Belfast is set to become the centre of the European aviation industry this weekend when the city hosts the three-day Routes Europe forum.
Beginning on Sunday, 23, the event brings together airlines, airports and tourism authorities to plan new flights and strengthen existing routes and meets in a new location every year to highlight different markets.
The choice of Northern Irland for 2017 reflects the increase in tourism and potential for growth.
The number of visits to its attractions reached 17.5 million in 2015, driven by the popularity of sites such as the Giant’s Causeway and Titanic Belfast. The HBO TV series Game of Thrones has also helped to fuel this growth.
In addition, Northern Ireland’s status as a business location has attracted investors from around the world such as Citi, Fujitsu, Seagate, Allstate, Allen & Overy and Baker & McKenzie.
That success has translated into growing demand for air travel, with George Best Belfast City and Belfast International Airport welcoming 7.8 million passengers between them last year - the highest combined figure on record.
Around 1,200 route development professionals from 114 airlines, 270 airports and 36 tourism authorities will attend Routes Europe at the Belfast Waterfront which has itself recently re-opened after a £30m expansion programme designed specifically to boost the city’s appeal as an international conference destination.
Most of Europe’s major airlines have registered including the five largest by available seats: Ryanair, easyJet, Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways. Airlines from outside Europe include American Airlines, ANA, Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
“Northern Ireland is a business and tourism destination on the rise,” said Routes brand director Steven Small.
“The demand for travel is increasing so there are significant route development opportunities for Europe’s airlines.”
Graham Keddie, managing director of Belfast International Airport, said: “Hosting Routes Europe in Belfast cements both the city’s and Northern Ireland’s position as a great place to visit and to do business in.
“Belfast International Airport welcome the opportunities that Routes Europe will give us to present our wares and the rich range of iconic attractions which the airport provides direct access to.”
Brian Ambrose, CEO of George Best Belfast City Airport, said: “With record investment in Belfast and the highest ever tourism numbers being reported, Routes Europe’s arrival in the city presents us with a fantastic opportunity to showcase this growth and positively change the traditional perception of Northern Ireland.
“We want to build on the region’s economic and tourism success story by strategically enhancing Belfast City Airport’s UK and European route network. There is a real demand in the region for direct connections to key destinations across Europe and it is our aim to continue to meet that demand.
“As co-hosts of Routes Europe 2017 we are delighted to welcome 1,200 international aviation colleagues to Belfast. We pride ourselves on the strength of support we provide to our airline partners and look forward to demonstrating the unique services we deliver for airlines to grow traffic on their routes.”