Legal requirements for tourism businesses
An outline of the laws tourist accommodation providers must follow
You must comply with certain legal duties when starting or running a tourist accommodation business.
You must receive certification from Tourism Northern Ireland before you can begin running your business. See tourist accommodation certification.
Whether you're providing serviced or self-catering accommodation, you must also follow the law in respect of:
- planning permissions and building control
- business rates
- health and safety, including fire, gas and electricity safety
- discrimination and equality
- data and customer protection
For more details on the licences you need for your tourism business, see get the right licences for your accommodation business.
Planning permission and building control for tourism businesses
Find out if you need planning permission for your bed and breakfast, self catering or other tourism business
If you plan to open a small bed and breakfast in your own home, you may not need planning permission to start your business. The key test to decide if you need planning permission is whether you will change the overall nature of the house. For example, a building changing from a private home to business premises.
Changing the use of premises
If your home will no longer be used mainly as a private residence, and your business activities will affect the area where you live then you will likely need planning consent for a change of use. Things affecting the local area include disturbance to neighbours and increased footfall.
You only need planning permission if the new building use is classed differently from the current one. For example, changing the building from a greengrocer to a shoe shop will not need planning permission as both are classed as shops. However, if you're changing a home into a guest house then you will need planning permission.
If you are agreeing a lease or buying a new property for your accommodation start-up, you should consider in advance if you need to get planning permission for your intended use. Also think about what your chances of getting it are. Contact your local area planning office for their advice at an early stage.
Building regulations apply if you plan to:
- convert, extend or make changes to the structure of an existing property
- construct a new building
These rules set standards on the safety and stability of any building work.
If you're planning on carrying out work on your premises, you must apply with your local Building Control Office.
Business rates for your tourist accommodation premises
Find out if you need to pay business rates serviced or self catering accommodation premises
If you operate bed and breakfast or self-catering accommodation, you may need to pay business rates.
If you operate a bed and breakfast you may have to pay both non-domestic rates, on the portion used for guest accommodation, and domestic rates on the portion used for owner/staff accommodation. See business rates.
Business rates do not apply to a bed and breakfast where:
- facilities have less than six bed spaces available
- letting out the rooms is subsidiary to the use of the rest of the house as your home (looking at, for example, the length of your season, the scale of changes carried out for guests and how much of the house you live in)
Business rates do not apply to a self-catering accommodation where:
- the facilities are available for short-period lets less than 140 days a year
Domestic and business use
If you have to pay business rates, but use your property for business and domestic purposes, only the part you use for business purposes is subject to business rates. You will have to pay domestic rates for the residential part of the property. See business rates.
Signs for your tourism business
Find out if you need permission to display tourism signs or advertisements for your business
If you display any outdoor signs or advertisements you may need to apply to the planning authority for consent. Whether you need consent from the planning authority depends on whether your signs are fully, partially or not lit-up and where you place them.
If your property is listed or lies within a conservation area you may need further consent. You could also be more restricted in the types of signs you can display.
You will also need to ensure that any signs you display are not misleading. This could be a breach of fair trading rules, as well as marketing laws.
Brown tourism signs
If you wish to apply for brown tourism signposting, you should contact the Roads Department of your local council, who will advise you about:
- local policy
Tourism Northern Ireland provide information about brown signs.
Health and safety in tourism businesses
An outline of health and safety obligations specific to tourism businesses
As a tourist accommodation provider, you are responsible for health and safety of your guests whilst they are on your premises.
Your health and safety obligations extend to not only to guests, but to anyone on your premises, including staff.
For more general guidance on health and safety, see health and safety.
Keeping your guests safe
You have a 'duty of care' to guests and other visitors. You must make sure that premises are reasonably safe for purpose.. If you don't take precautions to ensure reasonable safety of the premises, you can be sued for compensation or prosecuted.
To make premises 'reasonably safe', you should take common sense precautions such as:
- remove risks and obstructions that may cause your guests to slip, trip or fall (eg wet floor, loose cables, clutter on stairs, etc)
- make sure furnishings are fit for purpose and secure
- ensure electrical appliances are safe to use
- make your guests aware of your emergency procedures
- consider all your guests and their needs (eg children, disabled guests etc.)
If certain parts of your premises, such as the kitchen or the store room, are clearly marked out of bounds to guests, your duty of care may not extend to these areas.
You may be held liable for accidents caused as a result of the actions of your staff or other guests. However, your guests also have a duty to take care of their own safety. If they have an accident due to their own negligence, or while doing something you wouldn't reasonably expect them to do, your liability for the accident may be reduced or overridden.
As part of your health and safety responsibilities, you will need to report certain accidents involving your guests or staff. See first aid, accidents and ill health in the workplace.
Staff health and safety
For on outline of your health and safety duties to your staff, see employer's health and safety responsibilities.
You are also legally required to have insurance to cover your liability for any bodily injury or disease sustained by an employee at work. See liability insurance.
Whilst it's not a legal requirement, you should consider taking out additional insurance to cover your liability to your guests. See public liability insurance.
