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Last Updated: Monday, 17 July 2006, 17:56 GMT 18:56 UK
Can Titanic become tourist magnet?
Gareth Gordon
By Gareth Gordon
BBC NI political correspondent

Long before Leonardo DiCaprio helped make it even more of a global phenomenon, a Canada-based architect came up with the vision of how Belfast should celebrate its Titanic legacy.

Canadian architect Jonathan Kearns
Architect Jonathan Kearns had a plan to exploit the Titanic legacy
It was a cross-sectional piece of the ship on the slipway where it was built, complete with a five-star resort hotel.

That was in 1991, six years before the blockbuster film - and three years ahead of the first IRA ceasefire which helped transformed the city's potential as a tourism destination.

Today, a model in Jonathan Kearns' office in Toronto is all that is left of his brainchild.

It grew out of a conversation with the then Economy Minister Richard Needham, who wanted a vehicle to communicate the opportunities available in Northern Ireland for North Americans, particularly Canadians.

The clients, Harland and Wolff and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, were initially keen but Mr Kearns believes that it was eventually shelved because politically and economically, Northern Ireland was still in transition.

Mike Smyth
I think the project we have on the table is a wonderful iconic project for Belfast
Mike Smyth
Titanic Quarter Ltd
But lately some interested parties have again been giving his dusty plans the once over.

Long after he first had the idea, there is now a real possibility that the place where the doomed ship was built will finally get round to cashing in on the worldwide interest in everything Titanic.

Plans for a so-called "ship of lights" appear to have been quietly dropped but revised proposals for a "Titanic Signature Project" are taking shape.

Unlike the issue of a national stadium, there is no debate over where any Titanic project should go - right where the ill-fated ship was built in Belfast docks.

But there is a question over what it should be, how much it would cost and whether enough people would want to see the project, marking the ship which sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912, killing more than 1,500 people.

Artist's impression of Titanic Quarter plans
Various commercial projects are planned for Belfast's Titanic Quarter

The still largely desolate landscape where once stood the largest shipyard in the United Kingdom is now known as Titanic Quarter - 165 acres set to be transformed in the biggest property development scheme Northern Ireland has ever seen.

At its heart would be visitor attractions linked to the Titanic.

Plans have been drawn up by the so-called "Titanic Alliance", a group of stakeholders including the Northern Ireland Tourist Board; the Belfast City Council; the Belfast Harbour Commissioners and Titanic Quarter Ltd, but they are still tightly under wraps.

The project could cost up to 100m, a combination of public/private money, and an application has been made for a potential award of between 10m and 25m from the Big Lottery Fund. An answer is expected in the autumn.

Thompson Dry Dock
Thompson Dry Dock will feature the centre-piece of the attraction
But you don't have to spend long with tourists, who regularly visit the Titanic Quarter on one of the many bus tours which now include it on their route, to discover there' is still much work to do.

A surprising number don't even know the famous ship was built in Belfast. That must change if Titanic is to do for tourism in Northern Ireland what it did at the Hollywood box-office in the late 1990s.

Currently only one of Northern Ireland's tourism draws is regarded as world class - the kind of thing that people come here for because they can't get it anywhere else - and that's the Giant's Causeway.

In 2005 - the last year for which figures are available - it drew 464,243 visitors - more than 200,000 over any other single attraction. Tourism chiefs believe the Titanic Signature Project would have a similarly world-class status attracting about 500,000 people a year.

The Tourist Board says tourism cannot progress unless the project gets the go ahead.

Its chief executive, Alan Clarke, says: "If it doesn't happen, I think Northern Ireland tourism will really struggle as a sustainable element of our economy long term - it's as important as that."

Jonathan Kearns agrees. He says that had his idea been commissioned all those years ago today, Northern Ireland "would have a far more active and successful tourism economy because what Northern Ireland tends to lack is destinations for tourism".

There's every reason to believe that tourists will come here in their tens of thousands to see it
Michael Smyth
University of Ulster economist
But it must be built by 2011 if it is to be in place for the Titanic's centenary in 2012 - when interest in the ship and its story is likely to be very high.

Mike Smith of Titanic Quarter Ltd says: "If there's nothing there to celebrate the centenary of the Titanic then serious questions will be asked, and I think the project we have on the table is a wonderful iconic project for Belfast."

Of course many will see as a waste of money. We are fond of writing off major projects as "white elephants" before they are even built.

Both the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Arena were similarly dismissed, yet Belfast today is barely imaginable without them.

Economist Michael Smyth of the University of Ulster believes the Titanic project is in the same bracket - so long as "it's not some kind of Disneyworld attraction, a stack 'em up and flog 'em cheap".

"The evidence from the other side of the Atlantic, from Florida and Newfoundland, is that Titanic is a major tourism draw," he says.

The Titanic sails from Southampton
The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage to New York
"Their connections with the Titanic are spurious and tangential - this is where it was built.

"We can show that off very effectively here and there's every reason to believe that tourists will come here in their tens of thousands to see it.

"The fact I find very hard to factor in here is that it has taken us so long to get round to exploiting it fully."

Whatever happens, there is already a concerted effort to make more of the Titanic attractions which already do exist in the city like the Thompson Dock where the ship was built.

'Titanoraks'

The Belfast Visitor and Convention Centre will soon launch electronic Titanic guides, of the kind often used in art galleries and museums, which will help "Titanoraks" find their way around more easily.

The city council has also received money from the Tourist Board to erect some proper signs while the work continues on producing a locally-based Titanic website.

But everything really depends on the signature project.

It would surely be a supreme irony if one of the greatest maritime failures in history helped lead almost 100 years later to a new era of success for the place of its birth.


SEE ALSO
Nomadic in historic homecoming
16 Jul 06 |  Northern Ireland
Titanic recreated in back garden
11 Jul 06 |  Highlands and Islands
'Titanic tat' sign of the times
15 Mar 06 |  Northern Ireland
A Titanic dive to remember
17 Oct 05 |  Northern Ireland
Titanic tourist project unveiled
11 Aug 05 |  Northern Ireland
Major Titanic development planned
11 Mar 05 |  Northern Ireland

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