Titanic tourism: what it is and what it should be

Claiming to be disinterested in the hype surrounding the Titanic does a good job of both alienating people from those who feel creating such business models of a disaster are a good way to remember those whose lives were lost, and an history industry, and bringing together those who are fed up seeing it on the news, TV, newspapers, internet and splashed all over the city every day for the last 6 months. There are two very distinct sides to the story of making it a part of the Belfast’s current appeal for tourism: simply cashing in on disaster-tourism or aptly and respectfully remembering something great the city once did?

titanic belfast 2012

A commemoration of a huge feat of engineering and a time when ship-building was one of the largest industries in Belfast: this fine city built the biggest ship in the world, donned “practically unsinkable”, later changed to simply “unsinkable” by local press. Taking 3 years to complete by 3,000 workers and costing $7.5 million (1912) the ship was a beast at 882.9 feet long and 92 feet wide, 59 feet high from water level, and weighed over 46,328 tons.

The scale of accomplishment is worth celebration, yes. To be a first class passenger would have been a great experience; and if you pay enough you won’t have to look hard enough to find a restaurant serving up a menu given to those first-class passengers. However, beyond being a huge ship — the biggest of its time — I find it difficult to get over the fact that it did indeed sink, killing 1,513 of its 2,224 passengers. There were not enough lifeboats, as White Star Line didn’t want to cut into the passenger’s space on the promenade deck, let alone the fact that the living conditions were pretty dire for those in steerage; closer to the engines it was noisy and cramped, with locked gates between them and first and second class decks where the lifeboats where.

We have a whole area of the city rebranded in its name: The Titanic Quarter. Complete with shops, a college, apartments, bars, and corporate business; “maritime disaster to urban status symbol“. Frames Complex has changed its name to Titanic, you can eat ‘salt and vinegar’ flavoured Titanic crisps, there’s The Dock café (a front for a Christian meeting place, but that’s a different topic), ‘Titanic’ burgers are being sold in St Georges Market, complete with “iceberg lettuce”. Why not wash it down with a mug of Titanic Tea, or drown your sorrows with a pint Titanic Beer. It’s beyond ridiculous and completely insensitive.

The recent wave of marketing towards the Titanic, by local councils and tourist groups for the region, backed by far too much money and the ability of some very clever marketing people, while lauded as a celebration of “glory and disaster” has led to a wave of “disaster tourism” and a number of people simply cashing in on the gullibility of those who feel that a tea towel or ice cube holder is a sufficient way of remembering this tragedy. While sectarianism may have been a part of life in Belfast at the time, the fact that “Catholic workers were often excluded from the workforce because of their religion”, as William Crawley discussed, hails of glorifying the very issue.

Belfast man William Neill, now a Professor of Urban Planning at Aberdeen University in Scotland, was quoted as saying that he acknowledges Belfast’s shipbuilding history and it’s “unique” place in the Titanic story, but is concerned that the city is trying to cash in with Titanic “infotainment” with its new Titanic centre.

Constructed as a near-replica of the original Grand Staircase on board the ship the staircase which has caused much controversy in recent weeks is situated in the 750-capacity Titanic Suite conference and banqueting hall, yet mere members of the public are not given permission to see it, beyond admiring photographs elsewhere in the visitors’ centre. Unless of course you have celebrity status. A modern tale of class-based discrimination?

While the experience of the Titanic Belfast visitor centre may be one to enjoy and remember: it is a beautiful building from the outside, and, from first-hand reports, what has been done on the inside to celebrate Belfast and its ship-building industry of a day gone by is done tastefully and with much hands-on interactivity. However, this is £97m which could have gone into working on what is left of the industry in Belfast: the dry dock and pump house, Clendon Dock, the Drawing Rooms and other artifacts, which have left to all but rot under the watchful eye of residents, and this new wave of tourists. Hopefully it won’t become the white elephant that some predict it will.

titanic belfast 2012

titanic belfast 2012

titanic belfast 2012

titanic belfast 2012
All photographs copyright © Phil O’Kane

I am anti-Titanic. Why? Because it is continuing the idea of Belfast being known for all the wrong reasons: a ship which sank and killed hundreds of people, George Best; a wife-beating, alcoholic footballer, The Troubles, home to the most bombed hotel in the world (The Europa), Snow Patrol (I jest). No, we mustn’t forget the Titanic, though if only it was done more respectfully. We don’t need it to be our Disneyland.

The pneumatic tyre and the tractor were invented in Belfast? Belfast’s Sirocco Works invented air conditioning and the Royal Victoria Hospital became the first building in the world to be fitted with air conditioning. Shorts Aircraft Factory pioneered Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircrafts in the 50’s when Sir James Martin invented the aircraft ejector seat. Professor Sir Frank Pantridge, born in Hillsborough and educated at Queens University invented the portable defibrillator, which saves thousands of lives each year. (info).

A grand ship yes, but with an unforeseen outcome, one which Belfast shouldn’t be particularly proud. The History Press used available research in order to provide historically accurate tweets from the first person perspective of the crew, passengers, captain and engineers, following the ship as it left on its journey to its demise in the North Atlantic on 15th April 100 years ago. Personally, I find it a hugely morbid affair.

A similar attempt was performed by RMS Titanic, Inc.

As Mark Simpson recently said: “There is a thin line between embracing the Titanic legacy in Belfast and exploiting it.”

syncing Titanic