A century after the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, Belfast is counting on a new visitor attraction about the iconic ship to put the city that built it back on the tourist map.
The Northern Irish capital hopes the Titanic Belfast complex will entice holidaymakers to spend time — and, crucially, money — in the British province.
Three decades of sectarian violence lasting until the late 1990s made Northern Ireland a no-go area for foreign visitors. The city is hoping the attraction will give a much-needed boost to its tourism economy.
With its wider economy still lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom following the misery of the Troubles, Northern Ireland is once again looking to Titanic to drive its prosperity forward — just as it did 100 years ago.
“For many years we have been promoting Belfast and Northern Ireland as a tourist destination all over the world but it’s been very difficult, because we have a very negative past,” Titanic Belfast’s marketing chief Claire Bradshaw told AFP.
“Titanic is the big story that will help visitors make the decision to come to Belfast.
“Absolutely it will put money into our economy.”
Northern Ireland’s economy, heavily reliant on the public sector, has been hit not only by the United Kingdom’s recession and austerity measures but also the financial collapse in the Republic of Ireland.
During 2011, Northern Ireland welcomed an estimated 973,000 overseas visitors, 84 percent of them from the British mainland. Their estimated expenditure was £263 million ($417 million, 314 million euros).
Therefore much is riding on Titanic Belfast, which opened with fanfare on March 31, 100 years to the day since the liner was finished in a nearby dock.
“It’s a boost for Belfast at a time when the economic climate is challenging,” Titanic Belfast chief executive Tim Husbands said.
“It’s very much a platform for tourism growth throughout the province.”
The province is targeting the booming Asian market and hopes the enduring appeal of the Titanic”brand” will lure foreigners from the London tourist traps.
Officials hope the £97 million Titanic Belfast, shaped to look like four cruise liner-sized bows, will attract 425,000 visitors in its first year.
Rising out of the derelict Harland and Wolff shipyards, it tells the story of the vessel from its inception in Belfast’s industrial boom years through to its launch, its sinking and the aftermath.
Belfast’s 21st-century embrace of the Titanic is in marked contrast to most of the last 100 years.
When it was built, it was a symbol of the city’s prowess. But after it sank on April 15, 1912, Belfast went silent about the liner.
“It was the largest vessel in the world from the biggest shipyard in the world. It was the pride of Belfast, with the workmanship that had gone into it,” said Stephen Cameron, co-founder of the Belfast Titanic Society.
When reports of the disaster came through, “grown men were seen standing crying in the street. These guys had worked on the ship for years and couldn’t comprehend the news,” the author of “Titanic: Belfast’s Own” told AFP.
But in those days, people were not encouraged to dwell on the disaster.
“Those were the values of the time. ‘We move on and we don’t talk about that any more’,” Cameron said.
“There was very little interest in it worldwide before the wreck was discovered in 1985.”
The revival of interest is leaving its mark, with bars, railway stations and even the shipyard area being renamed after the doomed vessel.
And among Belfast’s famous murals, usually dedicated to paramilitaries or victims of the Troubles, the Titanic has found a place.
However, reminders of the conflict are never far away in Protestant east Belfast.
One mural dedicated to the Titanic’s victims and its survivors is just across the road from a similarly monochrome Loyalist paramilitary mural. A few streets away, a Catholic area is screened off behind a giant fence.
And only last June, sectarian riots took place directly in front of another, dedicated to the “Ship of Dreams” and boasting: “Built in Belfast”.
Nevertheless, Northern Irish tourism minister Arlene Foster said the focus for 2012 was on changing perceptions of the province.
“It is wonderful to see Northern Ireland making global headlines for all the right reasons,” she said.