Hospitality and Tourism: East Antrim

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 11 June 2024.

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Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 4:30, 11 June 2024

In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Cheryl Brownlee to raise the matter of hospitality and tourism in East Antrim. I call Cheryl Brownlee, who has up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Cheryl Brownlee Cheryl Brownlee DUP

I am sure that we are all well aware of the struggles of the high street. They are well documented, and there have been positive measures from central and local government to try to address those challenges. Today, I want to raise the cocktail of challenges that I see in my constituency. That mixture has created an increasingly difficult environment for successful trade for our hospitality and tourism industry in East Antrim.

I will take a closer look at Carrickfergus, which is located 15 minutes outside our capital city of Belfast. You would think that that would be positive, but we find that tourist buses roll into Carrickfergus in the morning and take a quick stop at the castle for a photo opportunity before the tourists reboard and are off up the road to the north coast. Carrickfergus is not being treated as a priority. We should market the seaside town as the gateway to the Causeway coast, whereas, at the minute, it is simply the toilet stop. The Department's failure to capitalise on Carrickfergus's unique position is having a detrimental impact on our tourism offering. Carrickfergus Castle, for example, is unique and is one of the most historically important castle garrisons in Northern Ireland.

Another significant factor that must be recognised is a major reduction in available bed-nights, following the recent closure of two prominent local hotels. Subsequent data from Tourism NI does not accurately reflect the downturn in bed-nights in East Antrim. While the mid and east Antrim area as a whole shows a positive trend in bed-nights, the reality for East Antrim is a dramatic reduction. We all know that a reduction in bed-nights results in a reduction in tourists staying and spending in the area. More and more, we see and hear that the lack of available facilities is directly impacting on hospitality businesses in the surrounding area, some of which have seen a reduction in footfall of over 30%. Footfall counters purchased to monitor trade in Carrickfergus have shown a constant discrepancy between the footfall in Carrickfergus town centre and the NI average. For example, in October 2023, the average footfall across Northern Ireland increased by 2% from the previous year, compared with a shocking 23% reduction in footfall in Carrickfergus.

The added difficulty for Carrickfergus town centre is its location in the conservation area. While the preservation of history and heritage is absolutely key, we must strike a balance, moving forward, between conservation, preservation and a town that is open, adaptable and able to utilise its unique heritage as a vehicle for success. Conservation areas have planning stipulations to ensure that areas are in keeping with the aesthetic appropriate to the time period. Unfortunately, that comes with its own challenges. I give Members the example of my constituency office, located in the heart of Carrickfergus town centre in a conservation area. Like every other Member, I applied for planning permission to erect a sign, a basic sign that would have caused no issue in almost any town or village across Northern Ireland. However, due to my office's position in the conservation area directly across from the castle, the application resulted in more than six months of challenges, changes and stress before a final decision was made. That example is certainly not unique; plenty of other businesses have fallen foul of the stipulations. The requirement to hire a conservation architect, for example, is simply not financially viable for the vast majority of new businesses. In that regard, we need to create a space to preserve history and heritage whilst operating a common-sense approach.

A number of hospitality businesses have closed in Carrickfergus in recent times, with many others feeling the pinch and the pressure. Of course, that is regrettable, but we have to be honest and say that it is not hard to believe, when we look at some of challenges that businesses face in Northern Ireland. It is interesting to note that, in East Antrim, we have twice as many young businesses — businesses that are one or two years old —than the rest of the UK. That is the time when businesses are most vulnerable to overheads such as VAT, high rent and rates and staff costs. That is when they need most support. I have also heard directly from numerous local businesses of the difficulties of recruiting and retaining staff, with so many forced to scale back operations or reduce opening hours due to a lack of staffing provision, despite an increase in the minimum wage.

A recent survey carried out as part of the PEACE PLUS programme in mid and east Antrim showed that the number of derelict and dilapidated buildings in the town centre was the number-one issue for people in East Antrim. There is constant frustration in the community and in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, owing to the limited powers that are afforded to the local authorities to deal with the issue. It not only tarnishes the overall look and aesthetic of the town but significantly reduces the retail space available to rent or buy, leading to an increase in price of the remaining stock. The new dilapidation Bill would be a welcome step in the right direction to address the issue and provide some hope to the town centres and city centres that have fallen victim to such dereliction.

I very much welcome Back in Business, a scheme that offers businesses a 50% rates reduction for up to two years if they move into premises that have been unoccupied for 12 months or more and were previously used for retail purposes. We all want to see our town centres and shopping areas thriving, and Back in Business aims to bring vibrancy, footfall and investment back into our high streets whilst providing businesses with a boost at the start of their business journey, helping to support jobs and bringing long-term vacant units back into use. However, while we must all continue to support new businesses, we must also support the businesses that struggled through the most difficult COVID years. On paper, the scheme is absolutely excellent, but, as it covers only businesses whose lease began after 1 April 2024 and as, of course, the premises must have been vacant, realistically, how many businesses will benefit from it?

