Our CEO, Dr Joanne Stuart OBE, examines some of the key considerations for tourism's recovery.
"Easter should have been the start of the main Tourism season, a season which was expected to build on the growth over the last few years. Figures that are available for the first 9 months of 2019, showed a 9% increase on 2018 and with major campaigns planned for the new experience brand ‘Embrace a Giant Spirit’ we saw new businesses ready to enter the market and investments made by existing tourism businesses to maximise the anticipated opportunity.
Instead, the impact of Covid-19 brought Tourism to a halt and income dropped to zero virtually overnight. The last few months have been about survival especially as businesses were coming out of the quietest part of the tourism calendar.
But as we work through all of the financial support schemes, the tourism industry is looking to the future and working on how we re-open and start rebuilding. With the first steps being taken to on the NI Executive’s Road to Recovery, there is light at the end of the tunnel, however, it is not clear how long that tunnel is. In England and the Republic of Ireland, dates have been identified for each phase of the recovery and this has given the public confidence to plan overnight trips which has translated in an increase in accommodation bookings.
The establishment of the Tourism Recovery Steering and Working groups by the Minister for the Economy is a welcome and important step in planning the re-opening of the industry and setting the direction and strategy to rebuild the industry in a changed world. Any plan has to address a number of challenges in the first instance.
Current sentiment research shows that social distancing is the most important priority for visitors, followed by measures that maximise cleanliness. To address this, clear guidance, supported by scientific input, is required. Industry is working across the UK and Ireland with the aim to create a common set of guidelines that will be developed into a recognisable KITE mark, with associated training for staff and education for visitors.
Financial viability and sustainability is a key consideration for business. Given the physical distancing requirements and the associated measures to be implemented, costs incurred will be higher and a lot of businesses will struggle to operate at levels that will generate enough income. We know that the International market is unlikely to come back until March/April 2021 and therefore a flexible support package is required over the longer term. This will also impact on the number of staff that businesses can support in the early stages of re-opening and therefore on-going flexible support through the job retention scheme will be necessary.
Industry will require time to get ready to re-open and ensure that measures to address social distancing and hygiene are implemented, bringing staff out of furlough and ensuring staff are trained. Having an agreed timeline, albeit with the understanding that it could change dependent on the health situation, also provides time for expectations to be managed with the public and provide clarity on what will be available, what the public will be able to do and how to behave.
Ultimately, tourism is about attracting visitors. We need to address their concerns about making plans to get out an about as well as promoting our experiences and attractions. The KITE mark will help to reassure visitors and this must be supported by properly resourced marketing campaigns. Campaigns to our home, RoI and GB markets will be essential to secure business for the remainder of 2020 with campaigns to keep Northern Ireland at the front of mind of international visitors to ensure we have a good 2021. This will require a doubling of our current marketing spend focused on our experience brand Embrace a Giant Spirit.
In addition, we need to address the decreased capacity of our regional connectivity, both sea and air, which will be a barrier to rebuilding our GB market. This is critical for consumer confidence and our reputation as a destination that is easy to get to for both leisure and business tourism. Aviation has been one of the hardest hit industries and given our geographic location we will be severely disadvantaged. Serious consideration must be given to the abolishment of Air Passenger Duty on short haul flights and funding to support route development.
There are lots to do, but with a Minister who recognises the importance of Tourism to our economy and is committed to rebuilding the industry, and an industry who are determined to re-open and revitalise tourism once more, we have a partnership that can make it happen.
Once the date is agreed for tourism to re-open we need the public to embrace their giant spirit, get out and explore all the Northern Ireland has to offer and support our local tourism businesses."