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Good afternoon. I must start with the sombre news that eight more deaths from Covid-19 were announced today. I want to pass on my condolences to the family and friends of those who have passed away.

Diane Dodds leads the Executive briefing on 3 June

Last week I shared the platform with Invest NI Chief Executive Kevin Holland. We provided an update on the economic outlook, and the work that my Department has been involved in to help restart the economy.

As more stores open, and more people return to work, there remain many challenges ahead, but I am determined to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy returns to a strong position and focuses on areas where we are genuinely world class.

I also mentioned, last week, that I was reforming the Economic Advisory Group. I am delighted that Ellvena Graham has agreed to act as Chair for that group. No doubt, her experience and expertise across business will be invaluable as we plot our way through the next number of years and prepare for opportunities ahead in future job markets.

Today however I want to talk about tourism.

Our tourism industry was hit hard right from the start of the Covid-19 crisis. But since the early days of this pandemic we have been working with key industry stakeholders on a recovery plan.

Tourism in Northern Ireland has always been versatile. It is creative. And it is innovative.

The people of Northern Ireland are hospitable and we thrive in the company of others.

All of these attributes are important as we plan a new future for tourism here.

I have no doubt that this industry can adapt and, while it simply can’t be the same as before, it can be great once again.

I am sure I speak for many when I say that I look forward to our many wonderful visitor attractions, hotels and restaurants again being a regular feature in our lives when it is safe for them to do so.

UK government and Executive interventions have played an important role in supporting many tourism and hospitality businesses to date.

In line with the Executive’s five-stage plan to come out of lockdown, we are taking steps now to help the economy as a whole recover. This is being done gradually and in stages.

Tourism has a vital role to play in this.

Tourism recovery will, in the first instance, begin at home, then focus on close to home markets, such as the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, before venturing into international markets.

Only yesterday I met with the Secretary of State to discuss how and when travel restrictions will be lifted. I emphasised, once again, how vitally important air connectivity is.

We also discussed policy initiatives at Westminster that could support our airports and help see routes return, and expand, in the short to medium term.

On Monday, I announced our next, important steps on getting the hospitality sector up and running again.

From 20 July – or potentially earlier for some sectors – caravan sites, self-catering properties, guesthouses, B&Bs, hotels and hostels can re-open.

Enabling accommodation businesses to generate essential revenue will help to protect individuals and livelihoods which support families and communities across Northern Ireland.

I must stress that this date is conditional on controlling the rate of transmission of the virus. That is why it is as important now as it has ever been for everyone to continue to follow the public health advice.

A number of hotels across Northern Ireland have been open, and operating safely, since the start of the Covid crisis to house key workers. They have already implemented a range of measures to mitigate the risks arising from the virus.

Now that other accommodation providers have a date to work towards, we all must play our part in doing what we can to reduce the spread of the virus so that we can move confidently ahead with these plans.

Tourism NI will lead on a coordinated communications strategy to ensure all accommodation providers are aware of their responsibilities.

Accommodation providers must use the next seven weeks to prepare for the social distancing and hygiene practices which are essential for them to operate safely. Staff will also need to be trained.

Guidance will be key.

The Tourism Recovery Steering Group, which I chair, and our supporting Working Group, are taking relevant UK safe working guidance and making it specific to Northern Ireland as overarching tourism sector guidance. This will be done in conjunction with the Public Health Agency.

An assurance charter mark is also being considered.

We are exploring what facilities and amenities can safely be made available by hotels. Recommendations will be brought to the Executive in due course.

John McGrillen from Tourism NI, who joins me today, is chair of the Tourism Recovery Working Group.

It is engaging with stakeholders across the Northern Ireland tourism industry on our collective response arising from the pandemic.

At all times – and I cannot stress this enough - the safety of staff and visitors will be of primary importance.

As the industry works towards the summer re-opening of accommodation, I would encourage the public to consider the benefits of a break at home this year when the time is right.

Our tourism industry needs our support now to ensure that we can enjoy what it can provide for many years to come.

The stay at home message has been vital to date. But we are moving into a new phase.

We are living with this virus and adapting our lives accordingly. In doing so, everyone must stay safe and work safe to save lives.

I am optimistic about the future for tourism and I look forward to continuing to work with everyone towards our common goals.