WHAT could have been one of Titanic Belfast’s most popular attractions has proved to be no stairway to heaven just yet.
Despite recent promises of a Sunday opening initiative, a lack of general access to a replica of the doomed liner’s hand-carved staircase continues to provoke outrage from the paying public.
The stunning recreation, made famous and romanticised by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic movie, is located in the main banqueting area and not on the building’s standard tour route.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday afternoon, the attraction’s American-born architect Eric Kuhne said the feature staircase was a “special addition” only added after all of the nine galleries were planned out.
Mr Kuhne went on to raise false hopes that the access situation had been resolved with a string of gaffes.
In response to one irate caller’s complaint, Mr Kuhne interjected to say there had been “complete misunderstanding”.
He said: “The grand staircase from the Titanic was rebuilt in the banquet suite on the sixth floor of the building, and so long as there isn’t a private function in there, that staircase is open to everybody.
“In fact, there are two escalators that take you up to the top floor where the banqueting hall is and you’re more than welcome to go in there and see that.”
The architect said he had been working with Titanic Belfast staff to make sure the public had access.
“The staircase is available to everybody who comes into the building without buying a ticket. The only time it’s not available is when there’s a private function in there,” he said.
However, the red-faced architect reappeared on the programme a short time later to correct his erroneous claims.
“We’re desperately trying to find a way to get people more access to it but it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
“Please understand that the [entrance] tickets are for the nine galleries, not for the banqueting hall, and that’s always been the case.”
The internationally acclaimed architect’s previous commissions include Europe’s largest shopping mall — the Bluewater in Kent — which was completed in 1999, and several ambitious landmark buildings in Kuwait and Dubai.
Mr Kuhne said: “This response is just overwhelming, not just in people visiting, but also those who are writing in now about the staircase.
“We see it as an opportunity, not a liability.
“We are acting on this and we want to make this thing the most visitor-friendly attraction possible, but we’re having staffing arrangement dramas that we are trying to balance out.”
A recent independent survey revealed that more than two-thirds of adults in Northern Ireland planned to visit the attraction within the year.
The figure emerged after Titanic Belfast announced that it has sold all available tickets for the attraction during the first few weeks of opening.
The project’s architect acknowledged the frustration over access to the grand staircase and said there were “growing pains” for similar undertakings everywhere.
“Real credit has to be paid to Tim [Titanic Belfast’s chief executive Tim Husbands] and his extraordinary crew for handling this massive visitation – far more than we had anticipated – so there’s going to be a few hiccups, there’s going to be a few dramas on this thing,” said Mr Kuhne.
“It’s a shake-out cruise for the building – as much as for a ship – and there’s no museum or visitor attraction that has everything open all of the time and we’re trying to figure out how to get this to work properly.”
Thanking the public for their constructive criticism in driving improvements, Mr Kuhne told broadcaster Wendy Austin: “I want to thank all of your listeners for writing in and calling. We only know how to improve the building with their voices yelling and screaming at us.
“I encourage them to do so and please keep giving us an opportunity to come back and explain how all this is going to work.”
Details of a new “Staircase Sunday” initiative are due to be released this Monday.
Titanic Belfast managers hope the public “Titanic Tea Party” will go some way to defusing tensions while a long-term solution can be found.
Last week a spokesman said: “Titanic Belfast is delighted to announce that we will be holding Titanic Tea Parties across selected Sundays in May and June, held in the opulent surroundings of the Titanic Suite, featuring the near-replica grand staircase.
“More information on tickets for the series of Staircase Sunday events will be revealed on Monday, April 16, and we would ask visitors to check the website www.titanicbelfast.com for full details.”