Despite all the struggles and challenges that I have detailed, it would be remiss of me not to praise the incredible businesses, Carrickfergus Enterprise and the many support agencies in East Antrim. They have been and are keeping their businesses going, taking the risk, thinking outside the box and powering on to keep our town alive. Carrick Greengrocers, for example, has taken a different approach. It is the first community-owned greengrocer's and the first community-owned business in Carrickfergus town centre, selling locally grown fruit and veg alongside other produce from further afield, with lots of other locally made goods and treats. It aims to enrich the lives of people in Carrickfergus through high-quality, in-season food and to trade in a way that supports a sustainable environment and economy.

It has created a welcoming hub in the town centre that provides opportunities for learning, community, interaction and engagement, with all profits being directed back into the business or other local initiatives aimed at benefiting the Carrickfergus community.

Only this weekend, we witnessed the spectacular Royal Landing festival, which drew tens of thousands of people from all over Northern Ireland and beyond to our wee corner of the world to experience culture and history coming alive on the streets of Carrickfergus. That type of cultural pageantry is popular in Northern Ireland. It represents a significant part of the tourism draw, along the lines of Tourism NI's experiential and thematic pillars of "Being Original", "Legends and Stories" and "awakeners". Those themes focus on the cultural history of the nation and its impact and contribution to the world's history, which we must continue to promote. The wider tourism strategy is to develop the Ulster-Scots project as a cultural resource for Northern Ireland. A recent economic study shows that the projected visitor and participant spend provided a direct economic impact of over half a million pounds for just one day. We have much to be positive about.

Those green shoots, however, must be recognised and supported to ensure growth, duplication and positivity in order to rejuvenate the town and beyond. I very much recognise that it is a cross-cutting issue that requires a collaborative response, but my aim is to get East Antrim on the agenda, for the struggles to be realised and for those sectors' urgent concerns to be heard and addressed sooner rather than later.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 4:45, 11 June 2024

Thank you very much. All other Members who speak will have six minutes.

Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am happy to have the opportunity to contribute to the Adjournment debate. I thank my constituency colleague Cheryl Brownlee for securing the debate.

There is no shortage of options for tourists who visit East Antrim. Some are well known and renowned. For example, Carrickfergus Castle, which was mentioned, is one of the best-preserved Norman castles anywhere in these islands and is well preserved as a monument after 750 years of military operation. Several miles up the road is the Gobbins, a spectacular cliff-face walk that has been restored to its former glory, along with a new cafe and exhibition and visitor facilities in nearby Ballystrudder. Our fascinating historical connections are evidenced through some of our brilliant museums, including Carrickfergus Museum; the Andrew Jackson cottage, which tells the story of the seventh US president, whose parents emigrated from Carrickfergus; and the Larne Museum and Arts Centre, which is located in the redeveloped and restored Carnegie Free Library in Larne.

North of Larne, we have the famous Antrim Coast Road, which is recognised as one of the greatest coastal drives in the world. Each village along that road, including Ballygally, Glenarm, Carnlough, Waterfoot and Cushendun, has its own sights and attractions, many of which have been positively highlighted by our growing film and TV industry, with shows such as 'Game of Thrones' being filmed in the area.

I could talk all day about the opportunities for tourism in East Antrim, but, given the time constrains, I will focus on what we need to do to confront the challenges facing hospitality in our constituency and what the Executive and UK Government could do to support our hospitality and tourism sectors. It has been pointed out many times that tourism and hospitality are interlinked. You cannot have a good tourism destination without hospitality.

It should be acknowledged that much of the tourism to East Antrim consists of tour groups, as the previous contributor mentioned, that visit specific sites over the course of one or two days. Many of those tours stop at Carrickfergus Castle, which is, obviously, welcome, but many immediately leave the town and head north without visiting the rest of Carrickfergus, missing out on the sights of the town and the positive hospitality that Carrick's many restaurants, bars and coffee shops have to offer. In other words, many people pass through our key towns and villages, but few stay for the day or overnight.

I noticed an interview with Howard Hastings in the 'Belfast Telegraph' today. He mentioned visitors, particularly those coming from GB. He said:

"I believe a lot of people in GB, when they think about holidays, only think about travelling east rather than west. There’s what they call in tourism terms a ‘well of ignorance’ about Northern Ireland. They’ve chosen not to learn about us... and what we do... visitors from Great Britain who come to Northern Ireland... bring with them three things: their passports, euros and plug socket adapters."

There clearly is some work to be done to make Northern Ireland an attractive place for tourists from GB.

The vast majority of international tourists who come to Northern Ireland come through the Republic of Ireland as part of a wider visit to the island of Ireland. Most will spend two or three days focused on Belfast, passing through East Antrim on the way to other tourist locations such as Portrush or Derry. In that respect, our tourism sector is under threat from the long-term impacts of Brexit, particularly if cross-border tourism is negatively impacted by the UK Government's plans for electronic travel authorisation (ETA) for non-UK and non-Irish citizens. We must work with the new Government to ensure that that measure does not hinder cross-border tourism, which is desperately needed.

Brexit has also resulted in a workforce crisis, as I have heard from many business owners who work in our hospitality sector in East Antrim. Brexit and the outgoing Government's obsession with confronting immigration have led to a reduction in available staff for many of our hotels, since many of our valued hospitality staff were EU nationals. The loss of EU funding will diminish opportunities for future planning and restoration such as we had in the past. For example, the restoration of the Gobbins, which we talked about, was delivered partly due to EU Peace funding. It remains to be seen whether UK equivalent schemes can deliver, but, so far, that appears unlikely.

We must do what we can to link our tourism attractions in East Antrim to the local economy so that people who visit them will benefit our local economy and businesses. More widely, the workforce crisis in our hospitality sector has led to shortages for many local businesses such as bars and restaurants, many of which can open only on certain days or restrict their days by, for example, opening only at weekends or in the evenings. Some have reduced menus as a result of not having sufficient resources. That decline is sadly evident in East Antrim and across Northern Ireland. It also reflects the difficult reality for many families who, in the cost-of-living crisis, cannot afford to eat out or to pay for increasingly expensive meals.

Other financial issues require the intervention of either central government in the UK or the Executive here. Many local B&B owners have told me that the rates system does not work for them, as it is increasing their costs during an already difficult cost-of-living and cost-of-doing-business crisis. Some of the larger hotels in the constituency are similarly concerned about VAT and would welcome an urgent review of VAT for hospitality, saying that the margins of doing business are very slim. I note that that was one of the suggestions that Trade NI made in its economic report, 'The Prosperity Dividend', which was launched last year.

I look forward to hearing from the Economy Minister about what his Department can do to improve prospects for our tourism and hospitality sectors. I appreciate that much of what I have mentioned is outside his responsibilities, and, indeed, we need a coordinated approach from several Departments, including Finance, to any rates review; Infrastructure, to ensure effective transport links, particularly along the Belfast to Larne railway line; and Communities, to work to enhance our local heritage, including local campaigns to restore and improve historic buildings and other sites. I ask the Economy Minister —.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance

No problem. I agree with the Member who secured the debate that we have great potential and that we must do what we can to harness it for the benefit of our businesses.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Member for East Antrim for securing this important Adjournment debate. I declare an interest, as my family has owned and continues to own businesses in the shoe trade in Carrickfergus town centre for over 60 years and knows all too well the pressures that the Member referred to. I thank the Minister for coming along today. To be fair, it could have been one of four Ministers, given the litany of issues that affect tourism and hospitality. On the prohibitive rates system, his colleague could have come along. We have talked about dilapidation, and the Communities Minister could, no doubt, have played a role by looking at vesting powers and whatnot, which we have discussed before. The Infrastructure Minister could have spoken about the prohibitiveness of planning, as the Member mentioned in relation to the conservation area. I agree with her that a collaborative approach is needed. Such an approach is needed in cooperating with the council, which has also has a key role to play in this, whether in promoting the amazing tourist offering that we have in East Antrim or promoting East Antrim in general.

The Member who spoke before me talked about the amazing tourist offering that we have — I remember referring to that in my maiden speech — whether that be Carrickfergus Castle, which is a phenomenal asset not just for East Antrim but for Northern Ireland; the Andrew Jackson Cottage and US Rangers Museum; the Gobbins; Carnfunnock Country Park; or the drive up to the gateway of the Causeway, which is just phenomenal. I think that Michael Palin described it as one of the most amazing in the world. It is quite sad, almost lamentable, that it took Timmy Mallett to come here to put East Antrim back on the map — he did it for the whole of Northern Ireland, let us be fair, in such an amazing way — and that the assets that we have are not promoted as regularly as they should be. Too often, we look outside Northern Ireland and our constituencies and forget just how good those assets are.

