Over 20,000 visitors set to attend the Holiday World show in Belfast
Event director tells John Mulgrew he is excited about increase in air links from NI
A new direct air link from Dublin to Hong Kong will be of "enormous" importance to Northern Ireland tourism and business, a travel expert has said.
Edmund Hourican, managing director of the Holiday World Show, which kicks off in Belfast this weekend, said he believes the new flights with Cathay Pacific will be filled with around 30% of travellers from Northern Ireland.
This year's Holiday World will see more than 20,000 visitors descend on the Titanic Exhibition Centre. It runs from this Friday, January 19 to Sunday, January 21.
"I think the way this industry works, we are event managers. One of the areas we specialise in is travel and tourism," he said.
"It's hard to believe that from the island of Ireland, that last summer there were 200 flights a week between Belfast and Dublin to the US. That's to 15 airports."
The carriers include Aer Lingus, Norwegian, along with US airlines such as Delta and United.
And as a result, Northern Ireland holidaymakers can visit New York City, New York state, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, as well as the southern states.
"Each year, we look at where can we prospect for new business. Nearly everyone coming to the show wants to know what is going on, the new exciting travel products in 2018, as well as traditional products.
"However, if they look east, it is interesting what is happening. There are 53 flights a week from the island of Ireland.
"(The airlines) are flying in to major hubs in the Middle East, and onwards to practically every country in Asia and Australia.
"It has been a gradual change over the last number of years.
"Qatar entered the market last year. They are flying twice a week to the Middle East.
"However, when you look at the other elements... in the hold of most of those airlines, there is about 15 tonnes of freight."
He said aside from just carrying passengers, the links are "supporting our exports industry, as well as leisure travel".
"The whole country is benefiting from these exports out of Ireland.
"Peking - they can get fresh fish (from Ireland) in four days."
And he said the big news this year will be the start of a new direct flight from Dublin to Hong Kong, which begins in June with Cathay Pacific.
"It is enormous. I would expect at least 30% travelling on that flight would be from Northern Ireland, for business and leisure."
This year's Holiday World will feature approximately 350 exhibitors. And Mr Hourican said this year will be the busiest in around a decade.
"It has been gradually coming back since we moved to the Titanic Exhibition Centre.
"There are another few areas that are worth looking at. The whole cruising area. Cruising is enormous out of Northern Ireland. We have the top 10 cruise companies with Oasis Travel."
"This is our 26th consecutive year in Belfast, and our third in the Titanic Exhibition Centre."
His firm also runs similar events in Dublin and Shannon, but Mr Hourican said: "I look forward to Belfast more than any other show.
"The city has become alive, and it's very stimulating. All the contractors we use in Belfast are outstanding. It makes life for us extremely enjoyable. The Titanic Exhibition Centre and management there are terrific and so supportive."
Speaking about growth in the travel sector here, he said: "Another one with huge development is camping abroad in France and Spain.
"Irish Ferries have a new ship out of Dublin going to France. Once there is access there, that sector of the industry is growing rapidly in Ireland.
"The other aspect of Ireland is the love affair with Spain."
He said last year, there were around 2.5 million trips by Irish holidaymakers to Spain.
And speaking about the "home holiday" sector, he said: "We thought something might happen with Brexit.
"We have 14 out of the 26 counties (in the Republic) exhibiting in Belfast this year. That's more than normal.
"They are extremely confident so far, and that will continue. I have no doubts about that, and into the UK as well.
"The product in Northern Ireland is excellent and the way the Northern Ireland people and businesses promote their tourism is outstanding."