A £29.5 million plan to extend Belfast's Waterfront Hall will enable the city to compete as a top international convention destination, a Stormont minister has claimed.
Economy minister Arlene Foster highlighted the likely benefits that will flow from doubling the landmark building's current convention space as she approved £18.5 million of funding for the project.
Belfast City Council, which first proposed the extension two years ago, is providing £11 million for the build.
It is hoped the new-look Waterfront will attract 50,000 conference delegates each year - double the current figure.
"Business tourism has been identified as a key growth area for the economy over the next ten years and this new extension to Belfast Waterfront will ensure our conference facilities are a competitive alternative to the rest of the UK and Europe," said Mrs Foster.
"The benefit of hosting business conferences extends right across the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors. Belfast Waterfront is situated in the heart of the city, conveniently located and easily accessible by rail, ferry and air. With Northern Ireland's main amenities and attractions on the doorstep, hotels, restaurants and entertainment facilities are all within easy walking distance for delegates.
"When complete, I am sure the fantastic new facilities will leave visitors with a positive lasting impression of Northern Ireland."
The proposed expansion includes a new entrance at the rear of the venue on the River Lagan, the creation of over 2,000 square metres of exhibition space, banqueting facilities for up to 750 and five 'breakout' rooms each capable of holding 200 people.
The extension is the flagship project of the council's three-year £150 million investment programme for the city.
Belfast Lord Mayor Councillor Mairtin O Muilleoir said: "This is great news for both tourism and the economy, following on the heels of the newly opened Visit Belfast Welcome Centre.
"It will also provide employment opportunities with up to 400 construction jobs created during the building phase and the contract will include social clauses to provide placement opportunities for the unemployed, apprentices, students and trainees."
The funding for the initiative announced by Mrs Foster is being provided under the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's Tourism Development Scheme - with £4.1 million from its core capital budget and £14.4 million from European Regional Development funding through the EU Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland.
The extension is expected to be completed by December next year and will be fully operational by the following summer.