Lack of Canada route and no rail link to Belfast International Airport 'hurting our economy'
The failure to secure a long-haul air service to Canada is a big blow to the Northern Ireland economy, a leading tourism expert has warned.
Dr Peter Bolan, director of International Tourism Management Studies at the University of Ulster, also said that the lack of a rail link to Belfast International is detrimental to the province.
"I have concerns about Belfast International Airport (BIA) in terms of tourism and in terms of growing Northern Ireland as a major international destination," said Mr Bolan.
"Canada is an important market for us. There are a lot of historical ties between people who live there and have ancestry here. Plus the types of visitor attractions that we have in Northern Ireland, such as the Titanic Visitor Centre and the Causeway, are of a heritage-based nature and they appeal particularly to North American market so the route to Canada is an important one.
"Without question, it's a big blow to the economy that we're not going to get a route to Canada this year."
His comments come after Stormont statistics, published last week, show stagnation in local hotel occupancy levels, and before this week's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) figures which are expected to report a similar trend in air passenger numbers.
Mr Bolan said that if Northern Ireland has serious ambitions to develop its economy by bringing in investment from countries like China or North America, it must improve its transport infrastructure, particularly with regard to the main airport.
"An old criticism of Northern Ireland is that we have one of the few international airports in the world that doesn't have a rail link," he said.
"International visitors simply just expect that but, instead, they're limited to buses and taxis, which isn't ideal. It would require considerable investment to rectify that but the present situation is to our detriment."
Ukip MLA David McNarry, meanwhile, is advocating the introduction of a designated bus service to drop off passengers at individual Belfast hotels. He said: "It's about time Belfast joined the modern world by offering this type of service. We have a lot to show off when people arrive, so why not make the first impression a good one?"
Wilfred Mitchell, policy chair of the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said there was an onus to redress the existing imbalance between Northern Ireland air travel and that from the Republic.
"FSB Northern Ireland has a long-standing and ongoing campaign urging the Northern Ireland Executive to cut Air Passenger Duty (APD) to compete effectively with the Republic of Ireland as a prime location for investment and tourism," said Mr Mitchell.