By Agence France-Presse
Wielding a wide-blade replica, Indian tourist Akshay Mannur battles with friends – reenacting scenes of "Game of Thrones" on the pilgrimage trail in Northern Ireland to devotees of the hit TV show.
Since the blood and guts series began to stand out in 2011, fans began to gather in the coastal caves and ruined castles of the British province, where much of HBO's television production was filmed.
"Every new step is like something new, it's more than my expectations," admired the student Mannur, 23.
"It's a beautiful country – Northern Ireland is incredible."
Multinational tour buses
Tourism Northern Ireland estimates that the magic show – in its final season – attracted 120,000 visitors to the province in 2016, generating £ 30 million (€ 35 million, $ 39 million).
One in six visitors arrives in Northern Ireland to visit film sites, according to their estimates.
Along the largely coastal trail, a short distance from the capital of Belfast, this popularity is evident.
A constant buzz of buses and buses is driven in and out of the parking lots at strict times, and the quiet village shops crowd tourists.
"Last week, I think last Saturday we had a bus with 24 nationalities," tour guide Patrick Rogan said at the entrance to Cushendun Caves, the central plot location.
"We had people from Patagonia, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Europe, so I guess that tells their own story."
Since 2012, his employer – the "Stones and Thrones" tour – has offered daily departures from Belfast, mostly occupied by guides who have performed as extras in the show.
Today they operate at least two full buses a day, he said, competing with at least four other companies offering a similar service.
Other more personalized tourist services offer immersive experiences – shooting, archery, and photographic opportunities with a pair of wolves that starred in the epic series.
"The Dark Story"
A popular comparison holds that "Game of Thrones" is for Northern Ireland tourism what "Lord of the Rings" went to New Zealand.
But the recent bloody past of Northern Ireland during the so-called "problems" – when 3,500 were killed in 30 years of sectarian conflict – makes the boom particularly welcome.
"The dark story that was here is coming out," said Irish actor Liam Cunningham, a stalwart character in the series, now hailed as the most expensive to be filmed on the small screen.
"The place is blooming, and for us to have this show here and to be part of that transition is joyful."
"This still has longevity"
Cunningham was speaking at the opening of a traveling exhibition of clothing and scenery in Belfast, the same week the new season of the series premiered.
Classified exhibits of dragon skulls, craft guns and interactive exhibits are preceded by a gallery of landscape engravings representing the locations of the interior footage.
A caption on one image says "Views to die horribly for," while another says "Sun, sea and savagery," referring to the series' reputation for killing bloody important characters.
They are testimony to the sagacious local tourism council, making efforts to cement the link between their territory and the series.
"I believe our association with global success helps transform the image of Northern Ireland around the world," said John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland.
"In many ways, this gives you PR that you just could not afford."
With the final season of "Game of Thrones" underway, the devotion of the fever to the series may be about to end.
But with the dismemberment of projects and the development of a studio tour due to open in Northern Ireland next year, the province still expects to earn revenue from tourism.
"We think this still has longevity," McGrillen said.