Northern Ireland

Can Titanic's hopes stay afloat?

Titanic Signature building
Image caption The building is due to open in time for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic in April 2012.

BBC reporter Yvette Shapiro examines whether sufficient visitor numbers to the new Titanic Signature building will justify its £77m price tag.

There is a school of thought in business and in government that says: "Build it and they will come".

Well, they have built it - the £77m Titanic Signature building.

And people will undoubtedly come, particularly this year, the 100th anniversary of the ship's fateful voyage.

But will they come in sufficient numbers to justify the huge investment and to give the local economy the boost that it so desperately needs?

Tourism consultant Michael Williamson of ASM Horwarth believes they will.

"We're on the cusp of taking a massive step forward as far is tourism is concerned," he said.

"If visitor numbers are not up by at least a third in five years' time, I'd be very surprised."

These comments reflect the optimism of executive ministers and tourism chiefs.

Over a million visitors from the Republic, Great Britain and the rest of the world came here in 2010.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board said it expects that by 2015 an additional 833,000 people will visit.

It said this is because of the Titanic project, the new Giant's Causeway visitor centre, the Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club and the Londonderry City of Culture events in 2013.

More jobs

And the more they come, the more they will spend, said the board.

The prediction is for additional tourism revenue of £140m by 2015, and the creation of more than 3,500 jobs in the sector.

Alan Clarke, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, said he does not feel pressure to deliver.

"I feel more optimism," he said.

"I've seen people who've been sitting in my seat, over the past 30 years or so, and they never had the opportunities that I have.

"The regeneration of Belfast, and other areas around Northern Ireland, is delivering a once in a lifetime opportunity."

No-one, no matter how bullish they are, would choose to launch a major international tourism campaign in the midst of a recession that is taking its toll on our main markets - Britain, Ireland and Europe.

But the Titanic centenary and the Derry City of Culture status is driving the timeline.

It is certainly a tall order to increase visitor numbers so dramatically, and to reverse recent downward trends.

Between 2008 and 2010, 14% fewer tourists came to Northern Ireland, and spending fell by almost £400m.

The full year statistics for 2011 have not been published, but it seems there was modest growth.

For the foreseeable future, modest will not be good enough.


Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster is responsible for tourism promotion.

She told the assembly that she is "frustrated to the ends of the earth" by people talking down the Titanic Signature project.

Image caption Arlene Foster said she was frustrated by people talking down the Titanic Signature project.

She blamed the media for fuelling and giving voice to negativity about the scheme which has absorbed more than £40m of public money.

But it was a government spending watchdog, the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), that sounded a loud warning about the future of the Titanic building.

In a report published last month, NIAO pointed out that the centre would need 290,000 visitors a year to break even.

The operator, Titanic Foundation, is predicting that about 306,000 people will come through the doors per year.

There is a very small margin of error. The NIAO concluded that if the projections fall short, the "long term future of the building would be doubtful".

Tourism consultant Michael Williamson said it was "unprofessional" and an "error of judgement" for the NIAO to release its report in the same week that tickets were put on sale.

"I think it's wrong of any organisation to come out and knock a project down before it has its doors open," he said.

Political support

There has been widespread political support for the Titanic scheme, but Sinn Fein wants assurances that the anticipated economic boost will be spread across all communities.

"The areas of Belfast with the highest levels of poverty and deprivation are in north and west Belfast," said Jennifer McCann MLA.

"For people to reap the benefits of this huge public investment, we need good transportation. The money is there in the budget for a rapid transit system, joining east and west Belfast, and this must be implemented," she said.

This call is endorsed by leading expert in urban planning, Professor Greg Lloyd, who heads the School of the Built Environment at the University of Ulster.

"Titanic Quarter has to be connected seamlessly with the city centre," he said.

"What Belfast can't risk is having different quarters across the city which don't connect.

"Local people and tourists must be able to move around easily, otherwise there's a danger of Belfast being hung, drawn and quartered."

Sunday Politics is on BBC1 at 12:00 GMT, and the Northern Ireland programme is repeated at 22:30 GMT.

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