If a guest or a member of your staff has made a claim against you, you should seek legal advice. Find a solicitor.
Fire, gas and electricity safety in tourism business
Fire, gas and electricity safety laws that tourist accommodation businesses must comply with
All accommodation businesses, regardless of their size, have to comply with safety laws relating to fire, gas and electricity.
All businesses must:
- carry out regular fire risk assessments
- record the assessment, if they employ five or more employees
- put in place adequate fire prevention and evacuation measures
Fire risk assessment is the foundation for all the fire safety measures you need on the premises. It is essential to keep your business and your guests safe. See fire safety and risk assessment.
Furniture fire safety
If you are providing self-catering accommodation that contains upholstered furniture, your furniture must comply with certain safety tests:
- upholstered furniture must pass a prescribed cigarette resistance test
- cover prescribed fabric, whether for use in permanent or loose covers, will normally have to pass a match resistance test
- filling materials for all furniture must pass ignitability tests as specified in the regulations
All new upholstered furniture (except mattresses and bedding) and loose and stretch covers for furniture must carry a permanent label detailing compliance with fire safety requirements. Always look for these labels before buying any upholstered furniture for your property.
You could consider buying furniture designed to cope with a greater fire hazard (eg hotel beds and chairs). When re-equipping your self-catering property, it will normally be for you to decide if you require the new furniture to meet these higher fire resistance standards. If you are in doubt, check with your local fire authority.
Electrical safety laws apply to most electrical equipment in your accommodation. This includes:
The laws apply to new and second-hand equipment equally.
If you are making the equipment available for your guests to use, you will be liable for their safety. For electrical equipment to be regarded as safe, there should be no risk (or only a minimal risk) that the equipment could cause death or injury to any person, or cause damage to property.
Whilst not a legal requirement, you should regularly check and service the electrical goods you suuply in your accommodation to ensure their safety.
You must have gas appliances, installation pipework or flue installed in your premises in accordance with manufacturer's instructions. You must maintain them in a safe condition. A Gas Safe engineer must inspect them at least once a year.
Food and drink laws in tourism businesses
Information to help you comply with food safety laws if you offer food or drink to your guests
If you wish to carry out any 'food operations' in the course of your accommodation business, you must register your premises with your local council's environmental health department. You must do so at least 28 days before your business opens.
Food operations include selling, cooking, storing, handling, preparing and distributing food and drink.
If you're serving food to your guests, you also need to insure that you comply with other relevant laws relating to food safety, hygiene and labelling. Find detailed information on each below.
- Hygiene for food businesses - store food correctly ensuring good hygiene and comply with health standards
- food law and enforcement - an introduction for food business operators to food law and food hygiene laws, and how they are enforced
- labelling food products - an introduction for food businesses to the UK and European Union regulations on food labelling
- Starting and running a food business - food safety and best practice for food businesses, including ideas for healthier catering
If you wish to sell alcohol on your premises, you will need an alcohol licence.
Discrimination and equality in tourism businesses
Disability and discrimination laws for accommodation providers and what they mean for your business.
If you provide any sort of accommodation in Northern Ireland, serviced or self-catering, you have duties under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
Under this law, you must not discriminate against disabled people using your goods, facilities or services. You must treat everyone fairly, regardless of their:
- sexual orientation
- gender reassignment
- political opinion
You can't refuse to serve people with disabilities or provide them a lower standard of service, unless this can be justified.
You may need to make 'reasonable adjustments' to any barriers that may prevent a person with disabilities using or accessing their service.
What is 'reasonable' will depend on a number of factors, including the cost of an adjustment. Think ahead and take steps to address barriers that impede disabled people. This can include:
- making 'reasonable' changes to the way things are done - things that put disabled people at a disadvantage, eg no dogs policy
- making 'reasonable' changes to the built environment - eg altering the structure of a building to improve access
- providing auxiliary aids and services, eg information in an accessible format, an induction loop for customers with hearing aids, etc
The Equality Commission offer advice and information to service providers on their duties under equality law.
Employment in tourism businesses
Employment law and best practice resources that can help you run your tourism business lawfully and efficiently
If you employ staff in your tourism business, or are thinking of doing so in the future, there are a number of things that you will need to consider.
The guides below can help you comply with the relevant employment laws, and provide you with best practice know-how for managing your staff:
- take on staff - make effective recruitment decisions and get the right people in place
- HR documents and templates - downloadable forms, checklists and sample documents to help you with your day-to-day HR practices
- the employment contract - understand the basic elements of a contract of employment as required by law
- national minimum wage - ensure that you're paying your employees the correct minimum hourly rate
- ensuring your workers are eligible to work in the UK - if you employ migrant workers, make sure you check their entitlement to work in the UK
- prevent discrimination and value diversity - understand and keep on the right side of the laws that ban unfair treatment of staff
- working time - the rules about working hours and how best to manage them
- holiday and other leave - comply with legislation related to leave entitlement and allowing time off work
- handling grievances - develop grievance procedures and put them into practice to resolve problems effectively
- dismissals and staff leaving - manage staff leaving and dismissal fairly and correctly
- staff training and development - guidance on how to train your staff to improve their skills
- zero-hours contracts - your responsibilities and the advantages and disadvantages of zero-hours contracts
Keeping a guest register in your tourist accommodation business
Why you must keep a guest register if you run a hotel, bed and breakfast, hostel or any other accommodation business, and what you need to record in it
If you run a serviced or self-catering accommodation business, you must keep a record of all guests over the age of 16. This can take the form of a registration form, or can be recorded electronically.
