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Titanic tourism - opportunity for Belfast, all of Ireland

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One hundred years ago today the Titanic eased down the slipway and into the River Lagan in Belfast. For the most of the past 99 years Belfast has ignored or at least played down the Titanic connection thanks to the sense of shame that attached to the ship's sinking.

That is all changing today.

Today Belfast is grasping its Titanic legacy with both hands. The Titanic has morphed from a tragedy into a romantic tragedy over the decades, mostly thanks to Hollywood. That process started long ago, but it's only recently that Belfast has joined in. As the great-grandson of one of Belfast's Titanic workers explained to the Irish Times, the Titanic was "a taboo topic. There was almost a sense of shame that she had been built here."

Even five years ago, when I first went to see the Harland & Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built, you couldn't actually see much. You weren't allowed to walk yourself around and there were no regular tours. I joined a tour run by enthusiasts who were keen to promote the Titanic ties, but their tour demonstrated clearly that these people were in the minority.

All you could see was ruin: rusted iron gates, garbage dumped all around, shattered glass and broken pavements and the main building, where the plans were drawn was just big, mostly vacant, lifeless shell. I remember thinking "this is what Belfast thinks of the Titanic."

Just a few years later and all of that is changed. Local museums are devoting exhibition space to the Titanic's artifacts. There are regular, various Titanic Tours and the city sponsors an annual Titanic Festival. Soon the center-piece of Belfast's bid to be the Titanic city - the Titanic Building {photo below} - will offer a great new Titanic-themed visitor experience.

There is competition too. Southampton in England would also like to be the Titanic city. The ship was built in Belfast, but most of the ship's crew lived in Southampton. No city lost more citizens in the disaster. Even Cobh has traditionally made more of its Titanic link than has Belfast. Cobh was the Titanic's last port of call before, the place where Fr. Brown left Titanic after taking his famous set of pictures of the liner.

When you add in all the Irish passengers, the tragic story of Addergoole, Co. Mayo the overall Irish connection to the Titanic is very strong.

Although the Titanic story remains a sad one, all those who survived the sinking and probably all those who lost a loved one are now dead. It's become the distant past.

The ship itself has become a cultural icon and it is that aspect of the Titanic that Belfast is belatedly recognizing has a value in terms of tourist revenues. The real history of why the Titanic sank or the shipyard's unpleasant past hardly matter today when tourism development will help all of Belfast, indeed all of Ireland when the full Irish story is told.

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