NI travel agents and tour operators urge Stormont to deliver tailored financial support

Call follows release of ONS figures showing sector is among worst hit by the pandemic and the announcement from NI Executive that current restrictions have been extended to 1 April

ABTA – The Travel Association, ANITA (Association of Northern Ireland Travel Agents) and NITA (The Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance) are urging the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver tailored financial support for travel agents and outbound tour operators in recognition of the unique circumstances they are facing. The group says many travel businesses are in extreme hardship as they have not received any tailored financial help and have not been able to operate or generate income since the start of the pandemic, last March. This is due to lockdowns and unique restrictions placed on the sector, such as Executive directives specific to travel and advice against international travel. Other industries which have been required to close, like hospitality and accommodation providers, have had specific support.

Most recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show travel agents and tour operators are the second worst-hit industry during the pandemic, showing a fall of 86% in economic output.

The situation is set to get worse, as companies across the sector face an imminent financial cliff-edge because of business rates relief and tax deferral schemes which are due to lapse, and repayments becoming due on certain Government-backed loans. The associations are calling for an extension of business rates relief.

ABTA Northern Ireland Chair, Heather Fielding, said:
“Here in Northern Ireland, tour operators and travel agents need the kind of dedicated assistance Scottish travel agents and their supply chains have already received: one that looks primarily into the needs of travel businesses and addresses them. What is currently available doesn’t make up for a year of lost trade and doesn’t respond to the specific circumstances of this industry.

“For example, when non-essential shops reopen, localised support schemes will cease, but travel restrictions are likely to remain in place, just as they have for the past year – if so, agents and operators will remain unable to generate income while also losing access to these generalised schemes. Additionally, we know many businesses are still excluded from existing COVID-19 support schemes in Northern Ireland, such as tour operators and travel management companies.”

ANITA Chair, Damian Murphy, said:
“There is no doubt 2021 will be a difficult year for anyone in the travel industry and few would disagree our industry has been harder hit than most. We are calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to engage with us now to put in place a tailored support package to help us trade our way out of this downturn. Extension to both the business rates relief and furlough schemes are a must for most businesses but more so for ourselves as we will have to stay in hibernation mode for longer than the rest. A tailored support package will help us keep our highly trained staff in jobs and help us to find a survival route that will take us towards 2021 and hopefully a more normal travel pattern.”

NITA CEO, Joanne Stuart, said:
“Tourism and travel businesses continue to deal with one of the most challenging periods in the last twenty years. With lockdowns and severe travel restrictions, these businesses have seen their income decimated while still having to cover fixed and staff costs. With little prospect of travel outside of NI before Autumn, travel agents and tour operators are fighting for survival with many unable to continue over the next couple of months. Outbound travel is critical to the viability of air and sea transportation and to the growth and sustainability of tourism. We are calling on the NI Executive to recognise the need for tailored support for this sector and utilise the COVID-19 funding to address this gap to ensure survival.”