Dr Joanne Stuart, chief executive of the NI Tourism Alliance (NITA), has told LCN that she fears for the future of beleaguered tourism businesses in Northern Ireland as we move into the winter months.
The Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance, which advocates on behalf of the entire tourism industry in Northern Ireland, is pressing the NI Executive to make critical spending decisions around £169m which is currently at its disposal.
And in a report launched recently, the Alliance says that it has calculated that the tourism industry here could be in line to lose a hefty £700m this year as a result of a 70 per cent drop in overnight stays.
Speaking to this magazine, Dr Stuart described the situation for tourism on the ground in Northern Ireland as ‘very bad’:
‘Obviously, tourism was closed up for three or four months and 60 per cent of our revenue is generated throughout that period up to the end of September,’ she said. ‘So it was great when we were able to reopen and we had lots of people going out, but just not at the levels they were at last year.
‘Some sectors, such as self-catering and restaurants with the Eat Out To Help Out scheme have seen good numbers, but there are also a lot of organisations that have not been able to operate at their full capacity because of social distancing measures and so on.
‘We are now in a situation where we are going into the quietest period of the year and businesses won’t have the opportunity to build back the reserves that would have seen them through to March.’
The NITA’s report estimates that during the period of lockdown, around £300m in direct visitor spend was lost to the tourism industry in Northern Ireland. That figure is projected to rise to as much as £600m by the end of 2020. In addition, 80 per cent of those who work in tourism here were on full and part-time furlough at the end of September.
The Alliance has laid out the actions which it believes the Executive must now take around funding for Covid-19 interventions. Some £169m has been available since the end of July – £53m from an underspend in previous schemes and £116m from the Chancellor’s July statement but no decisions around what is to be done with this money have been made.
‘Tourism businesses just can’t keep on going,’ warned Dr Stuart. ‘We have lots of small businesses and self-catering concerns that provide these experiences and it’s very difficult for them and also for the larger groups and attractions that are reliant on the international tourism market.’
And she continued:
‘There is good pent-up demand for next year, people want to come to Northern Ireland but the question is whether there will be enough of the tourist sector left to service that demand, this is what we have to deal with.’
In its report, the Alliance identifies seven key areas where it says action is urgently required to support the tourism industry. These include maximising demand; securing additional regional access; a crisis management support fund and product development programme and a re-opening date for business conferences.
‘We cannot afford to wait any longer to implement these proposals,’ warned Dr Stuart. ‘Tourism has shown that it is a resilient industry that has done everything to keep going through unprecedented times. The additional funding is required to ensure we have a strong base from which to rebuild in 2021 and beyond.’