As Ms Brownlee said, we live in really difficult times. It is about promoting not just our amazing tourist offerings but our amazing hospitality offerings. Some of those hospitality offerings are also our tourist offerings. The Fallis family in Carrickfergus, for example, have promoted Dobbins Inn in really tight circumstances. That listed building is 500 or 600 years old and is linked to the castle and the town's history. The Fallis family provides some of the limited number of bed-nights in Carrickfergus, and they do it so well. They and others who provide hospitality outlets — hotels, bars, restaurants or bed and breakfasts — across East Antrim and Northern Ireland do so under massive pressure. The reality is that, if our bars and hotels were in England and Wales, they would benefit from 75% rate relief up to £110,000 and 100% rate relief if they were defined as being in a rural area. Our bars and hotels do not benefit in that way, but they pay the same overheads, if not greater overheads. In fact, the rateable value of those properties is invariably more expensive per square foot in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom. I find that lamentable.

We need to do all we can. This is outside the Minister's remit and is a matter for the Finance Minister, but we need to look at total reform of how the rates system burden is applied in Northern Ireland, because the system is no longer fit for purpose. It cannot be the case that an Amazon warehouse in a business park pays less per square foot than our vital hospitality and tourism industries do. If we truly want our town centres to grow and survive and for our key assets and businesses to continue to grow, offer amazing employment and help promote our great tourism assets, we need to give them all the support we can. That discussion has been going on in this place for years, and we are no further down the line. That needs to be looked at.

Ms Brownlee referred to a dilapidation Bill, and I would firmly support that. That is needed not only in East Antrim but across the country. The reality is that some landlords, for whatever reason, do not uphold the principles of social responsibility, allowing their buildings to fall into disgusting and despicable disrepair and then to fall to the ground, and nothing can be done. Those buildings are usually in key asset areas where we want retail to thrive and tourists to visit. When other businesses in those areas are running to stand still, those landlords let their buildings fall to the ground. I am not sure which Department will bring legislation forward — again, there could be a collaborative approach — but I would love to see a legislative agenda that covers vesting powers similar to those in the Isle of Man, where a landlord or someone else who has allowed their building to fall into disrepair can be told, "You have six months or a year to do it up. If you do not, the state will take it off you and do it up. If you want to buy it back at full value, let's discuss it". That has to be done, because buildings are lying vacant.

Ms Brownlee also referred to the number of hospitality businesses that have closed. One of those is the big Swift complex down at the harbour. It is a key asset in a conservation area, right beside Carrickfergus Castle, that has become derelict and is falling into the sea, and nothing can be done to ensure the upkeep of that building. Sadly, it is the first thing people see when they arrive in Carrickfergus. Again, if we could look at a dilapidation bill or vesting powers, that would be hugely beneficial.

Although it is a reserved issue, we need to look at VAT reform. We need to push towards a rate of 5% or 7% for hospitality businesses. The businesses need that support. It would be a massive lifeline for them, given the pressures they face.

I could talk about this for an hour — I am sure we all could — but I thank the Member for bringing the Adjournment debate, the Minister for coming along and the other Members for contributing to the debate.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I, too, thank and congratulate Ms Brownlee for bringing the Adjournment debate. I will also mention the Royal Landing at the weekend, which was a fantastic event. The Member is very humble: she did not mention her involvement in that event, but it would not have happened without her. I am grateful to her and her team, who put in so much work to make it such an extraordinary event.

In years gone by, I worked in the tourism industry at some of our fantastic attractions on the north coast. I worked at the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, where I told people about the history of the bridge and, on a number of occasions, rescued people who had got stuck midway across it. The fear had got hold of them, and they needed gentle — sometimes not so gentle — coaxing to bring them back safely to the other side.

It was fantastic to be there engaging with so many tourists and showing them a little of what we had to offer in Northern Ireland. One disheartening element of the job was that so many tourists said to me that they were only on a day trip to Northern Ireland from the South. They came up to see the greatest hits, the best attractions, and then went back down the road. They did not stay overnight or spend much money, and they did not see all that we had to offer.

Thankfully, that has now changed. We have Titanic Belfast and other attractions that hold people in Northern Ireland for longer. Tour operators are offering longer stays. I do not want East Antrim to be bypassed in the way that the rest of Northern Ireland was in the past, but that is what is happening. I hope that people, rather than leaving Belfast and going up to the north coast, will leave Belfast and come through East Antrim. Do we not have so much to offer? As has been mentioned a number of times, we have Carrickfergus Castle, the Andrew Jackson cottage and the US Rangers centre. You can go into wonderful Whitehead and visit the fantastic railway museum there or walk the Blackhead path. We have the Gobbins, which is an outstanding attraction. Anyone who has not been there should try that out. We have so many fantastic walks and waterfalls around Larne. We have the Antrim coast road as well, which others mentioned. Of course, we should now plug Slemish as well, because it will be in our constituency very soon. I think that you will agree, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we have a lot to offer. I hope that others will see that and that we promote it.

