Foster leads biggest-ever European trade mission

Trade Minister Arlene Foster is to lead the biggest-ever Northern Ireland business mission to a European market.

The minister will be heading a 36-strong Invest Northern Ireland trade mission to The Netherlands, from 2-5 February. During the mission Arlene Foster will be a keynote speaker with the Dutch Trade Minister, Frank Heemskirk, at the second annual Northern Ireland: Netherlands Dinner at Wassenaar, near Amsterdam.

As well as supporting local companies to build trade and other business relationships in The Netherlands, the minister will be visiting Dutch companies which have invested in operations here and promoting Northern Ireland as a tourism destination through the work of Tourism Ireland.

The minister said: "The Netherlands is now the fourth most important European market for our manufacturers after the Republic of Ireland, Germany and France. Customers in the Netherlands purchased goods worth £155million in 2007/8, which is 10 percent of our total exports to markets on the continent.

"Northern Ireland companies have already established a range of trading activity with The Netherlands; providing products and services, from food, such as beef, bacon and healthy snacks to buses, precision engineered parts and expert software for life sciences and other key industries.

"Many of our companies are benefiting from Invest NI initiatives, including the innovative 'Going Dutch' programme, which offers businesses extensive on-the-ground, practical support from an experienced marketing consultancy.

"Both our economies are dependent on exports. We are keen to assist and encourage many more of our smaller companies to explore business opportunities in this important market which has longstanding links with the United Kingdom. Several successful global companies now have significant operations in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Dutch companies have been investing in Northern Ireland since the 1960s."

Current Dutch investors include Philips and Fugro BKS. €170 million investment in one of Belfast's biggest retail developments, Victoria Square, was constructed by Gouda-based Multi-Development.

Commenting on the challenges both economies face from the current economic downturn the minister said: "Our focus is on supporting business enterprises that create wealth. This means strengthening our export base to grow sales overseas which can help offset the impact of the economic slowdown.

"In difficult market conditions, it is essential that companies optimise all available opportunities to develop high value products and services to increase sales in export markets. By doing so Northern Ireland companies will emerge stronger and more competitive in the longer term," she added.

The minister will also meet a range of key decision-makers within the travel and tourism industries in The Netherlands to promote Northern Ireland tourism to traditional and online tour operators.

Arlene Foster said: "With direct air access from Amsterdam to Belfast, Northern Ireland offers the opportunity to develop business links as well as an excellent holiday experience for Dutch visitors.

"The mission is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on Northern Ireland at the start of Tourism Ireland's 2009 marketing campaign."