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Yes Minister: what’s in the tourism in-tray for 2020?

It’s a new year and we’ve a new minister responsible for Northern Ireland’s tourism industry. Stephanie Bell finds out what the industry thinks needs tackled first, and what’s needed to reach an ambitious annual £2bn visitor spending target in 10 years

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Dr Joanne Stuart

Dr Joanne Stuart

Dr Joanne Stuart

It’s fair to say that there’s a lengthy wish list from the tourism and hospitality industry which will keep the new Economy Minister busy as she settles into office.

Diane Dodds is being urged to develop a tourism strategy for Northern Ireland as a priority and leading figures in the industry are also pressing the need for a “joined up approach” between departments.

One of the biggest and most urgent concerns is the new rates revaluation which, at a time when the focus is on the continued growth of tourism, could prove crippling to some businesses.

The Executive is being urged to step in to avert a potential crisis which could include job cuts by businesses to save money and fears of possible closures among those potentially more vulnerable.

Tourism in Northern Ireland has been on the crest of a wave in recent years but to continue to thrive, the industry cautions that leadership from the new Executive is crucial. As an industry it is a significant driver for Northern Ireland, growing by 35% in the last five years.

There is an ambitious and shared vision to double the economic impact by 2030 to an industry that will generate £2bn in annual revenues, supporting 90,000 jobs. Currently it contributes over £1bn in direct spend to the Northern Ireland economy, 70% of which is generated by visitors from outside of Northern Ireland, and supports over 65,000 jobs.

Growth in the tourism economy has a knock-on effect for a broad range of sectors including local food producers, retail, artisan craft, heritage, cultural and arts sectors as well as transport and construction.

While Belfast is the main gateway for tourists, almost 60% of tourist spend and 70% of jobs are outside the city.

This provides employment and business on a local regional basis, bringing much needed investment and facilities into rural and coastal communities.

However with some hotels, bars and restaurants facing sizeable rates bill increases, Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, has warned that tourists could find local hostelries shut when they arrive.

“We now have the highest rates in the UK and its unsustainable and will put people out of business,” he says. “Our highest cost is staff and I can see premises being closed during the week to cut back on staff levels. Is that the face that the Government wants tourists to see when they arrive?”

Colin also called on the Department for Communities to address Northern Ireland’s outdated licensing laws, as a matter of urgency.

“Easter is the first holiday weekend of the year and we have restrictions on opening from Thursday to Sunday and yet you can go into a supermarket and buy alcohol. To change this outdated law is a win for the Government and a win for the economy and it doesn’t cost anything – we are not asking for money.”

His concerns are echoed by Visit Derry chief executive, Odhran Dunne, who urged the new executive to address a backlog of competing priorities.

“The Department for the Economy which is seen as the bedrock to creating ‘a globally competitive economy that works for everyone’ has an opportunity to stimulate continued growth in the tourism sector by dealing with some long-standing barriers to growth including the VAT rate, APD, licensing laws, support for city deals, skills agenda and more recently the negative impact of the rates revaluation process on the hospitality sector.

“While there is cross political support for growing the tourism economy, only by delivering key actions linked to the publication of the long overdue draft tourism strategy will we see exponential change.” 

Dr Joanne Stuart OBE, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance, says that after a difficult three years with no government in Stormont, tourism needs to be top of the new Executive’s agenda.

The organisation is seeking a meeting with the Economy Minister to discuss a long list of issues, including a tourism strategy. “It has been a positive start to 2020 with our local institutions back up-and-running,” she told Ulster Business. “Now it is time for the Executive to grasp the nettle and bring leadership and collaborative working to set the course for Northern Ireland as we navigate a future in a UK outside of the EU.

“Our region faces real budgetary constraints and it is vital that the economy and business, which generate the taxes to support our public services, are a key priority. There hasn’t been a tourism strategy in place for over a decade.

“Work, led by the department and Tourism NI has been ongoing for the last three years to develop a draft strategy. This needs to be taken forward in collaboration with industry as soon as possible. “

Confusion over Brexit is something which could impact on visitors here and Joanne is also urging government to address a decline in air connectivity to GB and Europe.

Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland launched a new destination brand last November – Northern Ireland – Embrace A Giant Spirit – with the aim of increasing visitor numbers and ensuring economic impact across all regions.

But Joanne says more funding needs to come from government to get this new message out internationally: “The life blood of tourism is the ability to attract visitors from outside of NI. Promotion of NI as a destination is vital and this is even more important given the negativity and confusion caused by Brexit.

“Tourism NI has launched a new brand – Embrace a Giant Spirit – and this requires additional funding for promotion and engaging with industry to develop quality and authentic experiences.

“Tourism Ireland promotes our region on the world stage and over the last three years our funding has decreased (it should be funded one third by NI, it is now around 14%).”

For tourism to continue to meet its targets Joanne is pushing for government departments to work together. “Tourism is impacted by a number of departments and it is important that a joined-up strategy, led by the Minister, is in place to create the environment and policies required for growth,” she says.

The Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) is also urging a more joined-up approach and says the Government needs to address a skills shortage in the industry.

Its chief executive, Janice Gault, says: “As an industry hotels have invested some £600m over the last five years with hotel stock at record levels.

“The biggest challenge is recent times has been staffing and skills. Attracting new people and improving the industry’s image has been a real concern. The NIHF has been working with a new collaborative network supported by Invest NI with stakeholders from across the sector to try and address the issue.

“The network called HATS – Hospitality and Tourism Skills – has started on a programme of work and is working with more than 20 local companies on a dedicated programme to attract, retain and engage the sector.

“The hotel sector hopes that government will approach the sector in a more cohesive manner with departments recognising the benefits we can bring while appreciating the pressure on profitability.

“Recent developments around rates and business costs have been very concerning. A new tourism strategy with an agreed and appropriate budget to support the new (tourism) brand are imperative, particularly as a doubling of the contribution from £1bn to £2bn by 2030 has been mooted as a new industry target.“

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