When I was in the Minister's position, I engaged with Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI stakeholders, and, on international trips, I always made sure to mention East Antrim. I hope that the Minister will continue in that vein and ensure that East Antrim is mentioned on all his engagements, because we have so much to offer. I hope that he will engage with those organisations and make sure that a plan is in place to promote what is a fantastic part of the world. We do not say that just because we represent it; we see it, and we hear it from others as well. I hope that the Minister will work with the councils in that area.

We have a number of challenges in the tourism sector. Budgets are tight, promotion can be limited, and the issues with infrastructure and accommodation have been raised. However, there is one thing that we should be pressing for, and I am sure that the Minister will agree with me on this: one way of getting more tourists to Northern Ireland relates to air passenger duty. I recognise that it is outside the Minister's control, but we should be jointly lobbying the UK Government on that issue. Clear economic data shows the benefit that the removal of air passenger duty can have. We saw it in the Netherlands and in the Republic. I do not think that there is an environmental benefit from that tax being in place, because people will fly. They might just fly into Dublin instead or into somewhere else altogether. I do not think that it is a fair tax, and it limits our ability to bring more people into Northern Ireland and their ability to stay for longer.

Of course, the other issue, as raised by the Member who secured the debate and others, relates to hospitality. Many of our hospitality businesses have had a torrid time over the past number of years. COVID was exceptionally difficult, and they now face many other challenges as well. It is not often that there truly are silver bullets that help us tackle the issues that we face, but one of the things that we really can do to make a change is to get the Government to look at VAT on tourism and hospitality. Hospitality businesses that come to meet me say that VAT is the difference between their being able to survive and not surviving. Across East Antrim, we all have examples of businesses, some in the very recent past, having to close down because of it. We do not have a lot of tools in our armoury, but VAT is one. I reiterate the comments made by John Stewart on rates. Even though we get Barnett consequentials, some of the discounts available in the rest of the UK are not available here

Another huge issue is skills. Lots of good work has gone on in Tourism NI. I commend the work of the Hospitality and Tourism Skills (HATS) network as well. Skills are one of the biggest issues that we face in the sector right now.

I hope that action can be taken on all these issues to ensure that the right conditions are in place for tourism and hospitality to thrive in East Antrim.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 5:00, 11 June 2024

I thank Ms Brownlee for securing the debate. I have represented East Antrim in various guises, first as a local councillor in Carrickfergus for 25 years and then, since 2011, as a Member of the Assembly for the constituency. I am very proud to represent the region, not only because of the incredible people who live there but because of its unparalleled natural beauty. Do not take that just from me. Others have already referred to the fact that the Causeway coastal route has been rated by 'National Geographic' magazine as one of the most beautiful places in the world. Arguably, the best parts of it are in East Antrim, such as the panorama when standing at the Knockagh monument, looking out over Belfast lough, all the way up to Carrickfergus Castle.

Arguably, some of the best parts of East Antrim start in Carrickfergus. The area is a testament to the unique charm and global appeal of East Antrim. As others have mentioned, our Gobbins path represents an excellent opportunity to attract more tourists, offering a truly unique experience. I am pleased that phase 2 of the project secured some £13 million from the Belfast region city deal for a purpose-built visitor centre in Islandmagee. Moreover, that deal allocated £43 million for town regeneration funds, which will include a new visitor centre at Carrickfergus Castle. That landmark would benefit from greater cooperation between the Department and the local authority, which is Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. The council understands the local issues, such as extending the castle's opening hours. My constituency office, like Ms Brownlee's, is only a few steps away from the castle. I witness buses arriving early in the morning and then leaving because they cannot get into the castle. They then go to other parts of East Antrim and beyond to explore the tourist take.

As others have said, the town of Carrickfergus is ripe for regeneration. We have, however, already spent a lot of money on regenerating Carrickfergus. In 2014, we spent a lot of money on a new public realm scheme, but much of it has since fallen into disrepair or has failed to be looked after by either the local authority or those who were responsible for it in the first place. I was appalled when some of the stones in the pedestrian area were removed for some essential works — water or electricity — and replaced by tarmac. As a local councillor, I remember being told that we had an additional store of the appropriate stone to put back down. It took months to find it and put it back down. It is really disappointing to come into a town that has a lovely paved area only to be met with tarmacked areas.

