by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Northern Ireland’s largest tourism industry body has laid bare the full scale of the crisis facing the tourism sector in a compelling report and called on the Executive to urgently engage and act to ensure the industry’s short and long-term survival. Marking the start of a second Easter holiday season in lockdown, the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance (NITA), which includes air, sea and road operators, accommodation providers, visitor attractions, museums and tour guides among its members, warned the Executive that Northern Ireland risked setting one of its largest economic sectors back by up to 15 years.


NITA said that in the absence of any clear reopening plan or indicative guidance on when tourism could start to reopen, businesses have been left with little hope for the future of a sector that supports the jobs of more than 70,000 people and last year contributed over £1 billion to the economy.

It said that the industry, which has been effectively shut down since December due to Covid-19 restrictions caused by the unprecedented public health emergency is devastated, debt-laden and worried and that that while it warmly welcomed the support provided to date, more focus was needed now to help navigate the next stage of easing restrictions.

Specifically, NITA said that because Northern Ireland’s tourism industry relies heavily on visitors from Great Britain, the Executive must look to urgently remove the current travel restrictions in place with the rest of UK now that the vaccine rollout was advancing to pave the way for safe travel in the coming weeks and months.

Pre-Covid, 50 percent of visitors from outside the region came from England, Scotland and Wales, and given the current restrictions for international travel, the importance of this market cannot be under-estimated.
Under current plans, the ‘stay at home’ message could be relaxed from April 12, so it is imperative that the Executive considers the implications now for travel across the region, and further afield, NITA said.

“An industry recognised as pivotal to our economic and societal wellbeing has been flattened by Covid-19 and is in a race for survival. Unless urgent action is taken to ensure its future financial viability, where thousands of livelihoods stand in the balance, tourism’s potential to drive economic recovery in the years ahead will be severely impacted,” NITA chief executive Joanne Stuart said.

Stuart said that as restrictions ease, it is critical that the Executive engages quickly with the industry to urgently progress a plan for safe reopening which includes adequate notice for businesses to act, in addition to further funding support to ensure the sector can survive and rebuild into next year.

Although a Tourism Action Plan has been agreed as part of Northern Ireland’s Economic Recovery Strategy, the £290 million earmarked to fund its delivery has still yet to be formally agreed, Stuart said.

“Without engagement, adequate notice and a clear commitment of support, there’s every reason that operators right across the industry will go out of business, retract or shut their doors for good,” Joanne Stuart said. “As restrictions ease and consumer confidence continues to build as the vaccination rollout continues apace, the time to prepare to remove barriers to travel across the UK is now.”

In the report, NITA outlines the stark impact which the public health emergency and associated restrictions has had on the sector to date and details how it wants the Executive and the UK government to respond. Its demands include a commitment to tourism recovery action plans, more marketing investment and improved regional access.

“Tourism businesses need a re-opening plan with an appropriate notice period for the restrictions to be lifted to enable them to prepare to reopen,” Stuart said. “Central to this is an agreed, phased re-opening based on risk assessment of activities and the impact of other restrictions on financial viability such as local and national travel restrictions.”

NITA said that if tourism businesses fail, the impact will be felt across the wider economy and geography of Northern Ireland.

Tourism generated over £1bn in visitor spend in 2019, 70 percent of which was from inbound visitors (exports). This spend supports multiple sectors of the economy, such as hospitality and retail. With its dominance of SMEs, strong regional presence, importance to wellbeing and ability to generate jobs, tourism has been recognised as critical to the recovery of the NI economy as a balanced and regional economy.

NITA said the industry has worked hard with consumers and partners to reschedule travel and holiday plans to 2021, implement measures to be Covid-19 secure and provide packages and experiences tailored to home markets to maximise the main opportunity for 2021.

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NITA Chief Executive Joanne Stuart

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