Northern Ireland’s hotels can reopen from July 20 as long as the rate of infection is under control, Stormont economy minister Diane Dodds said.
The industry has been devastated by a shutdown forced by the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Mrs Dodds said: “Covid-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for our tourism industry, as it has for tourism markets around the world.
“I believe the time is right to provide the tourist accommodation sector with clarity about opening dates.
“I want to build upon the positive progress in managing the spread of the virus and begin to reopen our tourism industry in a safe and managed way.”
The July 20 date covers guesthouses, guest accommodation, B&Bs, hotels and hostels.
A tourism steering group will be asked to work with the sector to explore what facilities and amenities can safely be made available by hotels and recommendations will be brought to the Executive in due course.
Holiday and home parks, caravan sites and self-catering properties are also covered by the July 20 date.
Mrs Dodds said: “As they are self-contained and may require less advance notice before opening, the opening times for these types of accommodation may be advanced to earlier than July 20 depending on scientific advice.”
Bill Wolsey is managing director of hospitality group Beannchor, which owns hotels like the Merchant and Bullitt in Belfast city centre.
He said it provided a first glimmer of hope for the recovery of the hospitality industry.
“As we develop our reopening plan, we will work in partnership with the Executive, health bodies and our peers across the tourism and hospitality sectors to ensure the safety and comfort of all staff and guests so that we open with the correct measures in place to protect all,” he said.
“There is a need for further clarification around hotel facilities; not just in enabling us and other hoteliers to provide as well-rounded a service to our guests as possible but also to begin to shape our staffing capacity and inject a much-needed boost to the local economy by reinstating as many jobs as we can.”
Northern Ireland Hotels Federation chief executive Janice Gault said it was a welcome move.
She added: “This is a step forward for the industry and the federation has been working closely with industry colleagues to ensure that businesses can open in a safe and secure manner.
Having an agreed date will help us to plan, promote and give businesses the opportunity to assess their viabilityJanice Gault, Northern Ireland Hotels Federation
“There is more work to be done around the details of opening.
“We will continue to work in a collaborative manner so that the visitor economy, including the hotel sector, can return to business and help restore the Northern Ireland economy.
“The safety of our staff and guests will be paramount in this process.
“Having an agreed date will help us to plan, promote and give businesses the opportunity to assess their viability.”
A hospitality workers’ union, Unite, warned against the erosion of two-metre social distancing in the workplace.
Hospitality organiser Neil Moore said: “There is no possible health-science basis for eroding this protection – it is a demand designed to increase profit at the cost of lives and must be resisted.”
Massive queues formed as home furnishings retailer Ikea opened its doors for the first time in months in Belfast on Monday.
Samantha Fisher and her daughter Atlanta, from Groomsport, near Bangor in Co Down, queued from 8am.
They have a bedroom to furnish which has lain empty for weeks during the pandemic lockdown.
So that will be my husband’s job tonight, to build it and put it togetherSamantha Fisher
Ms Fisher said: “I wanted my dressing table.
“My room is empty because I did it up a few months ago and it is just a big space ready for it to go in.
“So that will be my husband’s job tonight, to build it and put it together.”
They also bought mirrors, blankets and outdoor furnishings.
People were allowed into the cavernous store in small numbers from 9am.
Extra screens have been installed to protect staff.
Wipes were available at pay points.