Luxury liner sets sail from Belfast after £50m fit-out gives hope of more to come
The first luxury ship to be fitted out in Belfast "since the Titanic" has set sail from the city with hopes that more could follow in its wake.
Royal Caribbean's Azamara Pursuit, which has capacity for around 700 passengers, has been transformed by more than 500 workers for Newry fit-out firm MJM Group in a deal thought to be worth £50m.
And it was a first for the industry, the first time a single company had been awarded complete responsibility for a refit.
The fit-out was carried out over June and July in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, where Titanic was built.
MJM chairman Brian McConville said Harland & Wolff had won the work from MJM over other shipyards, despite being more expensive by "six figures".
But he said he was eager to showcase the potential of the Northern Ireland workforce in Belfast as it was a fitting way to mark MJM's 35th birthday.
"We went to two French yards, and a Dutch yard, and a couple of other yards, and Harland's.
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"We took the decision to bring the vessel to Belfast because MJM is 35 years in business to show everybody that this is possible. The last time a major joinery component luxury job was done in Belfast was the Titanic. There has been nothing since of that luxury or that volume since."
Mr McConville said the departure was the culmination of 10 years of discussion after first making contact with Royal Caribbean bosses at their Miami base.
"Ten years ago I visited Stormont with senior vice-presidents from Miami and we went to see the guys in Stormont. We suggested we should work hard at bringing in cruise ships. That fell a little bit on deaf ears, so I had to give up the chase."
But he revived the ambitions three years ago and he signed a deal with Royal Carribean in September last year for the Azamara Pursuit to be refitted in Belfast.
He said the deal was "history in the making" as MJM had been entrusted with the entire refit, from painting the exterior of the ship to fitting out its luxury bathrooms. It has also added three new 'spa suites' to the ship.
Mr McConville said the three ships in the Azamara family will not be due for a fresh fit-out for some years but hinted that the line-up could be extended to include another vessel - bringing more opportunity for work.
Jonathan Guest, chief executive of Harland and Wolff, said he hoped its "significant" deal with MJM could result in more work. Up to 30 of its staff had been working on the ship in support services.
"Obviously this job has been carried out quay-side, but ultimately we want vessels to come into our dry dock, which opens up a lot more work for traditional shipyard services which enhances value for us."
The vessel had arrived i n Belfast in April before departing under sunnier skies yesterday. The ship had cruised out of Belfast earlier this week for a two-day visit to the Isle of Man, before returning to show off the results of the fit-out to members of Azamara Pursuit's Club Voyage loyalty programme.
Its first big voyage will be a 15-night Wonders of Iceland trip.