By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Australian mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer on Tuesday unveiled blueprints for Titanic II, a modern replica of the doomed ocean liner, although he stopped short of calling the vessel unsinkable.
The ship will largely recreate the design and decor of the fabled original, with some modifications to keep it in line with current safety rules and shipbuilding practices, and the addition of some modern comforts such as air conditioning, Palmer said at a press conference in New York.
The three passenger classes, however, will be prevented from mingling, as in 1912, Palmer said.
"I'm not too superstitious," Palmer said when asked whether recreating a ship best known for sinking was tempting fate.
White Star Line, the operator of the original ship, had said the Titanic was designed to be unsinkable. Some 1,500 people died on Titanic's maiden voyage in 1912 from Southampton to New York after the ship collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic.
Palmer, who created the company Blue Star Line last year, declined to make a similar boast.
"Anything will sink if you put a hole in it," Palmer said. "I think it would be very cavalier to say it."
Unlike the original, Titanic II will have more than enough space in its lifeboats for every person on board and will have additional escape staircases. Markku Kanerva, sales director at Deltamarin, the Finnish company designing the ship, said it would be the "safest cruise ship in the world."
Palmer declined to answer questions about the project's cost. Although the Titanic was the world's largest ship in her time, she would be smaller than many of today's modern cruise ships.
"It's not about the money," Palmer said. "I've got enough money for it, I think that's all that matters."
Forbes estimated Palmer's net worth to be $795 million in 2012. He describes himself as a billionaire.
Titanic II will be built by Chinese state-owned CSC Jinling Shipyard, which is already building four ore carriers for Palmer's mining business, he said. The contract to build Titanic II has not yet been signed, Palmer said.
"Oh, probably next week, something like that," Palmer said, when asked when that would happen. "Most things I say I'll do I do."
He hoped construction would begin later this year, and that the maiden voyage, recreating the trans-Atlantic crossing of the original, would take place in 2016, he said.
"But if it takes longer, it takes longer," he said. "But we'll do it. We've got a big pile of money."
Jaime Katz, an analyst who tracks the cruise industry, said Titanic II may find it difficult to compete with established cruise lines, particularly the economies of scale of their larger fleets. She said the Titanic II could be marketed to wealthier passengers and could draw repeat business by varying its routes rather than focusing on trans-Atlantic crossings.
"People are going to be really cautious or superstitious regarding getting on a second version of the Titanic, or it could be a really compelling idea for history buffs who really want to live the story or the legend behind it," Katz said.
"There's an audience for all sorts of cruises," she said.
Titanic II will operate as a cruise ship, and passengers will find 1912-style clothing in their rooms should they wish to dress up and pretend they are living in an earlier era as they visit facsimiles of the original gilded first-class dining and smoking rooms, if they have the appropriate ticket.
Although the classes will be kept largely separate, Palmer said he was considering offering ticket packages that would allow passengers to experience all three classes during a typical six-day Atlantic crossing.
Prices for the tickets will be announced later.
Helen Benziger, a descendant of Titanic survivor Margaret Brown, better known as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, said at the press conference that the ship would be a chance to experience the sort of grace and civility she said was sometimes lacking in the modern world.
"I think it's a chance to go back in time," said Benziger, who has joined the project's advisory board.
Palmer said he plans to travel in third class on Titanic II's maiden voyage.
"I'll be looking forward to it as you bang the drum and play the fiddle, twirling around like Leonardo does," he said, meaning actor Leonardo DiCaprio, in one of the repeated references he made to the 1997 James Cameron film ‘Titanic.'
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Phil Berlowitz)