Tall Ships event helps illustrate Belfast’s transformation

Thousands are visiting the city in upbeat mood to celebrate its maritime festival

Taking a boat ride around Belfast harbour in advance of the Tall Ships weekend, one couldn't help but marvel at the transformation between now and 24 years ago when the ships first visited the city.

Back in 1991 the few ships to arrive were confined to Pollock dock, but this time there are 50 ships from 15 countries, many of them great three-masted wonders, berthed all around the harbour area.

In 1991 the Troubles were still running and the port area had a grim, rundown feel. But as we motor along the Lagan estuary, past ships such the Norwegian Statsraad Lehmkuhl, the largest in the Tall Ships fleet at 97.21m, and the 88.4m Brazilian navy flagship Cisne Branco, the positive changes are evident.

The yellow Harland and Wolff gantries have been there for decades, but now the docks area boasts buildings such as the Titanic visitor attraction, the Odyssey entertainment and sports centre, new apartment blocks fronting onto the river and harbour, and the Titanic Studios, where Game of Thrones is filmed.


And this is still very much a working port. Along with the Tall Ships there are ferries, and cargo and container ships berthed at the harbour walls, dockers and cranes busily taking off their loads. Three huge oil rigs are being overhauled by Harland and Wolff workers.

This is the third time since 1991 that the ships have sailed into Belfast. An estimated half a million people attended the festival six years ago and helped establish Belfast as a venue for holding mass audience events such as the MTV music awards in 2011 and the Giro d’Italia last year.

But for reasons well known, July and August can be tricky months to expand Northern Ireland’s tourism potential, given the annual rows over parading.

From January to May this year, hotel room occupancy in Belfast was 77 per cent. Moreover, demonstrating how a considerable portion of this occupancy was down to tourists as opposed to business visitors, the weekend occupancy over that period was 86 per cent.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times