BELFAST (Reuters) - Two flares fired into the morning sky above Belfast on Saturday will mark the opening of a 97-million pound ($154 million) Titanic centre at the site of its launch, telling the story of the doomed liner which sank 100 years ago.
Titanic Belfast is one of a number of signature projects designed to generate tourism in Northern Ireland, better known for decades as a region of violence and sectarian strife.
Some 100,000 people from 20 countries have booked tickets in advance to visit the showcase building constructed beside the slipway from which the liner was launched by the Harland and Wolff shipyard a century ago.
Shaped like the vessel’s hull - and the same height - the center is covered in 3,000 aluminum panels and its six floors containing nine galleries telling the story of the doomed steamship and the Belfast of the early 1900s.
“We’re letting the building speak for itself, with a simple ceremony, marked by the firing of two flares - as was the case when Titanic was launched,” said Tim Husbands, Titanic Belfast’s CEO.
There is also an interactive ride and film footage of the wreck of Titanic in its final resting place 3,784 meters (yards) below the Atlantic - some of it never seen before.
Near to the building stands the Harland and Wolff Drawing Office where the Titanic’s plans were drawn.
In the dock is Titanic’s refurbished tender, the SS Nomadic, which ferried passengers from the French port of Cherbourg to the Titanic and sister ship Olympic.
The Nomadic was returned to Belfast in 2006 -- saved from the scrapyard after ending her life as a floating restaurant on the Seine in Paris.
The Titanic story has taken a central position in a major tourism campaign launched in 22 countries at a cost of 19 million pounds ($30.23 million), that has also employed the global pulling power of Northern Ireland golf champions Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.
Other projects include a 20 million pound interpretative center at the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage site on the Co Antrim Coast and the restoration of the walled city of Londonderry.
But it is Titanic Belfast which is expected to lead the way and there is a target for it to draw 125,000 visitors a year from outside the British Isles.
“This is all about a new era. This is our Eiffel Tower, our Guggenheim, and it’s our time to completely change how people across the world see our city,” Titanic Belfast spokeswoman Claire Bradshaw said.
Other businesses in the city are cashing in as the big day approaches with Titanic beer and Titanic whiskey in the pubs and Titanic potato crisps in the shops.
Even fish and chip shops and cafes in east Belfast have been named after the liner and the railway station nearest to the Titanic building was also given the Titanic name this week.
And tucked away in an east Belfast street where some of the thousands of shipyard families lived for generations, a life size bronze of three shipyard workers was unveiled on Wednesday.
The opening marks the start of an extended Titanic festival for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Belfast’s most famous creation - April 15 1912.
It will include what is being billed as the world’s largest lighting show and an MTV concert with a host of global stars that will be broadcast around the world.
“Titanic is a globally recognized brand and the new signature project is injecting a renewed and positive interest in Belfast,” Tourism Minister Arlene Foster said.
“It is wonderful to see Northern Ireland making headlines for all the right reasons.”
($1 = 0.6285 British pounds)
Reporting by Ian Graham