THE battle between Scotland's two busiest airports to attract a direct flight with China is intensifying as Edinburgh launches a project dedicated to bringing the coveted route to the capital.

A direct flight between Scotland and the world's fastest growing economy is the Holy Grail for the country's aviation sector, with the Scottish Government and business community eager to lure a Chinese carrier to boost Scottish exports and drive more lucrative Chinese tourism and investment into Scotland.

Outside of London, only Birmingham Airport boasts direct UK-China flights. The twice weekly Birmingham-Beijing charter service, operated by Hainan Airlines on behalf of Chinese tour company Caissa Touristic, launched on July 3.

Bosses at both Glasgow and Edinburgh airports have been vying for years bring a similar service to Scotland, and the effort was a key plank of a 2011 visit to China by then-First Minister Alex Salmond.

Now Edinburgh Airport are trying to gain an edge on their rival by launching the China Air Services project, in collaboration with Marketing Edinburgh and Edinburgh City Council.

Marketing Edinburgh is hiring a Mandarin speaker to spearhead the 12-18 month venture "to attract direct air services between Edinburgh and China".

The £40,000-a-year postholder will be expected to "position Edinburgh ahead of growing European competition for such flight routes".

Councillor Frank Ross, convener of the council's Economy Committee, said the link was a "key priority" that would benefit the rest of Scotland.

"Although this won't happen overnight, we're starting to lay the foundations," he said.

Glasgow Airport is understood to have been running a similar initiative for some time with Glasgow City Council and the City Marketing Bureau, so far without success.

A spokesman for Edinburgh Airport added: "Expanding Scotland's links with Asia is something we have been vocal about for a long time. China is one of the world's fastest growing economies and travel between our two countries has been growing strongly over the last few years. All the signs suggest that this trajectory will continue."

Chinese tourists are the highest spending visitors to Scotland, expected to be worth some £30.8m by 2021, while Scottish universities - particularly in Glasgow - have seen their numbers of Chinese students soar.

A spokesman for Glasgow Airport said: "There has long been an aspiration for Scotland to have a direct air link with China. Scotland enjoys strong economic links with what is one of the world's fastest growing economies and we have been welcoming an increasing number of Chinese visitors to our shores in recent years. Clearly, we believe Glasgow is best placed for a direct link with China and we will be making that case."

However, one aviation industry analyst told the Herald it would be a "tall order" for either airport to bag the route.

"Neither is better placed than the other in terms of attracting direct flights with China," he said. "Glasgow is considerably bigger in terms of catchment area, but Edinburgh is more affluent and business-oriented, and those factors counter-balance one another.

"But Chinese destinations don't attract a lot of leisure travellers, partly because of the expense and the language barrier, so a service would be reliant on business flow.

"It's not impossible for Scotland to attract direct flights with China, but it's a tall order."

He added that the Birmingham-Beijing service would be a significant "test case" for whether UK-China flights are sustainable outside of London.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chamber of Commerce, said securing a direct flight would be "a major coup for the Scottish economy".

She said: "Not only would this link Scottish businesses to the very heart of one of the world's fastest growing economies but it will also link us with the world's most valuable tourist market."

SCDI chief executive Ross Martin said direct links with China and the wider east-Asian market was "essential in driving a more prosperous Scotland".