Northern Ireland tourism boss says targeting US market key despite losing only direct flight from Belfast
Encouraging overseas holidaymakers in the Republic to cross the border is among the biggest challenges facing Northern Ireland tourism over the next year, industry experts have said.
More than 260 business owners involved in tourism and hospitality gathered in Belfast for Tourism Ireland's 2017 strategy launch.
Tourism Ireland chief executive Niall Gibbons said North America remained a priority market - despite United Airlines' decision to scrap its route from Belfast to Newark, the province's only transatlantic flight.
He said the body will engage with agents and operators in overseas markets such as the US as it hopes to attract tourists to stay longer and spend more. And it will continue to play on attractions such as locations associated with the filming of fantasy series Game Of Thrones, as well as traditional sights such as the Giant's Causeway.
Mr Gibbons said: "We obviously would be very keen to see direct flights (to the US) - they're critical - but what you have to understand is that even when we had a direct flight out, of all the business into Northern Ireland, 75% was coming via the Republic of Ireland. Where we are at the moment is that there are 17 gateways from the US and Canada that are serving the island of Ireland next year. Aer Lingus have just added on Miami and they've also made additional capacity to Chicago, Los Angeles and Orlando. It means that next summer there will be 50,000 seats every week from those markets.
"We have sales missions to 35 cities in the US next year. And we will be speaking to tour operators in the travel industry to make sure that Northern Ireland is included on their itinerary next year."
By the end of this year Tourism Ireland said 2.1m overseas visitors will have travelled to Northern Ireland - up 6% on the year before - spending £557m here.
The United Airlines Belfast International to Newark route was cut by the airline after EU officials ruled that a £9m subsidy by the Executive was against EU State aid rules. Its last flight will be January 9.
Last month Belfast International boss Graham Keddie hit out at Tourism Ireland, saying it should do more to attract visitors to Northern Ireland.
However, Mr Gibbons denied suggestions the decision to scrap the route would make it harder to draw US visitors to the region. "The bottom line is that we have a 10% increase in the number of seats coming into the island of Ireland next year. We just have to ensure that people will include Northern Ireland as part of their tour."
Alison Metcalf, Tourism Ireland's head of North America, said good air access had boosted tourist numbers from the west coast and southern USA. "We are on track for a fourth record year. We are expecting around 250,000 North Americans will make their way to Northern Ireland - it could even be as many as 275,000.
"We are losing the Belfast service but it's our job to give people compelling reasons when they arrive into Dublin to come to Northern Ireland. But you have to put it into context that Canadians and Americans will drive for an hour-and-a-half or two hours to get to their own home airport, so their concept of distance is very different to ours."