1.8m people visited Northern Ireland in 2013, and now Tourism Ireland is ambitiously aiming to increase tourist numbers by two million a year by 2016.
"Game of Thrones and all the other films that are made here are giving people such a good impression of Northern Ireland," says McComb.
"It's really making people look at Belfast and Northern Ireland in a different light, and come here for really good reasons. It's promoting Northern Ireland in the best possible way and really attracting extra people to come here for trips," she says.
There are still four more books to be adapted for the series, and with strong hints of Game of Thrones movies being made in the future, it seems that the popularity of Game of Thrones will only continue to bring more and more visitors to the Emerald Isle.
Game of Thrones begins on Sky Atlantic HD at 2am (repeated 9pm) Monday 7 April.