The coronavirus pandemic “decimated” Northern Ireland’s tourism industry, a Stormont official has said.
The sector went from a record-breaking year in 2019 with 5.3 million visitors, spending an estimated £1 billion helped by the first return of The Open to Royal Portrush since 1951 to a 77% drop in hotel rooms sold and 73% drop in air passengers going through local airports.
Geraldine Fee, director of tourism in the Department for the Economy, said 2019 had been the culmination of a “decade of investment”.
“Things were looking great until the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020 and this had an immediate, massive and unprecedented impact on the sector,” she told the Stormont Economy committee.
“The pandemic effectively decimated the industry overnight.”
The department paid out more than £513 million in financial assistance to 47,128 applicant to number of schemes to help them survive the dramatic downturn.
However a “significantly higher proportion” of workers in tourism and hospitality were furloughed, and one in eight of 6,000 redundancies confirmed by May 2021 were in the accommodation and food services sector.
The department has launched an economic recovery action plan which includes £32 million of funding to support tourism.
A tourism recovery steering group has also been established.
John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, and Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, also gave evidence to the committee.
Mr McGrillen outlined support given to businesses for their websites to help secure future bookings and promotional campaigns to encourage visitors.
He described the holiday at home voucher scheme announced by the department earlier this year as “up and ready to run” later in the year when travel demand wanes from the traditionally busy summer months.
But he warned that unlike the high street voucher scheme, there may not be a voucher for every household in Northern Ireland and they will work to the budget that is available.
“The purpose of that scheme is to create new demand when things start to level off and try to ensure we have got people coming through the doors in autumn and early winter,” he said.
“We have a £2 billion budget … it will operate on a first come, first served basis.”
He added: “We’re not exactly clear as to what is down the road, there may be bumps in the road but I’m pretty confident that we’ll be in a position to address those as and when they come on.”
Mr Gibbons told MLAs that research commissioned by Tourism Ireland shows the “fundamental desire to travel remains” but that closer to home markets are likely to be the first to recover.
He said reconnection is also a theme, with people feeling disconnected during the pandemic and wanting to visit friends as well as destinations that are familiar to them.
He also raised concerns about different coronavirus regulations in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, “making it confusing for the consumer”.
“The more that these can be calibrated, particularly across the island of Ireland, will make it easy as we head towards the reopening,” he said.
Mr Gibbons also raised Brexit, which he said had been dominant as an issue before the pandemic.
He said there is a “mixed understanding” about the impact of Brexit, with less than half of those surveyed in Great Britain aware of the common travel area across the UK and Ireland, while just a fifth know what it is.
“New requirements for pet passports and the need for a green card for those driving their own car in the European Union could prove to be a future dampener when travel resumes,” he said.