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Belfast makes the most of its Titanic connection

Stephen Beard Apr 9, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: April 15 is not only Tax Day, this year it’s something else as well — the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Until not too long ago the city where she was built, Belfast, Northern Ireland, didn’t want much to do with the tragedy in which more than 1,500 people were killed. But then, with centenial celebrations coming up, they changed their minds.

Our European correspondent Stephen Beard reports from Belfast.

Conor Cobb: So roll up, roll up! Get your tickets please for the Titanic. About to depart in the next 10 minutes. Ready for launch.

Stephen Beard: This is not the Titanic, of course, but the Titanic Explorer, a less-than-luxurious bus which tours the shipyard where the doomed vessel was built. You might think Belfast would be embarrassed about its Titanic connection. Not a bit of it. says the tour operator Conor Cobb.

Cobb: We do have a saying in Belfast that the Titanic was all right when she left here. We’re not to blame for this tragedy. You make a beautiful Mercedes Benz, but if a driver runs it into a tree it’s not really our fault.

Tour guide: Good morning and welcome to Belfast. Today we’re going to see the birthplace of a legend.

In recent weeks, Titanic tours like this have proliferated. Once Belfast was rather reticent about its infamous ship. Now the city is going overboard about it. Just open: a huge new $150 million visitor attraction, which tells the full story of the ill-fated liner.

Narrator: At noon, April 10th bang on time and fully expecting to be in New York in a few days, the Titanic sounded her whistle and cast off her lines.

Titanic Belfast is housed in a new building shaped like the hulls of four ships. It has just been launched with almost as much ballyhoo as the vessel itself 100 years ago. Spokeswoman Claire Bradshaw:

Claire Bradshaw: Unfortunately for many years people have known our city for the troubles, for our political conflict. Titanic Belfast is about putting a new slant on Belfast. It’s about becoming this new city. It’s an iconic structure. Titanic Belfast is now the jewel in the crown of our city. It’s our Eiffel Tower.

The center recreates not only the horror of the sinking, but also the energy and excitement of the ship’s construction and launch. Bradshaw claims this will have a two-fold effect: Not only helping turn Belfast into a major tourist destination, but she says it will also rekindle Northern Ireland’s pride in its industrial past.

Bradshaw: We want to take our place back, back as we were in 1912. We want to take back our city’s place in global business, in global industry and really put us back on the map for all the right reasons.

Belfast has a long way to go. It does have some light engineering industry. But even after more than a decade of peace, the province is still heavily dependent on British taxpayer support. However, the city has embraced the Titanic centenary and is determined to cash in on it.

Jamie Magee: This is my Titanic cocktail. In it we have…

Jamie Magee and his family renamed their pub The Titanic and launched a special Titanic cocktail.

Magee: Some velvet falernum, some amalric bitters…

Beard: No ice?

Magee: Oh, there’s plenty of ice!

Belfast is awash with Titanic products. Titanic menus in the restaurants. There’s even a Titanic brand of tea and Titanic potato chips from — the makers claim — the “world’s best chipyard.” Some critics say this is tasteless. But the city is also hosting a sombre commemoration. And William Blair, who runs this serious exhibition called Titanica, says Belfast has every right to make money from the ship.

William Blair: The story of Titanic is very much about business. It was a hugely important project for the city. Now the city, I suppose, is seeking again to capitalize on that. Titanic is not just part of our past. It’s part of our future.

One could just wish them well and say, “Full steam ahead!” But that might be tempting providence.

In Belfast, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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