Belfast International Airport has urged Stormont Ministers to grasp opportunities to develop direct tourism by being courageous enough to tackle Air Passenger Duty (APD).
The airport’s Managing Director, Graham Keddie, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at Westminster that thousands of new jobs would be created and dozens of new air routes developed if APD was removed from the equation.
Giving evidence to the Committee as part of its enquiry into the promotion of tourism in Northern Ireland through the tax system, Mr Keddie referred to last week’s announcement by Ryanair to open a new base at the airport, generating 750 on-site job, and the expansion of services by easyJet which operates on 27 routes.
Afterwards, Mr Keddie said: “Our passenger number grew to 4.4 million last year and this year we are confident of breaking the 5 million-mark.
“That may sound a lot, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. We could reasonably double in size to over 8 million. A growth level of that magnitude would be a real game-changer. It would see the sector create some 3,000 jobs and open up new opportunities for scores of local small supplier firms.
“We’re missing a beat. It’s as if they’re scared of doing something against the advice of their civil servants. They’ve even produced a report which recommends doing nothing when what’s really required is a collective bit of courage to get on with the job.
“Our tourism is suffering because we lack direct in-bound services. Dublin and the Republic of Ireland, continue to take the lion’s share of tourism spend on Stormont’s watch. Northern Ireland loses out.
“This debate needs some straight talking and direct action. Let’s get APD devolved in full. Then, why not follow the Scottish example by committing to cut it by 50% with a view to doing away with it when the funds become available.
“Our civil service isn’t known for its speed of response. For months now, we’ve heard about an Air Route Development Fund and last week, the Tourism and Economy Minister confirmed that it was ‘‘ongoing’ and that he hoped to announce ‘the way forward by the end of the financial year.’ What’s the hold-up? Why the delay? How long does it take to get something as simple as this off the drawing board?
“Let’s get on with the job so that we can say to airlines that there is meaningful support available for route start-ups and enough there to offset the harmful effects of APD. Anything that replaces the current inertia and alleviates our situation would be most welcome relief.
“Last week’s announcement by Ryanair came after a lot of hard work and in spite of APD. It gave us all a glimpse of what could be achieved for Northern Ireland if we didn’t have this obnoxious and regressive tax.”