There is scarcely a day when the Far East – and China in particular – fails to make a prominent appearance in the business pages.
But the launch of the first direct flight to mainland China from Manchester Airport this summer was arguably the most important news for our region.
The 10-hour Hainan Airlines Beijing route will be worth an estimated £500m in economic benefits to the UK over the next decade, with the lion’s share being felt directly in the northern economy in terms of increased jobs, economic activity and tourism.
Strengthening our links to the world’s second-largest market, the direct service commenced on June 10 and operates four times a week, allowing passengers to choose either business or economy-class services.
By providing a non-stop service, the new route will also generate journey time savings worth £5m every year for business passengers, who no longer have to change planes at another airport.
The new service followed hot on the heels of Cathay Pacific’s launch of flights between Manchester Airport and Hong Kong in December 2014.
As businesses in China and the north take advantage of the improved connectivity, the Manchester-Beijing route will engender further economic benefits in terms of productivity, increased trade and collaboration, and increased foreign direct investment.
Ken O’Toole, chief executive of Manchester Airport, explained: “We know how important direct access to key markets like China is to stimulating trade and tourism for regions across the north.
“Yorkshire has a strong business base covering a diverse range of sectors, with many companies already trading in the Far East, and so the existence of a non-stop route to Beijing is of significant benefit.
“In addition, the service will hopefully encourage more businesses to start exporting their goods and services to this key market for the first time, while also being key to unlocking inward investment opportunities.
“The launch of the Hainan service is the perfect illustration of how, by working with businesses and other organisations, we can deliver the global connectivity they need.”
The new flight makes Manchester the only airport outside of London with a direct year-round scheduled service to mainland China. Served by an Airbus A330-300, the cabin has 32 business-class seats and 260 in economy.
Prior to the new flight, the 46,327 people from Yorkshire who fly to mainland China every year had to travel indirectly via London or overseas hubs.
Regional operations Deloitte, TransPennine Express, the University of Sheffield and Make It York have all praised the new service and believe it is a massive benefit to the region, unleashing a host of potential.
Dr David Smith, interim director of Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “Access to key global markets is critical to driving growth in the Sheffield City Region, both in terms of increasing exports and attracting inward investment.
“China is one of those markets and so having a direct flight service within easy reach has the potential to deliver significant economic benefits to the region.”
In the wake of the economic uncertainty triggered by Brexit, it is hoped the direct flight will strengthen China’s burgeoning relationship with the Northern Powerhouse – boosting productivity and trade between the two.
Mark Robson, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) regional director for Yorkshire and the Humber, said: “The first direct flight between Manchester and Beijing by Hainan Airlines is one of the most important drivers of international trade, not only for the north west but for the whole of the Northern Powerhouse region.
“According to the Manchester-China Forum, the improved access to China generated by the route will bring manifest economic benefits estimated at £500m by boosting the economy via tourism, business and university links.”
Further cementing the relationship between China and the north, Chinese leader President Xi Jinping announced the China Cluster at Airport City during a visit to Manchester in 2015.
The £130m China Cluster project will provide a commercial base for Chinese businesses arriving in the UK, offering a wide range of high-quality office premises.
It will be based around two campuses within the £800m Airport City development – Wuhan Square and Shenzhen Gardens – together totalling 45,000sq metres of space.
Mark Hughes, group chief executive of Manchester Growth Company, believes the importance of China and wider Far Eastern markets north west regional exporters should not be underestimated.
“The Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) is a single market of great diversity with 10 unique cultures and levels of wealth creating scope for exports from a variety of UK businesses.”
Established in 1967 to accelerate cultural development, economic growth and social progress in the south east Asian region, ASEAN embodies Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.