Put your Titanic pants on, and take a trip through downturn land
Between two of the best tourist attractions in Ireland, North or South, is a walking tour of the recession
Titanic Belfast: the city appears to have built something strong and lasting out of its most famous disaster. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
They sell souvenir boxer shorts at Titanic Belfast. The great ship ploughs across the groin, its name emblazoned across the waistband and 100 inappropriate puns forming in your head. But there must be a market for the undergarments. Perhaps nothing says “I’ll never forget the terrible, avoidable deaths of 1,500 people in the icy seas of the North Atlantic” better than yanking on a pair of commemorative pants.
It’s a Tuesday morning at the exhibition, a day when the local kids are back to school but the queue at the gift shop is long, and the customers are multinational. Even with the usual gift-shop silliness the boxers are an unusual misstep, because the exhibition that precedes it balances sensitivity for Titanic’s victims with touch-screen fun and even a minor thrill ride.
It’s more than a year since this architecturally striking building opened, to coincide with the centenary of the sinking, and the city appears to have built something strong and lasting out of its most famous disaster.
Yet strolling the tourist route around it also means taking a walking tour of a city that not only dreamed big but also built big when things started getting very small again.
Leaving the Titanic Belfast exhibition and heading along the dockfront of the Titanic Quarter, the path brings you along a stretch of empty retail units, plastered with that familiar innovation of this recession: the false shopfront. These are the look-what-could-be-heres that only ever tell you look-what’s-not. These are the glossy printed scars of an economic graph that dropped sharply.
There are some occupied units, one housing a chain convenience store, another a coffee shop that, refreshingly, asks customers to pay what they want for the coffee and buns. A quirky and comfortable spot, it is operating rent free and staffed by volunteers. Talk to the staff and they’ll tell you, without any pushiness, that it’s backed by Christian groups – which, come to think of it, explains the prayer garden in the corner, complete with artificial grass and a tree.
This atheist prevaricated over the idea of putting cash into the hands of potential evangelicals, but Jesus does make nice cakes, so fair’s fair.
Back outside, where the restored SS Nomadic is the last survivor of White Star Lines, there is steady traffic of tourists, but there is a quiet to the area that betrays the lack of underlying life. Even those behind the development have worried about the dead zone it can be in the evening. Nowhere better typifies this than the enormous Odyssey Pavilion, part of the complex squatting on the far side of the dock from Titanic Belfast. It is far from lifeless. There is a steady trade to its bowling lanes, sports bar, cinema and Pizza Hut, but its size – and some vacant units – makes emptiness its most obvious feature.
It turns out that taxpayers in the Republic are paying a price for the place whether they visit or not. The Odyssey Pavilion is on the market for £10 million, on the instruction of KPMG, its administrator. The problem is that Anglo Irish Bank originally gave its developer £71 million.
Åttached to the Odyssey is an absolute gem, however: a huge venue by the standards of this island’s tourist attractions yet one that somehow manages to be almost tucked away in a corner of the behemoth.
W5, four floors of science games, interactivity, displays, shows and laser games, is arguably the best day out for kids on the island. We gave it three hours but left feeling we had only just scratched the surface.
This particular Tuesday some families, many of them having travelled from the Republic to visit the building, had arrived at W5 in the morning and stayed until it closed that evening.
The most obvious measure of its success is the sight of so many parents firing lasers, making their own weather bulletins, flying mini helicopters, playing with wave machines, wind machines and tornado machines, and otherwise looking as if it will be they who will need to be dragged home by their kids at the end of the day.
Within this rectangle of Belfast, then, you have two of the best tourist attractions in Ireland, and there are also businesses and organisations such as Northern Ireland Science Park, Belfast Metropolitan College and Titanic Studios (where Game of Thrones is filmed).
Still, to reach the successful corners of the Titanic Quarter, visitors must take an unscheduled tour of its accidental theme park, Downturn Land.