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The laughter was loud and the mood carefree, but the purpose was all business.

A rollicking group of Irish business people toured this historic city Tuesday as part of an exchange program between Ireland and upstate New York intent on turning fading industrial areas into vibrant tourist destinations.

The visit was sponsored by Atlantic Corridor USA, a not-for-profit organization formed in 2000 to forge a partnership between the two areas. The Buffalo-based group, which sponsors several such trips back and forth every year, helped U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., organize her business trip to Ireland in March 2002.

"We're sharing experiences," said Anne Doherty, chairwoman of the Belfast Visitors and Convention Bureau, who is in the Buffalo Niagara region for the first time. "It's exciting how you're turning things around here."

The Irish visitors arrived at Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Sunday. They said they expect to leave with a clear vision of cooperation between their country and upstate New York.

During their week-long stay in downtown Buffalo, they will meet with Buffalo and Niagara tourism officials, people at Buffalo State's hospitality college and Olmsted Parks Conservancy, tour Goat Island in Niagara Falls and test the luck of the Irish in the Seneca Niagara Casino in the Falls.

Joseph A. Vizzi Jr., the group's director of development, organized the trip.

Belfast was once a leading shipbuilding city, -- the Titanic was built there -- but now with industry on the wane, it's changing its focus, along with the rest of Ireland, to tourism.

"Our goal," said Ann Moreland, an executive with a regional tourism organization in Belfast, "is to take an industrial heritage and turn it into a tourism industry."

Tourism is now Ireland's leading industry, replacing manufacturing and agriculture, said Noelle O'Connor, who lectures in tourism planning at Dublin Institute of Technology.

Belfast and the once booming steel town of Buffalo parallel each other in terms of size, population and changing lifestyles, said Deborah O'Shea, Atlantic Corridor's chief executive officer.

The latest contingent of a dozen Irish citizens from both north and south went on a limousine tour Tuesday along the towpaths of the Erie Canal.

"They were amazed at the size of the locks," said tour guide Mike Murphy, a retired Town of Tonawanda police officer who owns Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises. Murphy's parents came here from County Kerry in the early 1900s.

The group then went to Murphy's restaurant and bar for a wee dram of Irish whiskey. "This is very good," said James Mullins, who manages an Irish whiskey distillery in County Westmeath.

"The people here are outstanding," said Gillian Binchy, a tour operator in Dublin, also visiting the Buffalo region for the first time. Three years ago, O'Connor visited Niagara Falls, Ont., and never went near Buffalo.

"Buffalo just wasn't on the radar screen," she said. "But it is now."


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