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For Northern Ireland, 'Game of Thrones' is much more than a popular TV show

Tourism has become big business for Northern Ireland, with the show helping to attract 120,000 visitors a year and bringing in $40 million a year.
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BALLYHORNAN, Northern Ireland — Will Mulhall was an 18-year-old lifeguard on the coast of Northern Ireland’s County Down when he took his life savings and bought two Northern Inuit puppies. He wanted big dogs, he said, and was drawn to the wolf-like appearance of the breed.

A few weeks later Mulhall received a call from HBO that would change his life — and that of his dogs.

Odin and Thor are now better known to "Game of Thrones" fans as Grey Wind and Summer, the dire wolves of central characters Robb and Bran Stark.

Their roles in the show transformed the dogs from household pets into superstars.

They now have their own Instagram account, have been visited by over 400,000 tourists and are insured for more than $1 million each.

For locals like Mulhall, the show has been much more than an epic tale of battles, ice zombies and dragons.

Over the course of eight seasons, "Game of Thrones" was filmed in more than 49 locations throughout Northern Ireland. From historic castles to rugged coastlines and ancient forests, the sites have grown popular with fans eager to visit — and meet the real dire wolves.

Ace Del Cruz was so excited he could barely speak after petting Odin and Thor. “Seeing the dire wolves, you get to pet them, just seeing them is so amazing," said Del Cruz, a Philippines native and show enthusiast. "I can’t even pronounce what I want to say.”

“It is kind of surreal that they were in ‘Game of Thrones’ and they are here,” said Susan Hewitt from Essex, England.

Tourism has become big business for Northern Ireland, with the show helping to attract 120,000 visitors a year and bringing in $40 million annually to the local economy.

Mulhall now runs a successful company, DireWolf Tours, that in addition to featuring his beloved dogs takes fans to key sites across the region.

“It has taken over our lives,” he said. “Every day ‘Game of Thrones’ is playing some part in my life, and it just got bigger and bigger and madder and madder and it keeps going on!”

William van der Kells runs a similar business nearby at Castle Ward, which is better known to "Thrones" viewers as Winterfell — the home of the Stark family. Van der Kells teaches tourists to shoot arrows and throw axes.

Not everyone is so gushing about the show's impact on their ancient land. Some have raised concerns about how the sudden influx of tourists may affect the conservation of historic sites.

Near the village of Armoy, an avenue of 200-year-old beach trees known as Dark Hedges was used as the show's "Kingsroad." So many fans flocked to the site that it became choked with traffic, something one campaign group labeled a "national disgrace" that's "slowly killing a national treasure."

For many, however, the positive attention is preferable to the way things were before. For decades, Northern Ireland struggled to draw visitors, with many people associating the country with the decadeslong sectarian conflict known as "the Troubles," even after it largely ended in 1998.

Van der Kells believes "Game of Thrones" has helped alter that perception. “We had 40 years of violence. People have got killed, maimed, injured. Now we have fantasy violence, and it is bringing in more money.”

Rosemary McHugh of Tourism NI, the government's official tourism body, agreed. “It has given us that new narrative … which makes Northern Ireland a more exciting place," she said. "It has put our landscapes and our heritage out there in an exciting way.”

The show has brought benefits beyond tourism, too, providing ample employment opportunities.

Nearly 13,000 extras have been used during shooting in the country according to HBO, including Mulhall and his brothers. Their father, boasting a long silver beard, played a Dothraki slave-master.

Much of the cast, including stars Kit Harrington and Maisie Williams, have been guests at The Cuen Inn in the village of Strongmore.

The owner, Caroline McEarlean, now serves a popular "Game of Thrones banquet" complete with alcohol served in locally produced goblets modeled after those used by the show’s wealthy Lannister family.

This attention to detail has paid off. “It is phenomenal. It is the most significant financial impact that in our 29 years of business we have ever experienced,” she said. “And it’s not going away.”

Everyone from casting agents to taxidermists has enjoyed a bit of the action. The total benefit to the Northern Irish economy is estimated to be over $240 million over the past decade.

But while the end has come for the show's characters, Northern Ireland residents are confident the "Game of Thrones" boom will not die when the season 8 finale airs on Sunday night.

“There is going to be a legacy," van der Kells said. "The thing has got such cult status now I think people will come over and over again."