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Rebuilding Northern Ireland's £1bn tourism industry in a post-Covid-19 world will be a huge challenge... but the solution lies right on our doorstep

John McGrillen

'Holiday at home', 'Save jobs' and 'Protect our tourist industry' will become the new mantras as we begin the journey to recovery, says John McGrillen


Empty streets of Portrush during the coronavirus pandemic

Empty streets of Portrush during the coronavirus pandemic

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Huge crowds watch Shane Lowry at the Open Championship last year at Royal Portrush

Huge crowds watch Shane Lowry at the Open Championship last year at Royal Portrush

�INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Empty streets of Portrush during the coronavirus pandemic

Last summer, our tourism industry was celebrating the successful return of The Open to Royal Portrush. Our destination had arrived on the global stage with a host of international accolades, a successful £1bn industry, employing 65,000 people and intent on building on a record year in 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed all that and is having far-reaching consequences for the Northern Ireland economy, in particular the tourism and hospitality sectors. It has effectively led to the closing down of the world's tourism and travel industry in a space of eight weeks and, as part of that global ecosystem, tourism here is now facing an unprecedented and existential threat.

We all recognise that this is, first and foremost, a health crisis and our first thoughts are with grieving families, people in hospital with Covid-19, or ill at home, and with the NHS staff who are working well beyond the call of duty to save lives.

The tourism and hospitality industry is also playing its part in supporting the efforts of health workers and carers, offering hotels for use as auxiliary hospitals, providing accommodation for key workers and providing meals for the most vulnerable in our society.

When our industry emerges from this crisis, it will look very different and it is increasingly clear there is no defined end.

Even the most optimistic commentators are forecasting global tourist arrivals declining by 40% in 2020. The UN World Tourism Organisation is predicting up to 75 million tourism jobs lost globally.

Many of our own businesses are now receiving life support through the job retention and grant schemes and, when they come off this support, there will be a fight for survival and a battle to eventually return to full health.

Before Easter, Tourism NI spoke to 1,300 tourism and hospitality businesses via an online survey.

We wanted to provide an evidence base for Northern Ireland Executive ministers for their ongoing discussions with the UK Government on support schemes for the sector.

The survey showed the Covid-19 impact would be severe on 79% of businesses in the short-term and 63% in the longer term and there could be yet more pain to come.

Social distancing will continue to be a feature of life. The lockdown has now been extended to May 9 and it is becoming clear that the relaxation of restrictions will be staggered.

Northern Ireland's attractions, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, bars and entertainment venues will be among the last to exit the lockdown and working practices will have to alter to reduce the risk of infection. Rebooting the industry once restrictions begin to be lifted will be extremely challenging.

Consumer confidence in travel is at an all-time low. The global aviation and cruise industries are facing existential challenges. Older people may be less willing to travel for quite some time and it may take up to three years before we see any real recovery in cruise, long-haul and group travel business.

Business tourism will struggle to return to pre-Covid levels, as corporations and, indeed, their employees, may see international travel as more of a risk than a reward, certainly in the short term.

As meeting digitally will move from being necessary, to acceptable and eventually habitual, live events are unlikely to take place with the scale and frequency that they have done in the past.

And, of course, many people may have lost their jobs, meaning fewer people with money in their pockets to spend on short breaks and overnight stays.

The impact of all of this will be fierce competition among destinations and businesses competing for a reduced customer base.

Up to now, Tourism NI has, alongside many others, been working to support tourism businesses in reacting to the immediate crisis.


Huge crowds watch Shane Lowry at the Open Championship last year at Royal Portrush

Huge crowds watch Shane Lowry at the Open Championship last year at Royal Portrush

�INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Huge crowds watch Shane Lowry at the Open Championship last year at Royal Portrush

We now need to quickly turn our attention to planning for recovery and how we can support the industry to respond to the "new normal" and help the sector to rebuild in a post-Covid-19 world.

I am, therefore, delighted that Economy Minister Diane Dodds has agreed to lead a Tourism Recovery Steering Group, which will bring together a plan to rebuild our tourism industry and oversee its execution.

All current research points to the fact that the recovery of the tourism industry will begin in the domestic market, followed by closer-to-home markets and, eventually, long haul.

Some 76% of our tourism spend came from the UK and Ireland last year, so we have historically been less dependent on long-haul markets, which creates an advantage.

We are developing new marketing campaigns and these will be ready to run once the time is right.

We are also refocusing our Tourism Enterprise Development Programme to meet the immediate requirements of tourism businesses and to help them compete in the new world we are entering into.

While the challenges are, no doubt, daunting, crisis can bring opportunity. As the global tourism industry resets, the assumptions that previously informed business models no longer apply and every tourism destination is effectively in start-up mode. This can allow us to re-shape ourselves in a way that brings greatest benefit to local communities.

Consumers are likely to have a greater focus on sustainability.

Smaller groups are likely to seek out authentic experiences that allow the visitor to connect with the landscape and local communities. Smaller cities and rural destinations may well replace the demand for large and densely populated destinations.

Given our resilience, Northern Ireland is well placed to respond to those consumer demands. To succeed, however, our industry needs the support of local people. We, as an industry, need to embrace the "giant spirit" that our fellow citizens have shown in their response to the health crisis and their support for communities.

When this crisis is over and we begin that journey to recovery, we will, once again, need that local spirit as we campaign to "Holiday at home", "Save jobs" and "Protect our tourism industry".

John McGrillen is CEO of Tourism NI

Belfast Telegraph