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China is building a replica of the Titanic

May 17, 2021

The life-sized copy of the ill-fated vessel is the latest draw in the country's booming theme park industry. It has also caused controversy.

A model of the ship is shown on a display near the construction site.
A display near the ship's construction site in ChinaImage: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

In 1912, the Titanic, a luxury ship branded as "the unsinkable," infamously struck an iceberg and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,500 passengers died on what was supposed to be a groundbreaking voyage and a testament to modern engineering.

Since then, the story of the Titanic has become etched in legend, thanks in part to the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Chinese investor Su Shaojun is perhaps one of the vessel's — and the film's — biggest fans. Several years ago, Su announced he would finance a life-sized replica of the ill-fated ship, which in his words would keep memories of the Titanic alive, as the AFP news agency reported. "We are building a museum for the Titanic," he told AFP.

People stand on stage below a caste while crowds take photos.
Theme parks are very popular in China, such as the Disney resort in ShanghaiImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Han Guan

The 260-meter-long (850-foot) ship will be the star attraction in the Romandisea theme park located in China's Sichuan province and set to open to the public soon. For up to 2,000 yuan guests can spend the night on the ship.

Su says the functioning steam engine will make guests feel they are really at sea, although the boat will not be seaworthy and will be docked in a river. The imitation vessel in fact copied the original Titanic down to a tee — from cabins to door handles.

Tour buses in the amusement park play the film's theme tune, Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," on repeat, AFP reports.

Workers walk in front of scaffolding and a mock image of the ship.
The replica is still under constructionImage: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

James Cameron's blockbuster film Titanic was a smash hit in China, as it was in Europe and the US.

A new documentary in China has further pushed the history of the vessel into the national spotlight. Released in 2021 by director Arthur Jones, The Six tells the story of six Chinese travelers who survived the maiden voyage. It was released on April 16 — a day after the 109th anniversary of the ship's sinking.

The full-scale Titanic in Romandisea is one of the latest additions to China's booming amusement park industry, which is a global leader in the theme park industry. AECOM's China Theme Park Pipeline Report anticipated in 2018 that China's theme parks would welcome 230 million visitors in 2020 and generate approximately $12 billion in ticket sales, up 367% compared to 2010.

While the pandemic slowed business, the industry will likely surge as Chinese citizens have fewer options to travel outside of the country.

A ship reproducing the Titanic in construction.
The ship will be the centerpiece of a theme park in Sichuan province in ChinaImage: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Cause for concern?

In the past, the Titanic project was criticized by some who say it is insensitive to turn a tragedy in which people lost their lives into an amusement park attraction. In 2017 when the Chinese investor came to a meeting of the British Titanic Society, some members said the project was in poor taste.

Jean Legg's father was a steward on the original ship. "If he knew this was being replicated, I think he'd be turning in his grave," said Legg to the BBC at the time. "They are using the Titanic because of the tragedy — it's upsetting."

The BBC reported that the original plan for the theme park attraction included a simulated iceberg crash — Mr. Su's idea. The idea was eventually dropped.

Yet David Scott-Beddard of the society told DW in an updated statement that "Mr Su and his team assured our members that these concerns would be taken into consideration and to the best of our knowledge, these have been dealt with."

Su Shaojun holds a model of the Titanic.
Investor Su Shaojun has a passion for the movie "Titanic" as well as the original boatImage: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

"It will be interesting to see the level of authenticity adopted when the ship is complete," he added. "Like many other Titanic enthusiasts, we hope it will help keep the story of the ship and the memories of those who perished in the disaster, alive."

Big competition

Su's ship was scheduled to be completed in 2019, but is still under construction. The investor hopes as many as five million visitors will visit the Titanic in the theme park, making up for its exorbitant cost of 1 billion yuan ($153.5 million) "I hope this ship will be here in 100 or 200 years," Su said. Construction begun six years ago.

A view of the ship and scaffolding from the front of the boat.
The replica was scheduled to be finished in 2019, but that date has been pushed backImage: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Some have expressed concern that it could be abandoned like the 2008 replica of the USS Enterprise — an American aircraft carrier — which cost over $18 million and was abandoned shortly after it opened, the AFP reported.

There's also another titanic replica in the works, financed by Australian billionaire and controversial mining magnate Clive Palmer. The Titanic II has been under construction since 2012 but unlike its Romandisea counterpart, it aimed to be a fully operating ship which could make long voyages. It failed to meet its sailworthy date of 2016, which has been pushed back to 2022.

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist