‘Troubles’ image is a bigger problem for tourism than VAT rates, says Tory MP

The scene at Oxford Street Bus Station on Bloody Friday, 1972.
The scene at Oxford Street Bus Station on Bloody Friday, 1972.

A negative image created by the Troubles is doing more damage to Northern Ireland’s tourism product than high VAT rates, an MP has claimed.

Conservative MP Nigel Evans said convincing would-be visitors that the region was now a changed place was more important than cutting VAT to the rate levied across the Irish border.

Mr Evans is a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into how the Government can support the tourism sector.

MPs are exploring whether the UK’s 20% VAT rate is putting businesses at a competitive disadvantage, particularly in respect of the Republic of Ireland, where a 9% rate of VAT is imposed.

Mr Evans highlighted the potential image problem as the committee heard evidence from a range of hotelier and hospitality bodies at Westminster.

Addressing Janice Gault, the chief executive of Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, the Tory MP said: “You have got an uphill struggle and it’s because, I suspect, when people have an image of Belfast part of their brain goes back to the Troubles - the bombings and the shootings, it was a war zone for so many years, for decades.

“Clearly that’s not the case any more and your uphill struggle is to convince people it’s safe to go there, it’s a lovely place to go - it’s got nothing to do with an 11% differential on VAT to be honest.”

Ms Gault acknowledged the region’s history was an issue, but said the VAT rate was hindering the tourism sector emerge from the past.

“I agree there are issues in regard to our history, we have had a 30 year ad (negative news coverage) running on TV which has not helped,” she said.

“We feel there is an opportunity for us to actually rise above that and actually create a more vibrant economy.”

She said the legacy of the Troubles was only one of a number of challenges facing the sector.

“Having VAT at 20% certainly doesn’t help the situation,” she added.

“And that is the one difference we have (with the rest of the UK) - we are actually attached to somewhere that has recognised that a VAT reduction and a more effective tax system does actually help your tourism product grow.”

The committee also heard submissions on the VAT rate from the British Hospitality Association, Hospitality Ulster and the British Beer and Pub Association.

Hospitality Ulster has claimed a VAT cut could enable the local tourism sector to generate an extra £25 million and an additional 2,200 jobs a year.