Fantastically lucrative voyage: Inside the surreal, sensitive and occasionally grotesque world of Titanic tourism

Ship of themes: Cultural appropriation of the tragedy has always been controversial, but it can be done sensitively (20th Century Fox)
Ship of themes: Cultural appropriation of the tragedy has always been controversial, but it can be done sensitively (20th Century Fox)

Twenty-five years on, composer and events producer Bobby Cole can still remember the first time he saw the trailer for James Cameron’s Titanic appear on TV. “It was done so well, I went to school the next day and I remember saying to someone, ‘They found this drawing at the bottom of the ocean!’” he says. “I thought it was real.”

If you came of age in the late Nineties, you can probably remember your first encounter with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack, Kate Winslet’s Rose, and a certain 56-carat blue diamond. Cameron’s 1997 film was perfectly calibrated to make an indelible mark on impressionable young minds: a heady blend of harrowing disaster, doomed romance, top-of-the-range CGI and Celine Dion.

Heading to the cinema to celebrate her 11th birthday, copywriter and PR Ellen Beardmore recalls, she and her best friend “were mostly interested in Leonardo DiCaprio’s cheekbones” as Titanic’s “initial draw” – and her mum “came along due to the 12 rating”. Three hours and 15 minutes later, when the opening strains of Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” kicked in, “we were all left in tears, absolutely reeling”.

Editor and author Susan Furber, meanwhile, developed a fondness for a “great and tragic love story” – and DiCaprio – after her older sisters “let me watch Romeo + Juliet on VHS with them”. After begging for her mother’s permission, she eventually “saw Titanic five times in cinemas”.

Repeat viewings like these are thought to have played a major part in the film’s record-breaking $1.84bn (£1.53bn) international gross. And if you didn’t manage to persuade your parents to take you? There was always the VHS (which, depending on when you got your hands on it, may or may not have come in a double-decker, two-video format).

This month, a remastered version of Cameron’s epic will return to cinemas to mark Titanic’s quarter-century – but these days, a trip to the pictures is far from the only way in which fans of the film can sustain their fascination. The re-release comes amid a boom time for Titanic-themed events, exhibitions, trips... even diving tours. Many are painstakingly researched, rooted in authenticity, and steeped in atmosphere.

Titanic Belfast is “located exactly on the historic site where the Titanic was built” at the former Harland & Wolff shipyard, explains head of sales and marketing Eimear Kearney, and has a “vantage point right over the slipways... so you can see exactly where the Titanic went into the water for the first time”.

Musealia’s touring Titanic: The Exhibition, which docked in London last year and is currently in New York, has worked with historian Claes-Göran Wetterholm and has over the years managed to accumulate “one of the most important collections of Titanic artefacts when it comes to items from survivors or personal items”, according to its director Luis Ferreiro. Accompanied by audio of “original testimonies”, it is a labour of love for his family: his father was a journalist who “interviewed survivors back in the late Eighties, early Nineties”.

Others take a more experiential approach. Decades after watching that original trailer, Cole ended up visiting Titanic Belfast on a day off. His trip inspired a concept album that “tracks the progress of the Titanic from being built ... to the sinking, then the survivors being rescued by the Carpathia and arriving into New York”. When he considered sharing it with an audience, the event “snowballed”.

The end result was Queen of the Ocean, an immersive theatre and dining experience currently touring the UK. Guests become first-class diners: they eat a “21st-century spin” on the menu once eaten by passengers like Molly Brown (played in the film by Kathy Bates) and are served by actors in character.

A replica of one of the ship’s first-class cabins, as seen at Titanic Belfast (Getty)
A replica of one of the ship’s first-class cabins, as seen at Titanic Belfast (Getty)

Some projects can’t help but give you the heebie-jeebies. In 2014, the Chinese company Seven Star Energy Investment announced plans to build a full-scale replica of the ship at the Romandisea resort in Sichuan province. It enlisted an Emmy-nominated production designer, Curtis Schnell, to recreate the ship’s interiors down to the door handles and light fittings; there were also grand plans for hosting pool parties, “Vegas-style” entertainment ... and an iceberg collision simulator, recreating the sinking using sound and light effects.

