Loyalty of Tall Ships is deserving of a lasting legacy
The crews of the magnificent Tall Ships docked in Belfast for the next four days will see a much different city from those who made the first voyage by these vessels into the city in 1991. Then it was an excuse for a war-weary population to let their hair down for a few days before the tension-filled atmosphere returned.
To their credit, the organisers of this spectacular event kept faith with the city, making it the final destination on a transatlantic challenge in 2009 and now as the host port at the beginning of a race that will take the ships and their crews to Norway and Denmark over the coming weeks.
This is a huge vote of confidence in a city that has rediscovered its pomp and self-esteem. Not only has the attitude of the people changed as peace continues to bed in, but so too have outside perceptions. In recent years the MTV Awards for Europe, the World Police and Fire Games and the Giro d'Italia have been among the major events which have taken place here with resounding success.
The rest of Northern Ireland has equally changed, with our second city hosting a number of spectacular events celebrating all our cultural shades, and the Irish Open has been played twice on our championship courses with increasing success. Next up is the Open golf championship, still the holy grail of the sport.
The landscape has also changed, most notably from the crews' point of view, with the building of the imaginative Titanic Belfast, which enables visitors to take a virtual voyage on the most famous liner ever built. We now have first-class hotels and restaurants to go along with the traditional warm welcome that is always extended to visitors to these shores.
But this is not just about giving Belfast a chance to strut its stuff on a global stage - important as that is.
It is also expected to produce a much-needed financial injection into the local economy. The organisers anticipate that up to 500,000 people will flock to Belfast's dockland to see the Tall Ships and lap up the entertainment on the quaysides. That is twice the number who visited in 1991 and the economic return could top £10m.
It would be fitting if this visit by the Tall Ships should inspire a legacy project. A cross-border organisation, the Atlantic Youth Trust, is seeking funding from the governments at Stormont and Dublin to build two brand new Tall Ships, which would be used to bring young people of all traditions on the island on cruises around our shores.
The expectation is that it would enable people who might otherwise never meet to engage in a way that is not possible on land and break down traditional barriers and ignorance. Some of the ships docked in Belfast today have a similar ethos, and it is certainly one that we, with our proud maritime history, should be keen to emulate.
It seems that even nature has decided to smile on the marine spectacular taking place in Belfast until Sunday afternoon. Go along, drink in the atmosphere and even discover your sea legs with a sail around the lough.