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Undertaking a Titanic task to boost visitor levels

Northern Ireland's Tourist Board hopes that a new development based on the world's most famous ship will play a big part in drawing the crowds to Belfast. By Brendan Keenan

BUILD it and they will come. That could be the motto of the Northern Ireland tourism sector, as it tries to create a brand and a strategy that will give it an edge against its bigger, more successful competitor in the Republic.

In the case of the Titanic, the centenary of whose sinking occurs in a few weeks' time, they have certainly built it. The new Titanic exhibition building cost the best part of £100m (€120m at the average exchange rate over the period).

They are entitled to call it the world's largest Titanic visitor experience, and could also call it the world's most expensive. Like the doomed ship itself, the building and the developments around it are part of Belfast's history.

Around half of the money came from the public purse, mostly from the UK Treasury but including a hefty £10m from Belfast City Council. But there is also Irish money -- or, at any rate, Irish bank credit.

The idea to base a major development around the name of the world's most famous ship came from developer Pat Doherty of Harcourt Developments and financier Dermot Desmond. As well as building several new developments on the site, their joint venture, Titanic Quarter Ltd, committed up to £25m to the exhibition project.

The EU has been asked for a further €24m, although this is subject to an examination of the awarding of the construction contact to Harcourt.

Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, is well aware of the responsibility on him to ensure this huge investment succeeds.

"This is a big one and a lot rests on it," he says.

The Titanic project is the centrepiece of four "signature projects", the others being on the Causeway Coast, based on the curious rock formation of the Giant's Causeway; the Walled City of Derry; and St Patrick's connections with Down (unlike some Patrician connections one could mention).

The thinking behind this is to offer a tourism brand different from that of the Republic. That will be a more complex task than selling golf or fishing.

"They have a big job to do," he says. "We've given them the product and they must do the selling."

A lot of money is going into that as well. The international marketing campaign is costing more than €20m, in a major effort to change not just the recent political image of Northern Ireland, but its tourism image.

The "product" behind the signature projects is the fashionable one of culture, history and science, rather than activities and scenery.

"We are trying to distinguish ourselves that way.

"There are many Titanic exhibitions, but only in Belfast can you stand in the huge, dry dock where she was fitted out," says Mr Clarke.

That also explains the remarkable £8m being spent restoring the SS Nordic, which carried first- and second-class passengers from the quays at Cherbourg out to the giant liners -- once for Titanic and for 27 years to the sister ship Olympic.

"Nordic is back in her dry dock after 100 years, was built by the same men as the luxury lounges of the Titanic, and is being restored to the same level of luxury by Harland & Wolff. We believe that offers a unique experience to visitors."

One idea is that guests at events in the Titanic building's banqueting suite can have pre-dinner drinks aboard Nordic.

Money on this scale means it is necessary to sell more than tourism. The marketing is also being touted as part of the drive to attract foreign investment.

"It is about changing perceptions and re-positioning Northern Ireland. Tourism is a shop window as well as a business," Mr Clarke says.

"The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) included 15,000 tourism jobs in its strategy for the creation of over 90,000 jobs. In the past, it would not have done that.

"These are exciting times here. Until recently, people did not have the opportunities that we have to make a big difference."

The target is for tourism revenues to reach £1bn by 2020, which compares with last year's figure of €3.5bn in the Republic. Mr Clarke, who has more than 30 years' experience in tourism in all parts of the UK, is under no illusions about what can and cannot be achieved.

"Dublin is going to be the point of entry for most overseas visitors. Our aim is to promote the short stay of three to four nights; perhaps as part of a longer holiday."

He must allow for the shortage of hotel rooms outside Belfast. Even in the city, there will be an emphasis on weekend breaks, because accommodation can be scarce during the business week.

Another risk may be that the Titanic "experience" will crowd out other attractions. The silver building, in the shape of a ship's prow, is on the scale of the Guinness Hopstore in Dublin, which last year drew one million visitors.

But the hopstore does not have Titanic's cable car ride. This takes visitors up and down some 15 metres to get the feeling of being inside the ship's giant construction gantry.

One can imagine the Republic being the main source of outside visitors as word spreads and parents are pestered by their children to go on the "Titanic ride".

This is not quite what Mr Clarke wants. The message is that this is an authentic experience, not Disneyland, but he is not going to turn his nose up at any source of revenue.

The days of taxpayer largesse and Irish developer credit are gone, but investment is still required. TQL's grandiose scheme for a €7bn new city on the entire shipyard site will not happen as planned and more private money will be needed to finish off what has been started.

Titanic and her sisters were a symbol of 19th century Belfast's willingness to make huge investments in the belief that nowhere else could do it better.

"You could look at this as a journey into the past," says Mr Clarke, "but it can also be a step into the future as well -- a future based on innovation and a return of civic pride."

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