Questions have been raised over the timing of the Holiday at Home voucher scheme after an MLA suggested it had been overtaken by planning for the separate retail stimulus scheme. he Department for the Economy has said it is still considering the "opportune time... this year" to launch the Holiday at Home voucher scheme. It is designed to give support to the tourism industry by giving people a GBP100 voucher towards the cost of a two-night stay in accommodation in Northern Ireland, and a GBP20 discount voucher for tourist attractions. Funding of GBP2m has been given to the scheme, which was expected to be rolled out in January this year.
The scheme was delayed until later this year, although the government funds have to be spent by the end of March next year. The discounts are applied following the hotel stay or visit to an attraction. Last week an official from the department told its scrutiny committee that he expected the Holiday at Home scheme would not be launched until January.
The official was giving evidence about the retail stimulus scheme at the time. Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson said "nobody knows anything" about the more precise timing of the scheme. He said the hotel and tourism industry needed further information, adding: "I am confounded by the lack of information but it's nothing to what the industry is feeling at this point in time.
Stewart Dickson has voiced concern over the schemeStewart Dickson has voiced concern over the scheme
"We were promised a scheme by (former Economy Minister) Diane Dodds.
Clearly it was overtaken by the high street voucher scheme and has now taken a back seat. "We've had a good staycation season in B&Bs, glamping sites and hotels, all of which have done well. "But they are going to move into a period of time when things will get tougher, and in the early part of next year in particular, it's very difficult to predict what will happen with Covid.
"What has been proven is that holiday sites like glamping sites have been very safe places for people to go to. "We do need the Holiday at Home scheme and it's disappointing that the department and the minister have gone silent. "People want to plan as there will be a limited amount of the vouchers to claim.
"But the industry also needs the ability to plan. "For example, a lot of heat and light is required in the winter and there are staff to be considered as well." At the economy committee meeting last week, the department official was asked about the timing of the Holiday at Home scheme and how it would sit with the retail stimulus scheme.
He said: "At the moment it's not running so that will be in the new year, so hopefully we'll be finished this (retail scheme) by that time." SDLP Foyle MLA Sinead McLaughlin, the party's economy spokesperson, said a delay to the scheme could help ensure it was fit for purpose. "It is better to have the tourism voucher scheme designed right, rather than to rush it prematurely," she added.
"The Department for the Economy has encountered significant challenges in the design of the retail voucher programme, so it is no surprise that it has no date for the tourism voucher scheme. "It is essential that it is designed not only in ways that support our local tourism operators, but also to do so in ways that build in protections for visitors and staff to ensure we do not inadvertently introduce a new spike in infection rates. "Sadly we have to recognise that the pandemic is not yet behind us."
The GBP145m retail scheme is to be launched some time after September 12. Spending of the GBP100 pre-paid debit cards which will be provided under the scheme must be completed by the end of November. The retail scheme has taken longer to roll out than expected with some MLAs now stating that it should include 16 and 17-year-olds.
Currently only those who are 18 and over can qualify. Asked about the tourism scheme, a spokeswoman for the department said: "The Holiday at Home voucher scheme will allow Northern Ireland households to claim back 50% off a stay of two nights or more in certified accommodation, up to the value of GBP100. "Vouchers will also be issued offering 50% off visits to attractions or tourism experience providers, up to the value of GBP20.
"Vouchers will be allocated on a first come, first served basis and each household can apply for one of each type of voucher. "Households can then claim their voucher money back by uploading their receipt and voucher details online. "The department is currently working with the industry to decide on the most opportune time to launch the scheme this year.
Details of the launch will be announced in due course." Hotelier Rajesh Rana, whose company Andras House owns a string of hotels in Belfast, said that even a delayed start to the scheme would still be welcome. "I'm happy that the Executive is delivering this scheme, which will be a big support to local tourism and hospitality businesses," he said.
"We can live with a delay, even until early next year, as that would give a boost to the first quarter of the year, which is traditionally a lean period."