MANCHESTER, England (REUTERS) - British city Manchester sought to position itself as a gateway for investment from China as it welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping for the conclusion of his state visit to the country on Friday.
Xi was in the city for the announcement that China's Hainan Airlines will start flying between Manchester and Beijing four times a week next year, and of a £130 million (S$260 million) expansion of a business park near the airport to encourage Chinese firms to set up British bases.
Manchester, one of the country's biggest cities, is at the heart of a British government plan to regenerate northwestern England, which was one of the birthplaces of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution but has fallen behind the south as industries like coal and textiles have declined.
The new flight route will be the first direct link between mainland China and a British city outside London. This, along with the expansion of the business park to include a so-called China Cluster will help boost the city's economy, said Manchester Airports Group (MAG) chief executive Charlie Cornish.
A soccer fan, Xi also visited an academy run by Premier League soccer club Manchester City. He met former City players, Patrick Vieira and Mike Summerbee, and watched a training session, posing for a selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron and striker Sergio Aguero.
The state-of-the-art training facility includes a 7,000-capacity stadium and 16 football pitches that can cater for more than 450 players.
Xi said that the sport was an important part of China-UK exchanges and that China could learn from British football. Greater cooperation on sport would promote closer ties between the two countries, he added.
Earlier in the week, football was also on the agenda when Xi met with senior members of Britain’s royal family in London. Xi and Prince William also discussed Britain-China cooperation on football.
The President's visit will likely heighten Chinese interest in the area, said Dai Binbin, chairman of Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG), a partner in the business park development - called Airport City Manchester - along with MAG, building firm Carillion and a Manchester pension fund.
"China is watching where the President has been. Once they see he's been here today, lots of Chinese companies will be attracted to our premises," he told Reuters.
HNA, the parent company of Hainan Airlines, and telecoms firm Huawei are among the companies that have expressed an interest in setting up a base in the China Cluster, said Cornish.
Xi used his final address in Britain at the end of his four-day state visit to signal that there could be more Chinese involvement in British infrastructure projects.
"China is ready to explore with the UK new ways and new steps to boost infrastructure co-operation," he said.