Beset by delays and controversy, the estimated £125m venture is currently thought to be on hold. The Australian billionaire Clive Palmer has also revealed plans to launch a Titanic 2, mirroring the original ship and even following its voyage. And if you have a spare $250,000 lying around, you can head out on OceanGate’s eight-day diving exhibition this summer and see the wreck for yourself.

Whether or not you’d personally choose to holiday on a replica of a doomed ship, this boom seems to make good business sense. Millennials are the biggest drivers of the experience economy: according to a 2014 survey by Ticketmaster, 78 per cent of respondents born between 1980 and 1996 would choose to spend money on a desirable experience or event rather than buying something. And they’re also a generation brought up on Titanic. It’s a perfect Venn diagram.

But our enduring cultural fascination with this tragedy is rooted in a century of myth-making, and unpicking the current phenomenon requires going back far beyond the release of Cameron’s film.

A replica of the Titanic’s fourth funnel is towed along the River Thames in 2010, to launch an exhibition of artefacts at the O2 Bubble (Getty)
A replica of the Titanic’s fourth funnel is towed along the River Thames in 2010, to launch an exhibition of artefacts at the O2 Bubble (Getty)

The legend started on the pages of newspapers. Soon after the ship sank in 1912, the UK press homed in on tales of heroism of the majority-British crew (the dramatist George Bernard Shaw became embroiled in a bitter war of words with Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle after claiming that the disaster had prompted “an explosion of outrageous romantic lying”). This, presumably, was to avoid lingering on some catastrophically bad PR for the British shipbuilding industry at a time when naval might was everything.

A spate of survivors’ memoirs appeared over the next few decades. There was also a steady flow of film adaptations (including an infamous Nazi propaganda film, commissioned to demonstrate the evils of British capitalism) that culminated in the 1958 docudrama A Night to Remember, still considered the most historically accurate onscreen version. Then came the discovery of the wreck site in 1985, led by oceanographer Robert Ballard.

Boosted by artefacts salvaged from the ship (reportedly against Ballard’s wishes), major exhibitions cropped up across the United States and in Hamburg, Germany, over the next few years. By the time Cameron’s film was released, interest was at fever pitch. Even back then, there was cross-pollination between the movie and museums: in the US, visitors to a Titanic exhibition in Florida could pick up a discount on film tickets for AMC Cinemas, and vice versa.

As Titanic-mania took hold, the tie-ins stepped up a gear. When Fox Studios opened their Backlot theme park in Sydney in 1999, the centrepiece was Titanic: The Experience, which worked real props from the film (like the Renault car, window handprint included) into an uncanny immersive experience. Visitors would be split into two groups on arrival, half heading to first class, the others to steerage. All of them, though, would get to experience a simulation in which the room started to shake and water gushed in through the sides.

“Passengers are invited to experience the wonder of filmmaking – and the desperate race to stay alive!” one Australian reporter cheerfully deadpans through a grainy news package available on YouTube. What a tagline.

As humans, we are naturally interested in death and horror

Dr Charlotte Russell, clinical psychologist

Titanic: The Experience lasted just two years, and the Backlot was eventually dismantled to build more sound stages. Still, the ethical questions it raised loom over many of today’s projects. Is turning the tragic death of more than 1,500 people into a tourist experience, well, right?

Back in 1996, the academics J John Lennon and Malcolm Foley coined the term “dark tourism” to encapsulate the morbid appeal of sites associated with death and tragedy, from the nuclear exclusion zone at Chernobyl to Pompeii; other experts have since pinpointed the Titanic’s sinking as the start of this phenomenon. According to analysis by Future Market Insights last year, this macabre sector is projected to reach a value of $36.5bn over the next decade.

“As humans, we are naturally interested in death and horror,” explains Dr Charlotte Russell, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Travel Psychologist. “Finding out about dark tourism sites can allow us to approach the topic of death in a way that feels ‘safe’ for us. As you might expect, people often aren’t as open to the subject when it affects us directly.” Though there’s always a risk that people might see these experiences “as a bit of fun, particularly if it’s been marketed in this way or if the site has been represented in a certain way by pop culture”, the motivations behind “dark tourism” don’t always have to be entirely morbid, Russell adds. Sometimes it is “empathy and wanting to educate ourselves” that drives our interest.

