A leading Northern Ireland tour operator is planning extra flights to Bulgaria for this year's ski season.
Travel Solutions, soon to celebrate its 20th year in business, runs the only direct winter service from Ireland to Bulgaria, from Belfast International Airport.
It moved into the market last year after the closure of local operator, Balkan Tours.
"We had a very successful first season last winter, attracting business from all over Ireland," managing director Peter McMinn said.
"There's a real demand for ski holidays to Bulgaria and we're increasing our number of flights this year. We expect to carry around 2,000 passengers between December and Easter, with 15 direct flights to Plovdiv. And next summer, we'll be returning to the resort of Sunny Beach with direct flights from Belfast International. It's a very popular destination for Northern Ireland holidaymakers."
Travel Solutions was set up by Peter McMinn in 1996. It employs 15 full-time staff in its east Belfast call centre and has a dozen part-time tour managers on the road. In the past year, it's carried around 28,000 people on trips to rugby internationals, Grand Prix races, Manchester United games, coach tours, holidays to Jersey, and city breaks. The winter season will see hundreds departing for Christmas markets in Europe.
Peter said: "We've a very wide mix of products and we're very focused on the local market. Around 90% of our business comes from Northern Ireland. We saw a pick-up in confidence about a year ago, and it's been a good year for us. We could expand further in city breaks if there were more options from the local airports."
Like others in the travel industry here, Peter blames the government's controversial Airport Passenger Duty for restricting the market. APD is a tax on flights leaving Northern Ireland for UK and European destinations. The tax on long-haul routes from Belfast was scrapped last year. The Irish Government removed APD, paving the way for Dublin airport to attract a host of new routes.
"APD creates an unlevel playing field on such a small island," said Peter. "As a local tour operator, we're passionate about supporting our local airports, but APD clearly deters international airlines from considering Belfast and therefore restricts the choice of destinations we can offer our customers.
"There's a severe lack of direct flights to European city destinations. We'd like to see services to some German cities, particularly Munich, which would open up Bavaria and the Austrian Tyrol for our coach holidays. I think there's scope, too, for direct flights to Madrid and Lisbon."
Peter adds that independent travel firms are still holding their own: "The market here is very stable. There's been a big return to the familiar high street travel agent. We sell our holidays through the 90 or so agents here. People like personal service and they trust local travel agents with their arrangements."