The failure of transatlantic airline routes to Northern Ireland has been blamed on a lack of marketing.
The region was left without a direct route to North America last year after airline Norwegian pulled its Boston and New York flights, blaming lack of demand.
Uel Hoey, business development director at Belfast International Airport, told the Northern Ireland Affairs committee the failure was due to a lack of marketing of the region.
He also criticised the impact of air passenger duty (APD) on flights from Belfast International as it competes with Dublin.
Mr Hoey told the committee: “We have an issue in terms of equal opportunity on the island of Ireland with regards to air passenger duty, we have been grappling with it for about 25 years. Frankly, we can’t get the air routes set up to bring in the tourists if we are competing effectively with Dublin in that regard.
“And secondly, if we do succeed in getting those air routes we need to be able to sell them proactively as a Northern Ireland product at the far end, because getting them is only part of the challenge, we need to sustain them once we have got them. We need to look carefully at how Northern Ireland is promoted and marketed in order to sustain those type of tourism-related routes.”
Rob Griggs, policy and public affairs director at Airlines UK, said: “We consider APD to be a UK-wide problem but it’s one that is particularly acute in Northern Ireland, given the direct competition with Dublin Airport.
“The majority of inbound tourism to Northern Ireland comes from the UK, and passengers within the UK face paying APD twice, essentially. You pay it on your outbound and you pay it on your inbound.
“We think the abolition would make a significant impact to UK connectivity but connectivity in Northern Ireland in particular.”
Mr Hoey claimed the “sales pitch is not being made for Belfast” in North America by Tourism Ireland, a cross-border body set up under the 1998 Belfast Agreement to promote the island as a whole internationally.
“You have got two million people in the north of Ireland who are going to travel out, you’ve got 350 million in North American who are going to travel in. We’re only appealing to the two million people in Northern Ireland because nobody is telling anyone about Belfast,” he told the committee.
“Essentially we are set up under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement to be sold externally by an all-island tourism body, and a very good job they do for the island of Ireland in terms of marketing and shining green lights on things on March 17.
“That brings people into Dublin. When they get into Dublin, they stay in Dublin.
“If we cannot get the 350 million Americans to consider Belfast as an option as an entry point, we are wasting our time trying to develop the routes because we have to be able to sustain them and we can only sustain them on American visitors.”
Mr Hoey told the Westminster committee that Northern Ireland is not talked about abroad.
“Up until 10 years ago, we had six flights a week from Canada to Belfast, Dublin had 10… now Belfast for the last 10 years has no flights a week from Canada and Dublin has over 40. You can see in that regard that we are failing,” he said.
“Even as lately as last year I had a conversation with a Canadian airline who I had been talking to over a lengthy period of time. The people I was talking to understood the opportunity in Belfast, but they were saying the barrier for them was that senior management in their organisation based in Canada still thought people were shooting each other on street corners in Northern Ireland.
“The message about Northern Ireland is not travelling, and it’s because Northern Ireland is not carrying the message out.
“I believe that Northern Ireland people are best equipped to sell Northern Ireland.
“We simply need to be in a position to put our pitch out and talk about the many, many things that will bring people to Northern Ireland and keep them, because if you think about the golf, Game Of Thrones, the Causeway, Titanic, there are many things that will bring people to Northern Ireland and keep them but they are not being sold up front.”
Tourism Ireland responded to Mr Hoey’s comments in a statement after the committee meeting.
“In 2018, we welcomed around 2.23 million overseas visitors to Northern Ireland, delivering revenue of approximately £589 million,” a spokesman said.
“Tourism Ireland is undertaking an extensive programme of promotions around the world again in 2019 to build on that success.
“A key element of that programme involves working closely with all of the airports in Northern Ireland and with the carriers that service routes to Northern Ireland.
“Tourism Ireland plays a significant role in helping to grow connectivity to Northern Ireland and leverages significant investment in co-operative marketing from air and sea carriers and other travel partners.
“We work closely with the Department for the Economy, airlines, airports and other key partners to identify and help close gaps in air services to Northern Ireland, and to jointly promote new and existing routes.”