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By Kiko Itasaka
BALLYHORNAN, Northern Ireland – Will Mulhall was an 18-year-old rescuer on the coast of County Down, Northern Ireland, when he took his savings and bought two Northern Inuit puppies. He wanted big dogs, he said, and was attracted by the appearance of the wolf of the breed.
A few weeks later, Mulhall received a call from HBO that was going to change his life – and that of his dogs.
Odin and Thor are now better known to "Game of Thrones" fans, such as Gray Wind and Summer, the terrible wolves of lead characters Robb and Bran Stark.
Their roles in the show turned pet dogs into superstars.
They now have their own Instagram account, have been visited by over 400,000 tourists and are insured for over a million dollars each.
For locals like Mulhall, the show is more than just an epic tale of battles, zombies on ice and dragons.
"Game of Thrones" was filmed in more than 49 locations in Northern Ireland in eight seasons. From historic castles to rugged coastlines and ancient forests, the sites have become popular with fans eager to visit – and meet the real wolves.
Ace Del Cruz was so excited that he could barely speak after stroking Odin and Thor. "Seeing the terrible wolves, you can pet them, it's amazing to see them," said Del Cruz, a Filipino native and entertainment enthusiast, "I can not even pronounce what I mean."
"It's a little surreal that they're part of" Game of Thrones "and they're here," said Susan Hewitt of Essex, England.
Tourism has become an important business for Northern Ireland, with the trade show attracting 120,000 visitors a year and generating $ 40 million a year for the local economy.
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Mr. Mulhall now runs a successful business, DireWolf Tours, which, in addition to presenting his beloved dogs, takes fans to key sites in the area.
"It took our lives in hand," he said. "Every day, 'Game of Thrones' is playing a role in my life, and it's getting bigger and bigger, more and more crazy, and it's going on like this!"
William van der Kells runs a similar business near Castle Ward, best known to "Thrones" viewers as Winterfell – the home of the Stark family. Van der Kells teaches tourists to shoot arrows and launch axes.
Not everyone is so excited about the impact of the series on his former country. Some worried about how the sudden influx of tourists could affect the conservation of historic sites.
Near the village of Armoy, a 200-year-old beach tree alley, known as the Dark Hedges, was used as "Kingsroad". So many fans gathered on the site that traffic began to choke him, what a campaign group called "national shame" that "slowly kills a national treasure".
For many, however, positive attention is preferable to the previous situation. For decades, Northern Ireland has been striving to attract visitors. Many people have linked the country to the decades-old sectarian conflict known as the "Troubles", even after it ended largely in 1998.
Van der Kells thinks that "Game of Thrones" helped change this perception. "We had 40 years of violence. People were killed, mutilated, wounded. We now have an imaginary violence that brings in more money. "
Rosemary McHugh of Tourism NI, the official government body responsible for tourism, agrees. "This gave us this new story … which makes Northern Ireland a more exciting place," she said. "She put our landscapes and our heritage in an exciting way."
The show has also brought benefits beyond tourism, offering many opportunities for employment.
According to HBO, nearly 13,000 extras were used during filming in the country, including Mulhall and his brothers. Their father, boasting a long beard of money, played the role of a slave master Dothraki.
Much of the cast, including stars Kit Harrington and Maisie Williams, were invited to The Cuen Inn in the village of Strongmore.
The owner, Caroline McEarlean, now serves a popular "Game of Thrones" banquet with alcohol served in locally made cups, modeled on those used by the rich Lannister family of the show.
This attention to detail has paid off. "It's phenomenal. It's the biggest financial impact of our 29 years of business, "she said. "And it's not gone."
Everyone, from casting agents to taxidermists, enjoyed the action. The total benefit to the North Irish economy is estimated at more than US $ 240 million over the last decade.
But as winter has come for the characters in the series, residents of Northern Ireland are confident that the "Game of Thrones" boom will not die at the end of season 8.
"There will be a legacy," said van der Kells. "The thing has such cult status now, I think people will come again and again."