By Graham Keddie Managing Director, Belfast International Airport
The posters, banners, branding and welcome packs are all in place. The itineraries are set. Venues are sorted. And throughout today, hundreds of delegates attending Routes Europe in Belfast this weekend will arrive in our airport for one of the most exciting opportunities we’ve ever had to promote the best of what we have in Northern Ireland.
Over the next three or four days, twelve hundred representatives from airlines and airports will be wowed by what they hear and see. Whether it’s the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills or Titanic Belfast, they won’t fail to be impressed.
For its size, this ‘wee country’ packs a mighty punch. Man-made or the handiwork of Mother Nature, our visitor attractions are in a class of their own. Our hospitality industry is the envy of other regions with first-class restaurants, an expanding hotel sector, not forgetting the impressive and varied ‘watering holes’ we have dotted throughout the region.
Tourism is big business, and getting bigger. We have new hotels being built ,or in the planning stage, to match visitor expectation and keep up with demand. The industry has the potential to create thousands of jobs and be a big earner for us. Investment levels are impressive as developers see the potential and realise what has to be done.
Tourism isn’t something that’s nice to have as an add-on. It deserves to be treated as a pillar of our economic strategy with full appreciation of what the sector can deliver.
We’re doing nicely right now, but we could be doing much more. To achieve that, we have to have direct air access. That has to mean wooing the airlines here as our guests this weekend and saying to them that they need to operate flights to Northern Ireland from parts of Europe not currently on our airport destination maps.
To fully and sensibly exploit what we have in Northern Ireland, we have to encourage and offer practical marketing support to airlines to put the likes of Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Oslo and Munich on the schedule. A few more Italian, French and Spanish destinations would also deliver real in-bound tourism value.
So, we’ll be setting out our stall this weekend and building Northern Ireland’s pulling power internationally. We know we will see further airline expansion at Belfast International Airport as we head towards a record year of passenger numbers. We’ll exceed 5.6 million but that’s a record that should be short-lived as we attract greater visitor numbers to our myriad attractions.
Many of the twelve hundred due here this weekend will be first-time visitors. I know they won’t be disappointed! Many of them will want to return. My hope is they will be so impressed that they will spread the word that Northern Ireland is a destination that simply cannot be missed.