Titanic tourism has come to Belfast, luring thousands of U.S. tourists with souvenirs from the tasteful to the tacky at a $156 million six-story center.
A century after the maiden-voyage disaster, visitors to the Northern Ireland city where the most famous liner was built can sample a Titanic menu and buy replicas of the liner’s key rings and sugar sachets. The center plans to draw about 425,000 visitors each year and has sold 55,000 tickets since opening last month.
“Very impressive,” says one visitor, Elizabeth Parks from Birmingham, Alabama. “There’s a lot of history in it and a lot of interesting things to learn about Belfast, how the ship was built, what the conditions were like at the time.”
The fate of the Titanic Quarter, where the center is based, shows the region’s economic problems since the global downturn in 2008. While the 650,000 square-feet (60,387 square-meter) dockside development was marketed as a financial hub, Citigroup Inc. (C:US) is the only banking tenant so far. The number of tourists to Northern Ireland has fallen 15 percent since 2008.
The visitors’ center features a shipyard theme ride showing the Titanic being built for the White Star line in 1911 -- she was just under 270 meters (about 880 feet) in length and 53 meters high, the largest such vessel in the world. There are mock-ups of the cabins, interactive displays, 3D exhibitions and a cinema to show the tragic collision with an iceberg.
At its peak, the Harland & Wolff shipyard that built the Titanic employed 35,000 workers. A decline in the industry caused orders to dry up, and shipbuilding ceased in 2000. Two cranes, dubbed Samson and Goliath, stand near the Titanic Visitor Centre and still dominate the east Belfast skyline.
“Last week, every other customer here was American,” said Ronan Byrne, the owner of California Coffee, a downtown Belfast restaurant. “We’re offering a Titanic menu now and I’m confident we’ll see a lot more tourists than we did last year.”
Initial visitor reactions to the center, which charges a 13.50 pounds ($21.50) admission fee, have been mixed. Some were taken aback by the merchandise on sale at the center.
“I don’t like how they are cashing in on the disaster by selling memorabilia in the shop,” said John Engels, visiting from the Netherlands. “That makes me uncomfortable. It was a disaster: I’m not sure it’s right to sell key rings about it.”
As well as 1,500 people who died in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, eight workmen lost their lives during the building and two ambulances were permanently sited at the yard because of the danger in constructing the liner.
“It was well put together and very informative but I don’t think children would like it,” said Alexandra Dujin, a Pole who traveled from Cavan in the Republic of Ireland with her husband. “It’s very serious. We have two children, but we didn’t take them with us today because I think they would have been bored by it.”
Another tourist, John Ford from Oregon, says the city may want to look 5,000 miles west for inspiration.
“I expected to see more exhibits from the Titanic,” Ford, a 68 year-old retired fire-fighter, said. “I saw more of the Titanic at the center in Las Vegas.” He speaks of the U.S. exhibition which showcases more than 300 artifacts from the doomed liner. “I was a little disappointed in that. But I liked it.”
Information: Titanic Belfast, http://www.titanicbelfast.com/Home.aspx
Muse highlights include: Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art, Warwick Thompson on London stage, Ryan Sutton on New York dining.
To contact the reporter on this story: Colm Heatley in Belfast at firstname.lastname@example.org
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