COVID-19: NI’s tourism industry counting the cost of a £1bn-plus lockdown

By James Gould

All Seasons Bed and Breakfast, Portrush

As covid-19 lockdown continues in Northern Ireland, those involved in the crisis-hit tourism sector say they are still hopeful of saving the industry – despite revealing a loss of revenue running into more than £1bn.

Restrictions during the pandemic meant that traditionally booked-up hotels missed out on key holiday periods including much of the summer, Halloween and Christmas during 2020.

This year, Easter has already been written off while other tourist attractions such as National Trust properties have been closed.

Tourism NI Chief Executive told me that the industry had suffered losses in revenue to date of at least £600m.

“Given that the Tourism industry is fundamental dependent upon social interaction the nature of the virus has meant that it was the first sector to close down and will be the last to re-emerge from the pandemic,” he said.

“This time last year the industry here was predicting a return to normality by the Autumn. Despite a relatively successful summer, driven by staycations from local and RoI residents, the industry is no further forward one year on.

“Tourism revenue for 2020 is expected to be less than half that of 2019 which was a record year for tourism in NI.”

Mr McGrillen also believes that their situation this year is made all the worse because they still do not know when they will be able to re-open their doors.

“The absence of dates as to when the sector can expect to reopen is now putting Northern Ireland at a competitive disadvantage to other parts of the UK where tourism and hospitality businesses have clear road maps for re-opening,” he added.

However, Mr McGrillen pointed out that if the Executive decided they could return to business after Easter, they could still save their traditionally lucrative summer season.

“Assuming the sector does get to re-open before the summer there is then reason for optimism,” he said.

“According to research conducted by Tourism NI, 30% of people in Northern Ireland intend to take a holiday at home this summer. 10% of residents in the Republic of Ireland intend to do likewise although recent speculation of anger around the NI Protocol potentially leading to social unrest is likely to discourage Irish residents from travelling north.

“Last summer did see visitor numbers from ROI increase three-fold on the previous year and many are keen to return. “

Hotels and B & Bs have been among the businesses hit most during lockdown – and Janice Gault, chief executive of the NI Hotels Federations – the trade representative body – puts their losses at “£450m plus.”

She said there were currently 143 hotels with 9,580 bedrooms certified by Tourism NI.

In a statement she said: “By 31st March 2021 hotels will have been closed for 96 continuous days with no indicative dates for reopening. This is the longest period of lockdown since the onset of the pandemic.

“Trading over the last year has been challenging with only 120 days of trading, 38 of these with a curfew in place.”

However, like Mr McGrillen she also feels they can still salvage the industry if certain conditions are met.

The Federation recently released the findings of a ‘Re-opening of Hotels in Northern Ireland’ survey during which hoteliers said they would need an average of 17-days’ notice to open their doors again along with the recruitment of more than 2,500 staff.

“Hotels can offer a real opportunity to maximise the potential of staycations, create new employment and give much needed hope,” she added.

Meanwhile, B & B owner Tracey Lafferty who runs the All-Seasons on the Coleraine Road in Portrush, is urging the Stormont Executive to give businesses such as hers a date to re-open.

“We’ve simply got to have something to work towards,” she told me. “As soon as they (the Executive Ministers) tell me when I can start opening my doors again, I can start planning which is vital in a business like mine.

“The sooner the better – I’ve already missed out on a number of key dates in the calendar such as Christmas and Easter. We would do a lot of business at those times, but summer is by far the busiest and we simply can’t afford to miss this.

“It’s incredible to think that just a couple of years ago, we were in the throes of planning for the Open Golf tournament coming to the area. That was fantastic for the north coast and, indeed, Northern Ireland as a whole.

“It would be great to see those days back again – and tourism really back up and running once again.”    

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