A century after 1,502 people died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the world's most famous shipwreck has become a popular vacation destination.
There are at least four different ways to relive the tragedy of the Titanic, if you're the type of traveller drawn to morbid historical sites. (I certainly am.) Last week, I travelled to the Titanic Belfast museum in Northern Ireland to celebrate the Blu-ray 3D release of James Cameron's 1997 film of the same name.
Cameron and the film's producer, Jon Landau, dedicated an original exhibit to the newly opened museum. It's expected to be a tourist destination for both Irish locals and international Titanic followers. Cameron knows better than anyone the Titanic has an audience.
"There have certainly been disasters since that have claimed many more lives than this event in 1912," Cameron said in an interview at the event. "But somehow it still captures our imagination because of the human stories that played out. The stories of people separated, having to make decisions of who would live and who would die…I think that is what constantly intrigues us about it."
The Belfast experience was a beautiful and timeless tribute to the history of the vessel and paid homage to those who lost their lives. The six floor, 150,700 sq ft museum cost US$160 million to build, making it the world's largest exclusively dedicated to the ship. Adjacent to the museum is the Drawing Office where Titanic's plans were drawn up, next to that, the River Lagan, where the ship first launched. Visitors can enjoy nine interpretive galleries, each loaded with interactive displays that explore every aspect of Titanic's legend and maritime Belfast.
The museum's gift store had some interesting, if not entirely odd, items for sale. The shelves were filled with bobble heads of passengers, mugs that read "Keep Calm, We're Unsinkable," "Captain's Little Helper" bibs and onesies, "Tubtanic" bath plugs, lighters, shot glasses, beer mugs, a thimble, and a gigantic heart of the sea necklace, similar to the one that Rose wore in the movie.
But any land-locked museum can only capture so much of the experience. Die-hard Titanic fans require the open-sea.
This past April, brave enthusiasts with a sense of irony boarded two Titanic-themed cruise ships to commemorate the ship's 100th anniversary. One vessel, the MS Balmoral, had a 1,350-passenger capacity, but carried 1,309 passengers on the memorial cruise, "the same number (of passengers) that sailed on the fateful Titanic voyage," the company said on its website. 2,208 total people, including passengers and crew were aboard the original ship. Because the cruise sold out nearly two years in advance of the trip, a second ship, the Azamara Journey, was added during the summer of 2011.
The cruises were designed to replicate food, entertainment and costume of the era. Passengers were encouraged to dress in period clothing and the ship made stops at cemeteries in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to visit the final resting places for many unclaimed victims. Tickets cost approximately $3,000 to $10,000. An example of capitalising on a tragedy or an engrossing, educational experience? I'm not sure.
For those with $US60,000 to spare, a submersible expedition dive trip to view the wreckage of the Titanic was also planned to celebrate the anniversary. For the first time ever, the 12,460 feet journey beneath the sea was open to the public. Admittedly, this sounds awesome.
The Titanic museums in Branson, MO and Pigeon Forge, TN, are huge tourist magnets attracting millions of visitors each year. Guests can walk the $1 million exact replica of Titanic's grand staircase, touch an iceberg and feel 28-degree water, shovel coal in the boiler room and learn how to send SOS distress signals. You will also receive a boarding pass of an actual Titanic passenger or crew member and discover the passenger's fate in the Titanic memorial room at the end of the tour.
"I think of it as a living theatre with guests as part of the experience," said John Joslyn, owner of the Titanic Attraction Museum, on his website. Another compelling feature of the museum: weddings. Couples can now take their vows standing on the Grand Staircase or at the water's edge.
What is it about this particular catastrophe that has held our interest for so long (me included)? What is it about tragedy that we just can't get enough of and when, if ever, does intrigue go too far?
Cameron, father of four children, sees the value.
"I think it is really important for us to continue to profit from the lessons of history and that's what places like this do. Especially for kids who don't know their history yet, a story like Titanic can act as a magnet to get them interested."
I totally agree, minus the onesies, shot glasses and bath plugs...