Titanic comes home
The world’s biggest Titanic visitor attraction opens in the ship’s Belfast birthplace this month, 100 years to the day since the doomed liner was completed in the same yards.
After decades of quietly forgetting “the most famous ship since Noah’s Ark”, Belfast has reclaimed the Titanic, and is championing a legend which continues to captivate the imagination a century on.
“What happened to Titanic was a disaster. But Titanic itself wasn’t,” Tim Husbands, the chief executive of Titanic Belfast, said.
“The craftsmanship was a symbol for the industrial time. A symbol of ambition, a symbol of hope. And we’re now creating exactly the same feelings.”
The attraction, which has risen from the derelict Harland and Wolff shipyards, tells the story of the liner from its inception in Belfast’s industrial boom years through to its launch, its sinking and the aftermath.
The six-level, aluminium-clad building is in the form of four Titanic-sized prows that can be seen shimmering from any one viewpoint, rep-resenting Titanic and its two sister ships, Olympic and Britannic.
Northern Ireland, the British province torn apart by sectarian strife for three decades until the late 1990s, hopes the eye-catching centre will kickstart its tourism economy and attract visitors from Asia.
“This is all about a new era: This is our Eiffel Tower, this is our Guggenheim, and it’s our time to completely change how people across the world see our city,” said Claire Bradshaw, Titanic Belfast’s marketing chief.
Inside, workmen are putting the finishing touches to its nine interactive galleries ahead of the March 31 launch.
“There’s a lot of other Titanic visitor attractions in the world, with no connection to the Titanic at all. This will be the largest and the only one with the authentic story to tell,” Mr Husbands said.
“People have been talking about Titanic for 100 years now. They want to know more, there’s a real hunger for it.”
The biggest, most ambitious ship of the age hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Southampton to New York, sinking on April 15, 1912. Of the 2,224 people aboard, 1,514 perished.
This is no dusty museum − the visitor experience uses a barrage of computer-generated imagery, audio, special effects and interactive touch screens to tell the ship’s story.
There are recreations of the opulent first-class accommodation and the cramped third-class bunks, which were nonetheless smartly fitted-out.
A ride carries visitors through the sights, sounds and smells of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, while the liner’s launch is seen on a glass screen which then reveals a view of the actual slipway outside where Titanic was built.
An ingenious “3D cave” allows visitors to “travel” straight up from the giant engine room through the ship’s decks to the bridge.
In the section on the sinking, the lights dim, the temperature plunges; the horror and heroism is retold, though here it is cast as just one part of Titanic’s story.
The attraction houses a passenger and crew database, and an Ocean Exploration Centre, which shows footage from the seabed. Ongoing research on the wreck’s gradual degradation will be tracked from here.
The top two floors host the Titanic Suite, a banqueting space containing a replica of the ship’s grand staircase, which featured prominently in the 1997 blockbuster film starring Leonardo DiCaprio − and is now set to appear in many a Belfast wedding photo.
The attention to detail extends to the replica crockery bearing the White Star Line logo and the name RMS Titanic.
Titanic Belfast was nine years in the planning and cost £97 million (€117 million) to build, using a mixture of public and private investment.
It took three years to construct and 10 months to fit out − the same as the Titanic itself.
It forms a key part of Northern Ireland’s regeneration after the Troubles − the bombings and shootings in violence between Protestants and Catholics − which wiped the province off the tourist map and flattened its economy.
In league with Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway natural wonder, Titanic Belfast is hoping to tempt Asian tourists visiting Britain to venture outside London.
“I think it’s the platform for growth that Northern Ireland’s been seeking,” Husbands said.
Titanic Belfast expects 425,000 visitors in the first year and 80,000 tickets, priced £13.50 (€16.25), have been sold in advance.