My Department, in conjunction with Tourism NI and Invest NI, has recently reviewed its policy position around support to tourist accommodation providers. The aim is to help grow and develop our tourist accommodation sector to ensure that it supports and enables the provision of a sufficient accommodation supply to meet the demands of our key tourism markets. That policy review has now been completed, and I intend to issue it for public consultation shortly. The review specifically considers the need to encourage hotel development in Belfast and the potential for support through a tourist accommodation loan fund. In addition to financial support, Invest NI and Tourism NI offer a wide range of advice and guidance to tourist accommodation providers on issues such as IT, e-business and marketing, as well as statutory requirements and the certification process.
Take two. The Minister will have heard that the Hastings Hotels group has acquired Windsor House and plans to turn it into a hotel. What is her Department doing to increase the number of hotels in Northern Ireland and in Belfast in particular? Does she believe that there is a need and demand for them?
I very much welcome the fact that the Hastings group has purchased Windsor House. Knowing the expertise and professionalism that that group exhibits in the sector, it will make a fabulous hotel of that property. The evidence that has been gathered from the review tells us that there is a lack of four-star and five-star hotel accommodation in our key tourism areas right across Northern Ireland. The main concern highlighted in the policy review is that we may be approaching a position of undersupply of hotel accommodation in Belfast to accommodate our growing tourism aspirations, especially with the opening of the Waterfront Conference Centre in 2016. That is just next year. Research estimates that there will be a potential undersupply of up to 1,000 beds by 2020. That is after taking account of known developments in the Titanic Quarter etc.
So, in that context, I very much welcome the fact that the Hastings group has seen fit to purchase that property. I hope that we help other companies to make similar decisions in the near future.
I thank the Minister for her response and the information that she has provided. How much does she feel this decision could be attributed to the relative strength of the euro and dollar exchange rates in terms of room pricing? Does she agree that all Northern Ireland MPs should be arguing for a reduction in VAT on tourist accommodation right across the UK?
I hope that all our newly elected MPs will do so, although four of them will not be there to make the case for us. Fourteen of them will be there, and I hope that they make the case for a reduction in VAT right across the United Kingdom. That would help not just Northern Ireland but other regional areas of the United Kingdom that have difficulties in attracting tourists.
We have this growing deficit because of the success of bringing tourists to Northern Ireland and, indeed, of having very successful events in Northern Ireland, as the Member will be fully aware. The advent of the Waterfront conference centre in 2016 means that we really need to deal with this matter quickly. If we are trying to attract very large events to the Waterfront conference centre, we need to be able to have the accommodation to deal with that. I hope that there are some business developers out there who will see this as a very good opportunity.
I thank the Minister for her answers. Notwithstanding the good news in relation to the acquisition of Windsor House by the Hastings group, there will still be a fairly significant deficit of beds in 2020, and the Minister referred to that. Is there not a more radical approach that she could take in order to remedy that potential deficit?
I am sorry; I thought that the Member was going to give me a suggestion when he said that I could be more radical. As I said, we are going to put this out to consultation. Some people may come forward with ideas as to how we could deal with that. Of course, we have access to financial transaction funding, which we may be able to use if people are having difficulties with access to finance for new developments. We have been looking at that in relation to grade A office accommodation in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland. Those are the sorts of ideas that I am very willing to look at. I am not sure that it is an issue in relation to finance, but I am sure that we will find out what the real issue is in the coming months.