Visitors to NI 'key to economic future', Haass told

The retail and hospitality sectors in Northern Ireland have said they are open for businesses

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Northern Ireland is continuing to move forward and must compete as an international tourist destination, business leaders have said.

US diplomat Richard Haass met representatives from the business community in Belfast on Thursday.

They were expected to tell him that loyalist flag protests had been a contributory factor in Belfast shops losing up to £50m in revenue.

Dr Haass is trying to broker a deal on issues like flags and parades.

He is currently meeting the Protestant Orange Order.

The Pubs of Ulster and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association issued a joint statement after Thursday's meeting.

Identity

They said they were encouraged to hear of the support for the hospitality and retail sectors by Dr Haass and his team.

"We asked him to continue to back us to help boost confidence and let people know that Northern Ireland is very much open for business," they said.

"Resolving issues around the past, parades, flags and identity are essential if we are to move our economy forward.

"Divided societies are bad for business and will limit the economic potential of Northern Ireland. Economic issues need to be part of these talks and are a critical element of a shared future".

They added: "The work of Richard Haass and his team here is vitally important because it shows that Northern Ireland is serious about working together and continuing to move forward and must compete as an international tourist destination."

Figures, seen by the BBC, revealed a "significant decline" in takings by Belfast shops in the year to July 2013.

Revenues fell from £577m to £522m, according to a report for Belfast city centre management.

Over the next few days Dr Haass will meet the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors.

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