T1. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether he will concede that a reduction in the rate of VAT in Northern Ireland for tourism businesses is unlikely to happen, given that he will be aware that the Northern Ireland Select Committee is considering that issue, and to state what other policies he would like to put in place if that differential is not established. (AQT 3101/11-16)
I do not accept that, just because in a reserved matter people think it less or more likely for us to achieve something, we should not continue to make the argument that we need to achieve it. Our hospitality and tourism sector is going from strength to strength. Figures recently released showed that our tourism is up. We have set ourselves a target of a £1 billion tourism industry by 2020. Major events will do that, such as the Open Championship coming to Northern Ireland, which is good news. As the Member will know, the only times that the Irish Open sold out were at Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, with a staggering 107,000 paying spectators. Just think how that bodes for the Open coming to Northern Ireland. We will continue to make the argument for a reduction in VAT because the case can be well made, and we will continue to support the sector to achieve that £1 billion target.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. The other issue that tourism faces is cuts to the arts: does he feel that that is a difficulty? While I accept that the Irish Open was a huge success at Royal County Down, the other challenge, particularly in a constituency like South Down, is growing tourism, making it sustainable, having jobs and increasing tourism spend. He needs to address all those things. How does he propose to address some of them?
The first thing in growing tourism is for the industry to look at tourism and hospitality as a career choice from the outset and give it the status that it deserves as an industry that provides a similar number of jobs in Northern Ireland to agriculture. The first thing that you want to do is ensure that you have your skills base right. Tourism research informs me that people remember the people they meet at the first point of contact, and we must make sure that they are properly skilled. The second thing is your tourism offering. We have a huge offering from the creative industries, and you mentioned the arts. There is "Game of Thrones", which is HBO's most successful series, right through to golf tourism and the beauty of the geography of Northern Ireland, particularly in areas such as the Mourne mountains. All in all, we need to thank the industry for the 2% increase in visitor numbers that it achieved in the first six months of this year.