So Derry and Strabane’s Business and Culture Committee have been advised by Visit Derry.
The Chairperson and Chief Executive of the local tourism was briefing members on the Council’s Business & Culture Committee how the sector has fared during the pandemic, and it wasn’t all bad news.
Michelle Simpson, Chairperson of Visit Derry explained that occupancy levels in the city over Halloween were 95% and there had been a marked rise in staycations.
She added: “2021/22 will be a time to market, promote and advertise our products to hopefully see a return of the corporate and international markets in 2023/24.”
Mr Dunne, the Visit Derry CEO described the last 18 months as ‘challenging and unprecedented times’.
He said: “We are working towards the Tourism Strategy of 2025, a co-created document with Derry City & Strabane District Council and a range of partners and stakeholders across the city and district to drive £100m investment in this sector by 2025 and attract one million visitors with the main aim to drive jobs growth.”
The report noted that in 2019 £71m had been generated in visitor spend in the city and district with 308k overnight trips and 940k bed nights.
Mr Dunne added: “The big challenge coming through from the sector is the skills challenge and we have seen that across the globe. We will have the jobs but will we have the people with the skills to fill the jobs.
“The target for 2025 is to increase tourism jobs from 2018 by 1,000 to 5,700. In 2019 we had 5,400 tourism jobs so we are well on target to deliver on the strategy’s goal and we were going to supersede it until the pandemic hit.”
Speaking about the speed of the sector’s recovery post pandemic, the Visit Derry CEO said it was ‘unknown’ adding: “Early indications are that we are sitting at £25m for visit spend in 2020 and because we have been closed for five months of 2021 we are likely to come in at £35/40m. This is a long way off the £100m target for 2025.”
On a positive note, the increase in the staycation trend has worked well for the city and district with the number of staycations from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain increasing from 60% in 2019 to 93% in 2021.
Mr Dunne said: “Having lost around 40% of the city’s international market that has been replaced by staycations in 2021 and hopefully we will see a lot of repeat business and it will leave a legacy for future overnights as we attempt to minimise the seasonality of the sector.”
He added: “We are confident of attracting international visitors again and indications are that 7 out of 10 travellers internationally are likely to start moving and want a holiday by next summer but a return to normality in terms of visitor figures is likely to be a year or two off that.”
The Visit Derry boss spoke of opportunities which would help to stimulate demand and support tourism recovery.
“Halloween was fantastic and led the way in Ireland. Then we have a golden nugget in Derry Girls. Season 3 is filming and that has a great potential to attract visitors. The Open will provide us with a great opportunity.”
Praising Head of Culture Aeidin McCarter and her team for the work they did on the Halloween events, Committee Chair, Sinn Fein Councillor Conor Heaney said it was ‘outstanding and a credit to everyone involved and who took part in it.’
He continued: “The strategy is working, you can feel and see the amount of tourists that are starting to come back to the city.”
The Foyleside Councillor referred to ‘rumours’ that an announcement on Air Passenger Duty (APD) was expected before Mr Dunne commented: “There is a strong indication that APD will be reduced on domestic routes which is good. As an island economy that will encourage lower cost fares. We would like to see the complete abolishment of APD but that is unlikely to happen but it’s a step in the right direction.”
SDLP Councillor Shauna Cusack spoke about the challenge faced by tourism in general for the past two years adding: “The ability, the creativity, the tenacity of the Visit Derry team and partners has to be applauded. Tourism globally has suffered dreadfully but it is remarkable how Visit Derry and partners in the industry have continued to invest in our future potential.
“I have been continually impressed with the advertising and marketing campaigns that have been coming through and hand in hand with our own council’s departments, they have not stopped, especially those in business, culture and festivals, they have strove to keep things going and keep heads above water because our ultimate goal here is job creation and job retention.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Patricia Logue felt ‘the staycation voucher needs to come through for the sector’.
“I would like to see more pressure on the Department to bring that voucher scheme through because the tourism sector does need that boost,” she said. “We need to be promoting Derry as the hub between the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coastal route and that needs to be marketed.”
DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney also offered his thanks to Ms McCarter and her team for their work on Halloween. “It’s good to see we have a good team in place promoting the city and district in a very positive way,” he added. “I’m sure the tourism industry will play a big part in how we move forward out of the Covid situation. Our party would be very supportive of any initiative that comes forward to support the tourism sector in the city and our council area.”
People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin believes ‘we should all be advocates for our city and district in terms of encouraging people from across Ireland and across the world to visit here.’
He spoke of his concern that everyone in the hospitality sector should benefit from the £100m investment, especially the lower paid employees. “£100m investment by 2025 is a tremendous amount of money and obviously that is a huge task for everyone involved in it and what we have to aim for is to see that money paying off and benefiting people broadly across the district in terms of the goals of increasing the wealth for everyone and also seeing more jobs,” he said. “As a council we can’t just aim at job creation, we also have to aim for better paying jobs. Our district, as everybody knows, lags behind the entirety of Ireland and we know in the hospitality sector the wages have been quite low. This cannot be a situation where people who own a hotel or many hotels are seeing huge benefits while those who are doing the work, workers who are part of the hospitality sector, workers who are part of the arts sector who make this place so vibrant, aren’t benefiting.”
SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell asked the Visit Derry CEO if there had been any feedback on the Visitor Pass which was introduced in June, adding: “Everybody would agree that locally we have a very significant and impressive tourism offering.
“We have iconic Derry which are the walls, Free Derry Corner, the Bogside murals, Peace Bridge, we have our fantastic festivals and events calendar, we’ve got beautiful Donegal on our doorstep, our bars are famously good craic so those are all the positives.”
Odhran Dunne explained the pass was launched with the international market in mind adding: “We are really happy with the pilot and the first year in terms of sales. We would like to get through a full year of international travel back so it’s watch this space for that one. It’s digital, it’s innovative, it’s keeping with the times and what the consumer is looking for.
“We would love to see the city and district and the wider North West become the beacon for tourism on the island and then organically things will move and grow out of that as we move towards a sustainable agenda.”
Visit Derry Chair Michelle Simpson cautioned the Members: “We have an awful lot of work to do. It is important that we look after everybody in the hospitality and tourism industry, reskill and refresh and get them up to a level where they will enjoy working and will want to stay in the industry. We need to make sure we have jobs for everyone and that they are serviced by local people.”
Local Democracy Reporter