Hospitality growing in Northern Ireland but Brexit poses challenge
While growth in the hospitality sector across Northern Ireland remains varied, there is no doubt that tourism is increasing in areas such as Belfast, Derry-Londonderry and Fermanagh.
Indeed tourism can positively impact the entire province if we are allowed to reach our full potential.
If you compare Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, where tourism is nine times higher than here, the potential increase in tourism spend could be transformative for the entire Northern Ireland economy.
Undoubtedly it is a welcome relief that some of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has been resolved following the deal which was agreed between the UK government and the EU earlier this month, and which ruled out any hard border.
However, it is essential that access to skilled and soft skilled labour forms part of the final deal. As an industry we are working hard to recruit and train people within Northern Ireland.
But there simply are not enough people to fill our current and indeed future predicted job vacancies, with independent reports predicting our hospitality industry will need an additional 2,000 chefs and will have 30,000 vacancies to fill by 2024.
We also need to attract mature experienced staff to work alongside our existing workforce to help develop their skills and knowledge.
Any restriction on accessing this additional labour will have a disastrous impact on the sector, just at a time when 'destination Northern Ireland' is really establishing itself and the sector is growing.
The skills and labour shortage isn't the only challenge which the hospitality sector is facing, however.
Christmas is a crucial time for many traders, including those in our hospitality industry. But with the tourist season kicking off at Easter, those in the hospitality business running pubs, hotels and restaurants are once again facing huge losses as we continue to be hampered by outdated licensing laws.
These laws restrict trading hours and impose early closure on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the Easter weekend. When you operate on a 20% margin this means a loss of profit for the entire month.
It is estimated that the total loss in business from the restrictions costs in excess of £16m - money that pays the rates and wages, and sustains many small business across the province.
We need action and we need it now, if we are to compete against the Republic of Ireland, where all restrictions on Easter will most likely be abolished before Easter 2018.
Looking ahead to 2018, Hospitality Ulster is confident that our sector can grow, create further employment opportunities and contribute to the NI economy.
However, to reach our full potential - whatever government we end up with - we must take action immediately to address the competitive disadvantages our sector faces.
- Colin Neill is chief executive of Hospitality Ulster