The first direct flight to Heathrow from the Chinese economic powerhouse and mega-city of Shenzhen touched down last night.

The Shenzhen Airlines service will operate three times a week and is expected to carry up to 96,408 passengers a year.

Located over the border from Hong Kong, a short high-speed rail ride away, Shenzhen has a population of more than 12 million people and one of the highest GDP per capita of any city in China.

Shenzhen is known as China’s own Silicon Valley as home to technology giants such as Huawei and Tencent, the owner of social media tools WeChat and Weibo.

The new route means that Heathrow has more than doubled its existing direct connections to China this year. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Qingdao have been joined by Chongqing, Wuhan, Sanya, Changsa, Xi’an and Shenzhen.

Shenzhen Airlines is part owned by Air China and is the fourth largest Chinese carrier by passenger numbers.

The Heathrow service is Shenzhen Airlines’ first long-haul route, providing access to a regional network of 210 domestic routes in China.

Shenzhen Airlines is the 25th Star Alliance carrier to operate from Heathrow Terminal 2.

Heathrow’s chief commercial officer Ross Baker said: “This year, we have focussed on strengthening Heathrow’s role as the UK’s gateway for Chinese trade, commerce and tourism.

“While our passengers and exporters will undoubtedly be pleased with our new Shenzhen connection, along with the other routes we have announced this year, we know that in order to achieve true transformational change for our culture and economy we need the additional capacity for cargo and passengers to reach greater benefits.

“It is the creation of this extra capacity, achieved through Heathrow expansion that will allow Britain to trade on a truly global platform whilst providing Britain with a front door that is the best connected in the world.”