A growing tourism industry, increased business investment and a £4-million route development fund make the Northern Irish capital city of Belfast an exciting destination for Routes Europe 2017.

Routes Europe has been bringing together the aviation industry to discuss future air services since 2006. This year’s event in Kraków, Poland, was the most successful to date, with 1,200 delegates from 110 airlines, 315 airports and 45 tourism authorities from across Europe in attendance.

Europe’s largest air service development forum will head to Belfast in April 2017, where it will be hosted by Invest Northern Ireland and Visit Belfast. Belfast City Council, Tourism Northern Ireland, Tourism Ireland, Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport will also support the event.

Natasha Haggart, head of marketing at Routes, explains why the decision was made to take Routes Europe to Belfast: “There’s never been a better time to invest in Northern Ireland. There is untapped potential in the market that will appeal to the airlines, and I am confident that Routes Europe will have a long-term impact on its economy.”

Northern Ireland’s reputation as a tourist destination is on the rise. Over 15 million visits were made to the country’s attractions in 2014, with the top destinations being the Giant’s Causeway, Titanic Belfast, the Ulster Museum and Derry/Londonderry’s city walls.

The HBO TV series Game of Thrones has helped to boost the industry by bringing some of the country’s most stunning locations to the attention of a worldwide audience of millions. Partially filmed in Northern Ireland, Game of Thrones has acted as a catalyst for coach tours and sightseeing trips for international fans of the programme.

Traffic is growing at Belfast’s airports, with more than 7.0 million passengers in 2015. Belfast International’s passengers increased by 9% to almost 4.4 million, while Belfast City’s passenger numbers increased by over 5% to 2.7 million.

Investment in Northern Ireland has increased considerably during the past decade. Belfast-based projects include the £1-billion Titanic Quarter – the largest waterfront development in Europe – and the newly expanded Waterfront conference and exhibition centre.

Northern Ireland’s reputation as a great business location has attracted investors from around the world such as Citi, Seagate, the Allstate Corp, Allen & Overy and Baker & McKenzie. In 2014, fDi Magazine, part of the Financial Times, judged Belfast to be the world’s top business-friendly city in the small-to-medium category, while, in 2016, the magazine awarded the city its business-friendliness accolade for Europe.

The great transformation

The Northern Ireland Executive has targeted tourism as a growth industry that will deliver £1 billion a year to the economy by 2020, and it is against this backdrop that an air route development fund was announced to support new services. Over the next three years, up to £4 million will be made available for unserved routes with high potential for stimulating inbound tourism and business.

Jonathan Bell – Northern Ireland’s enterprise, trade and investment minister – says of the fund: “I believe Northern Ireland would benefit economically from greater connectivity to a range of unserved short-haul destinations within Europe, as well as greater long-haul connectivity to Canada and the Middle East.”

The chief executive of Belfast City Council, Suzanne Wylie, is excited at the prospect of welcoming the aviation industry to Belfast. She says: “I am delighted that Routes Europe will be hosted at our new Waterfront conference and exhibition centre. It is symbolic of the new Belfast, and epitomises the city and its positive attributes – modern, outward-looking, inviting and, most of all, full of energy. Belfast is a city transforming before our eyes, on the verge of capitalising on its enormous investment and tourism potential. We are ready with a warm welcome for Routes Europe – we trust the delegates will be ready for us.”  

More information about Routes Europe can be found at www.routesonline.com.