Progress has been made through our townscape heritage initiative, which has brought apartments to above shops in Carrickfergus, but much more needs to be done to capitalise on the town's potential. Our council has increasingly capitalised on East Antrim's tourism offerings, but it is imperative that it continue to engage fully with the private sector and local stakeholders. Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland need to step up their efforts to promote East Antrim's potential. Whether it is from our shores or our glens, East Antrim has so much to offer. Massive investment in our infrastructure, such as the A2 and A8 public transport improvements, have been transformative for East Antrim, making it accessible from Belfast and Dublin. Train timetables remain problematic, however. Despite an increase in passenger demand, the dualling of the single track across the Lagan on the Dargan Bridge still has not come to fruition. Increasing the frequency of transport services is necessary to match the efficient services that tourists expect. They get them everywhere else in Europe, but they do not get them here. I fear that the recent fare increases will deter passengers even more.

Moreover, support is needed for the Whitehead Railway Museum. It is operated by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, which is a major contributor to that niche area of tourism. It is, however, so bogged down in rules and regulations that it cannot provide drivers to get steam trains out on to the main line. It is disgraceful to think that one of the major refurbished steam engines from Whitehead is currently operating in the Republic of Ireland. It is coming to the end of its licence and needs its boiler replaced. The only way to get it back to Whitehead, which is the only place on the island of Ireland where it can be repaired, is to put it on a low-loader and bring it back. That is disgraceful. Departments need to get energetic and get those sorts of issues resolved as quickly as possible.

A Carrickfergus city deal regeneration meeting will be held in Carrickfergus town hall on Wednesday 26 June. I encourage anyone, including all the Members who are here, to come along to that session and see what we can do together to give our support to the town of Carrickfergus, the local authority and the traders and businesses in the town that are crying out for help from the Assembly and their local authority.

Finally, I place on record my thanks to all those who work in the hospitality trade across East Antrim.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

This is a timely opportunity to debate tourism as we head into the busiest time of the year for our tourism and hospitality sector. I thank Ms Brownlee for securing the debate, which is specifically about East Antrim. Obviously, I am not an East Antrim MLA, but I am my party's tourism spokesperson and I was elected to represent the neighbouring constituency of North Antrim. I will not get into a bunfight with Stewart Dickson on which part of the north coast is the most beautiful; we will leave that for another time.

It is interesting that, in 2003, when I was first elected to the Assembly, Cushendun, Cushendall and Glenariff were in the North Antrim constituency and helped to get me elected. Those places have been lost to East Antrim.

[Laughter.]

I am disappointed that Slemish has gone in the same direction. Most people are not politicians and so do not care about electoral boundaries and see no difference. From a North Antrim perspective, my club, Dunloy, had many a clash at all ages in hurling with clubs from the glens, and I am pretty sure that they consider themselves to be North Antrim in spirit.

As well as being lucky enough to represent any part of County Antrim as an elected representative, I am lucky enough to be healthy enough to be able to cycle on a regular basis to some of the places that we have talked about, covering all parts of County Antrim and along the north coast. I am not going to argue with anything that anybody has said about the unique landscape and nature of that part of County Antrim. I have no intention of going into the detail that constituency MLAs went into.

I am my party's tourism spokesperson, so I will say just a few words. Obviously, East Antrim has plenty to offer in tourism. Some of that has been talked about, including, to name a few, the Gobbins cliff path, the Causeway coastal route, the 'Game of Thrones' filming locations and Glenariff forest park. Golf tourism has some potential, and I know, from discussions that I have had, that there are exciting additional golf tourism opportunities in East Antrim. As we know, tourism in general has a key role in driving economic growth, addressing regional imbalance and creating jobs. It can also be an enabler for community wealth-building, giving communities ownership of their economic development and ensuring that tourism is sustainable and in harmony with the local community and environment. It is therefore important that we continue to keep a focus on tourism and explore all possible opportunities to ensure that it realises its full potential in East Antrim, North Antrim and across the North.

One such opportunity that I have spoken about before in the Chamber is the compelling case for the extension of the Wild Atlantic Way to the north coast, including East Antrim. A recent report by Fáilte Ireland on the economic impact of the Wild Atlantic Way found that it is worth more than €3 billion per year in tourism revenue to communities along the west coast of Ireland, leading to an additional 35,000 jobs and supporting 80,000 jobs in total. The success of that brand is something that we can benefit from and build upon to enhance our visitor numbers. Why should we in the North, in areas such as North Antrim and East Antrim, miss out on the opportunity to extend the Wild Atlantic Way from Donegal through Derry and the north coast and along the glens of Antrim through East Antrim towards Belfast? The case for expanding the Wild Atlantic Way to incorporate the Causeway coastal route is compelling.

We know, from a recent report on tourism on the island of Ireland, that there has been a significant increase in day trippers and short-stay visitors from the South to the North. Growing numbers of international visitors flying into Dublin are adding destinations across the North to their holiday itineraries. As others have said, we should be ensuring that all parts of the North can benefit from that. The potential for growth is clearly there. The natural, historical and unique attractions that we have need to be shown. They are innovative and resilient.

