Coronavirus: NI tourism businesses could fail before grants arrive

By John Campbell
BBC News NI Economics & Business Editor

  • Published
A cruise ship in Belfast
Image caption,
Passengers from cruise ships usually form a big part of NI's tourism industry

The tourism industry in Northern Ireland has warned coronavirus grants are taking too long to reach firms.

The £25,000 grants were first announced on 19 March but will not open for applications until 20 April.

The NI Tourism Alliance (NITA) said "businesses may not be able to survive until the end of April much less start making grant applications".

The Department for the Economy said it was doing everything possible to expedite the scheme.

Another scheme for small businesses has already paid out £10,000 grants to thousands of small firms.

But that scheme essentially involved one database and so was highly automated.

The tourism scheme involves checks against four databases which will have to be done manually.

"The process to identify and validate eligible businesses from different databases is complex and manual," the Department for the Economy said.

"However, we our pouring our efforts into delivering it efficiently and effectively."

'Upfront staffing costs'

NITA chief executive Joanne Stuart said Stormont should make immediate interim payments.

She said businesses had anticipated that the grants would be available in advance of the government's coronavirus job retention scheme.

That scheme allows employers to temporarily lay off staff while the government pays 80% of their wages during the crisis.

It is also due to open for applications on 20 April with payments beginning on 30 April.

"Whilst the job retention scheme was welcomed by many tourism businesses, the fact that it has not gone live yet means that businesses are incurring upfront staffing costs which it was anticipated that the grants would have supported," said Ms Stuart.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Titanic Belfast, a major attraction, has seen visitor numbers drop 50% on this time last year

"This meant we would have had an interim cash flow that would have plugged the gap until the scheme went live, however as the grants have not been distributed businesses may not be able to survive until the end of April."

That view is echoed by Ken Sharpe who owns the Salty Dog Hotel in Bangor.

He said initial relief following the announcement of the support measures had now turned to alarm and he was "now staring into an abyss".

"I have no idea how I am going to be able to pay my staff anything for the last two weeks of April, so I would appeal to our elected representatives to help my staff as they fight to keep a roof over their heads," he said.

"I have been in hospitality for 34 years but nothing has prepared me for the last few weeks."

Last month, Economy Minister Diane Dodds said there had been "an alarming drop-off in activity" in the tourism sector.

She revealed Titanic Belfast, a major attraction, was seeing visitor numbers down 50% on this time last year.