The debate over how to deal with the Titanic tragedy is not a new controversy. When objects from the wreck were first salvaged in the Eighties, survivor Eva Hart criticised the “insensitivity and greed” of “fortune hunters, vultures, pirates”. There has been protracted legal wrangling about whether items from the wreckage can be sold at auction (although for a while, coal from the site was available to buy).

Music publicist Aoife Ní Niadh (who reckons she has “definitely watched [the film] over 100 times at this point – it drives my family mad”) has “been to many Titanic museums and exhibitions over the years”, travelling everywhere from Cobh in County Cork, the ship’s last port of call, to Liverpool’s Maritime Museum. “I feel like the majority I’ve been to have been in good taste. The only aspect I question ... is trying to capitalise off a tragedy by selling Titanic-related merch. I feel like there’s no reason to be selling Titanic-themed shot glasses or tea towels.”

A Titanic-themed fridge magnet on sale at The Pump House in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter (Getty)
A Titanic-themed fridge magnet on sale at The Pump House in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter (Getty)

Ethical considerations inevitably weigh on the people behind Titanic tourism. “Sometimes we’ve had people suggest in the past, ‘You can have huge fans and blow cold air at people’, and I remember thinking ‘That’s a terrible idea,’” Cole says. His Queen of the Ocean event, he adds, “had to finish in a dignified way, just in respect of the people that lost their lives”. Sometimes, he says, “we get people writing on our Facebook comments, things like ‘Oh, I think this is really disrespectful, what you’re doing,’” – but often, he thinks, that’s because of misconceptions.

“People get the idea that it’s a musical, or ... that it’s a ‘Let’s get drunk and watch them’ [thing] – and it’s none of those things.” He’s even had “people in floods of tears at the end of the night”, he says, adding: “One of the comments that we often get is that people say there’s a lot more to the story than [they] thought.”

Cameron’s film has certainly brought the Titanic story back into a younger generation’s “psyche”, as Kearney puts it (sometimes, she adds, Titanic Belfast does “get visitors who come and they think we’re like a Harry Potter experience, where we’ve created an experience out of a movie”). When handled carefully, these events and experiences can fill in the gaps left by the film, painting a more nuanced historical picture. Ferreiro sees “the movie as an initial step ... [Musealia’s exhibition] basically tries to explain the human story of the Titanic, and make people understand that ... despite the grand staircase, the myth and the legend, there is a lot [that is] unknown”.

Both the Belfast destination and Musealia’s travelling exhibit place their emphasis on personal stories, going beyond well-known figures like Brown and the Strauses (the elderly couple who chose to stay on board together, a moving counterpoint to Jack and Rose in the movie). That the descendents of both victims and survivors have chosen to hand over what is often “the only material thing that is left from their grandmother, or even their mother or father” to his exhibition, Ferreiro says, “speaks to the approach we have to the story” in a good way.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in ‘Titanic’ (Fox/Paramount)
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in ‘Titanic’ (Fox/Paramount)

When Titanic Belfast reopens in March after a multimillion-pound renovation, Kearney explains, there will be a new focus on the “pursuit of dreams” by the passengers. These voyagers were seeking fresh beginnings. For many of the fans I speak to, this is a theme that’s only become more powerful as they’ve grown up watching and rewatching Cameron’s film.

“Mainly I think what resonates ... is that so many people on board were heading to a new life,” says actor and writer Fran Winston. “They weren’t on a jolly or a holiday. They were heading to America to start afresh and make their fortunes, so along with the lives lost, hopes and dreams were also destroyed. It is unfathomable.” For another fan, Jennifer, “What drew me into the movie ... [was] the fact that each and every passenger on that ship had a story – a story of hope for a new life in America, [or] visiting relatives”.

Also striking is the human fallibility, and the disquieting fact that life can be contingent: if just a few things had happened differently, could this tragedy have been avoided? “The Titanic had everything – opulence, the best technology at the time, famous passengers, and great expectations heaped upon it,” Beardmore says. “Its failure, on its maiden voyage, was unthinkable. I think everyone who watches the film is reminded that life is fragile, and wonders how they would have tried to survive.”

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but an eerily fascinating one. No wonder that, as Furber puts it, we watch it again and again, hoping things will play out happily: “Every time I watch it,” she says, “I convince myself that somehow this viewing, the ending will be different.”

‘Titanic’ is re-released in UK cinemas on 10 February