As others have indicated, there are challenges. The electronic travel authorisation policy from the British Government increased the cost of overheads in the recruitment and retention of staff. I welcome the Minister's recognition that the tourism and hospitality sectors require investment support when he announced his intention to put together a tourism implementation group and create a tourism partnership board.

I commend all who contribute to our fantastic tourism and hospitality offering, particularly as we head into the peak holiday months of July and August. I hope that we see many tourists and our businesses see many benefits, and would it not be great if we got the weather to match?

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:15, 11 June 2024

I welcome this debate on hospitality and tourism in East Antrim, and thank Ms Brownlee for securing it. She is passionate about her constituency, as I am about mine, and when you visit East Antrim, it is not hard to see why.

East Antrim, from Cushendun down to Carrickfergus, has some of the most breathtaking views that you will see anywhere in Northern Ireland, and, like my beautiful city of Derry, culture and history also rhyme in Carrickfergus. It is an area of profound natural beauty that encapsulates some of the most beautiful areas across the North. When people visit the glens of Antrim, it is no exaggeration to say that the views that they find are some of the most spectacular on this island. It is a favourite spot for day trippers as well as those who stay longer, and we need to get people to stay longer when they do come to Northern Ireland.

The hospitality sector is fundamental to the success of that offering across East Antrim, in particular to the success of the tourism industry. It is the lifeblood of a thriving economy in any community, generating and driving wealth as well as social inclusion, and improving well-being. In fact, every £100 spent in the hospitality industry generates added value to the local economy of about £58, and that is a really impressive return on investment.

Tomorrow, the Economy Committee will be pleased to hear evidence from Hospitality Ulster about the challenges and opportunities for the sector. I have no doubt that it will state some of the challenges that the Member outlined in opening the debate. Tourism growth can help every part of Northern Ireland to thrive, not least East Antrim, which already has a lot to offer. I have no doubt that we will, as I said, also hear about the challenges, especially as a result of the lingering effects of the pandemic. Indeed, the rising cost of doing business is, itself, a challenge. As Ms Brownlee mentioned, those challenges include the need for support for recruitment and retention in the sector, including the development of hospitality skills that are badly needed. A total of 17% of businesses in the hospitality industry have reported that they are at risk of failure in the next year, with intervention needed as a matter of urgency on small business rates relief and a cut in VAT.

The tourism sector across the North is one of the biggest success stories of our peace process. However, the sector faces challenges, including a need to support businesses that are driving the sector's growth and a lack of a coherent approach from the Government. We cannot debate the challenges facing tourism in any part of Northern Ireland without raising the crucial need for mitigations when it comes to the electronic travel authorisation (ETA) scheme. The sector has been crystal clear that the ETA is unworkable here, and, in fact, it has the potential to be deeply damaging. We need to see Ministers in Stormont stepping up and marshalling opposition to its implementation. The SDLP has been resolute in calling for a tourism strategy and action plan that is fit for purpose and includes investment that commits to concrete and tangible measures and targets for those industries.

We must back up the warm words that are often said in the Chamber about hospitality and tourism with the action that East Antrim and every other constituency needs. I wish East Antrim many, many tourists with full pockets of money over the holiday season and, in fact, right through the autumn and at other times. It has a lot to offer, including the warmth of its people. I welcome being part of the debate.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Minister, you have up to 10 minutes.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

[Translation: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.]

I thank the Member for securing the Adjournment debate, and I thank all those who contributed, particularly the representatives from the constituency. They spoke with passion about East Antrim and the tourism offering there. I have, on several occasions, stayed in Cushendun and Cushendall, so I can attest to all the attractions.

As has been outlined, there is much that contributes to the tourism offer in East Antrim, such as Carrickfergus Castle, the Gobbins and Glenarm Castle estate, as well as its stunning coastline and, of course, the glens of Antrim. The area is an integral part of the Causeway costal route, which, for many years, has been a key attractor for local and international visitors. It is strongly promoted by Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland. Those tourism experiences slow visitors down on their journey and encourage them to spend more time and, in turn, inject additional revenue into the local economy.

Since 2020, Tourism NI has invested over £1 million in the Mid and East Antrim and Antrim and Newtownabbey council areas as part of their experience and market development funding programmes. The investment has helped to fund experiences such as the new visitor centre and trails at Glenarm Castle, the development of Glenarm marina and the provision of bikes and tours in villages such as Whitehead, Glenarm and Islandmagee. Businesses in the constituency have also benefited from the initiatives that Tourism NI put in place to support the industry's recovery from the impact of the pandemic. Tourism NI regularly promotes the east Antrim area through its seasonal marketing campaigns across the island, and the Causeway coastal route features heavily in Tourism Ireland's promotion of the island to overseas audiences.

