The violence related to the Union flag protests that has been broadcast around the world has cost one of Belfast’s leading hotels a major education conference.
Although the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) annual conference was not due to be held in The Europa until November, the organisation, which represents the heads of 177 independent girls schools in Great Britain, has cancelled its plans to bring the event to the city this year.
Conference organisers have blamed the sustained rioting that has marred the streets of Belfast and made worldwide headlines since December for the decision to move the event from Belfast.
Charlotte Vere, executive director of the GSA, said: “We are very sad that we have had to postpone our visit to Belfast and we really hope that we can visit in the future.
“The reality is that we just can't take the risk of a significant proportion of our members deciding to stay at home.
“It would hit us hard financially and that is not a risk that we can prudently take.”
The conference was a significant coup, not only for Hastings Hotels, but the local economy as GSA has no members in Northern Ireland.
The annual event attracts in the region of 200 delegates as well as a number of exhibitors who would have been flying into the province from England, Scotland and Wales and the decision is likely to cost the local economy hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue.
GSA’s announcement came on the same day that Hastings Hotels reported busy bookings in its three Belfast hotels — The Europa, Culloden and Stormont.
Sir William Hastings, chairman of Hastings Hotels, said: “We are delighted to see that people are still visiting Belfast, despite the current situation.
“While we have experienced some cancellations, it is positive to see that many people are not being put off visiting the city.
“The current unrest is certainly unhelpful and unwelcome, however, the momentum generated over the last few years, and especially during 2012 has created for tourism a solid platform and a very promising future.
“Tourism is now seen as the long term golden asset for the Northern Ireland economy.”
This week, the Europa Hotel is hosting The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience conference from January 18-25 and will have 350 international delegates from over 80 countries including Bangladesh, India, Serbia, Norway, and Peru.
Sir William added: “It is our hope that people will continue to visit Belfast at this time and go home and tell their friends of the wonderful experience they had here and that the images they are seeing of the current situation are only evident in small pockets of the city.
“Belfast is a great city to visit and we hope that visitors take the opportunity when they are here to enjoy the fantastic local restaurants, bars, shopping and entertainment on offer.
“Their support at this time is vital in helping local businesses continue to trade during these difficult times.”
The decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies at Belfast City Hall has led to dozens of arrests and scores of police officers injured during almost daily protests.
According to the Confederation of British Industry, an estimated £15m was lost to the economy over the Christmas period.