In recent times, my Department and Tourism NI have been working closely with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council on the development of the new Gobbins phase 2 project as part of the Belfast region city deal, which was mentioned by a number of Members. The contract for funding that was signed last month with Mid and East Antrim council will see my Department contribute £12·6 million towards the cost of delivering the project. That will result in a newly engineered staircase, creating a circular, closed-loop pathway that will unlock the full potential of the existing attraction and enhance overall visitor experience. Once complete, the project should see visitor numbers increase to over 400,000 per year, bringing with it a substantial increase in tourism spend right across the constituency. Tourism NI has also been providing ongoing advice and support to the £42 million Carrickfergus regeneration city deal project. That will see much-needed investment in Carrickfergus Castle, enhancing the visitor experience in the castle, as well as delivering improvements to the public realm around Carrickfergus town.

Last year, a joint application by Tourism NI, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland to the Shared Island Fund was successful in securing €7·6 million as part of a brand alignment project involving the Causeway coastal route and the Wild Atlantic Way, which was referenced by Philip McGuigan during his contribution. Pre-development work has already begun, and that brand alignment project will help improve the discovery points and visitor experience along the Causeway coastal route. It will also ensure that a consistent and high-quality driving route sits alongside the Wild Atlantic Way. Members will be aware that discussions are ongoing to progress the extension of brands such as the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East into the North.

Tourism has a major role to play in delivering a greener, regionally balanced and productive economy that provides good jobs, and my officials and I look forward to working with the councils and the wider tourism industry in East Antrim to ensure that the area can fully benefit from the realisation of the economic plans.

I will refer to points that were made by Members, and I will try to pick them up in order. Hospitality support was mentioned, and Gordon Lyons expanded on that when talking about the skills needed. We are working closely with the hospitality sector on a tourism strategy, but we also had a direct meeting last week about the skills agenda and how the sector can try to tap into that. There is a very strong need for that in the hospitality sector. We can attract all the tourists if we do that well enough, but we need to have people working in the sector in order to be able to service it.

Issues that relate to town centre dereliction, the back in business scheme and dilapidation are, of course, as people acknowledged, another Department's responsibilities, but I believe, having been in that Department once, that rates relief for dereliction should be revisited. That is because, while it might take some time to bring legislation through to try to enforce disposal of those properties, the lack of a rates bill for derelict properties certainly does not encourage anyone to do anything with them.

Other rates issues and VAT were raised. Again, air passenger duty is an issue for the Department of Finance. During my time there, we raised those issues consistently with the British Government. I hope and expect that the current Finance Minister will continue to do that with the incoming Government to see whether we can get some more joy on it. Of course, I recognise that, while those are other Departments' responsibilities, we have collective responsibility in all those areas. I am very happy to work with the Finance Minister, the Infrastructure Minister and others on the issues that have been mentioned in order to ensure that we work together to try to promote the tourism industry, which is a key part of our economy here.

I never suspected that I would hear the name of Timmy Mallett associated with East Antrim in all my days in the Assembly, but there you go. I am very interested in the Communities Minister's experience as a tourism promoter, particularly his experience at Carrick-a-Rede bridge. I have to think that coaxing people from positions in which they find themselves reluctantly should serve him well in his political life as he goes forward.

[Laughter.]

I will undertake to promote East Antrim. I must check the record for how often Newry and Armagh was promoted while you were in this position, but I assure you that I will reciprocate on that.

Electronic travel authorisation was mentioned. I have raised that with British Government Ministers. Of course, we will take the opportunity to continue to raise it with the incoming Government. I do not think that the impact that such a policy would have on this island is fully understood. Clearly, the tourism industry, as a whole, is very exercised about the issue, and we will continue to raise it.

I thank Members for raising those issues. I have learnt more about East Antrim in the past hour than I had previously, even though I have stayed in it. I assure people that not only will we continue to work with you on promoting tourism in all our areas, including East Antrim, but we will work collectively as an Executive — I am sure that the Communities Minister could concur with that — in order to try to ensure that we do our best for the tourism sector, which is, as I say, a key part of our overall economic product here, and particularly for East Antrim, which the Member who brought forward the Adjournment topic raised.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

It would be remiss of me not to point out that I will be enjoying the hospitality of East Antrim this Sunday at Larne Swimming Club's barbecue at Magheramorne — that is a bit of an advertisement — where we will support some of our Olympians. I will just put that out there. Members from East Antrim, you are more than welcome to come along.

Adjourned at 5.28 pm.