You must keep each guest's details for at least 12 months and have the register available for inspection by police or other authorised persons at all time.
What do I need to record?
On guests' arrival, you need to record:
- the guests' full name and address
- the guests' nationality
- arrival and departure dates
If your guests' are using your car parking facilities, you may also want to take record of the registration number of their car. However, you aren't legally required to do so.
When keeping a guest register, even if it's just names and contact details, you must protect your guests' privacy under the Data Protection Act 2018. See General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Tourist accommodation: reselling electricity, gas and utilities
The rules for reselling gas and electricity, charging for telephone calls and providing water from private supply
When you're running a tourist accommodation business, the costs and responsibilities of providing utilities to your guests are one of the factors you will need to consider.
The resale of electricity
If you are reselling electricity to your guests that has already been bought from an authorised electricity supplier, the most you can charge is limited by law.
You can only resell electricity at the same price you bought it. You are not allowed to charge guests more money for electricity than you paid for it.
This rule does not apply if you charge your guests an inclusive charge for accommodation, eg one that includes 'all amenities' and does not specify separate charge for electricity.
The resale of gas
As with electricity, you may only resell gas at the same price that you bought it. You aren't allowed to charge your guests more for gas than you originally paid for it.
Private water supplies
If you use or provide water from a private supply to other people in the course of your business, eg by renting out holiday accommodation or using water for food production, you have a duty of care towards these people for the safety of the water you supply.
In these circumstances, you must register your supply with the Northern Ireland Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI).
Once you register your private water supply, the DWI will assess it for contamination risk and place it on a monitoring programme to check that it meets the water quality standards.
Telephone call charging
As a matter of good practice, you should be as open as possible with guests about telephone charges.
You should indicate clearly typical usage rates for bedroom telephones. These should include examples of costs per unit and length of time that unit represents.
You should display charges for:
- peak and off-peak calls
- local and domestic calls
- international calls
Tourist accommodation: responsibility for guest's belongings and luggage
If you run serviced accommodation, such as a bed and breakfast or a hotel, you must take responsibility for looking after your guests' luggage. In some cases, you may have the legal right to keep your guests' luggage if they don't pay their bill.
Your responsibility for luggage and belongings
If you run a hotel and have a guest for at least one night, you could be liable for loss and damage to your guest's property. This will depend on certain factors:
- You may not be liable where the loss or damage to the property is caused by the guest themselves or by an 'act of God' (eg a flood).
- You may be fully liable where the loss or damage to the guest's property is caused solely by your (or your staff's) neglect or actions. You are also responsible if the goods are given to you for safekeeping. You are liable if you were offered the property for safekeeping and you refused.
- You may limit your liability by displaying a notice about loss of or damage to guests' property. This applies when the loss or damage to the guest's property does not fit into either of the above categories. The notice must be in a prominent place near the main entrance or reception area. You may then be liable to pay damages of £50 per item and £100 maximum per person. This does not cover vehicles, any property left in the vehicles, or live animals.
What if the guest did not stay overnight?
If your guest didn't stay overnight and was, for example, simply visiting the restaurant or bar, you will usually be liable for the loss of or damage to your guests' property only if:
- you or your staff have been negligent
- the guest handed the property over to you for safekeeping
Your right to retain a guest's luggage
In certain circumstances, serviced accommodation providers may have the right to detain a guest's luggage.
The owner of a hotel (as defined in the Hotel Proprietors Act (Northern Ireland) 1958) has the legal right to keep a guest's property until the guest settles their bill. This does not include the guest's car or property left in it; or clothes that the guest is wearing.
When the guest settles their bill, you must return the property to them. You cannot charge for storage. You must reimburse the guest if the property has been damaged while you had it.
If the bill has not been paid in full after six weeks, you may sell the guest's property at a public auction, advertised at least four weeks in advance. If the sale makes more money than what is owed to you (including the costs of advertising and organising the auction), you must return the excess to the guest.
Another option for getting what's owed to you is claiming it through the small claims procedure.
Data protection in tourism businesses
All tourist accommodation businesses must keep a guest register – be aware of your responsibilities to keep this data secure
All serviced and self-catering accommodation premises must keep a record of all guests over the age of 16. The record should include full name and nationality. See keeping a guest register in your tourist accommodation business.
When keeping a guest register, even if it's just names and contact details, you must protect your guests' privacy under the Data Protection Act 2018. The Act regulates how personal information is used, and requires businesses to comply with eight rules good information handling. It also requires some businesses to tell the Information Commissioner Office (ICO) what they use personal information for.
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force on 25 May 2018. It replaces the 1998 Data Protection Act and introduces new rules on processing and safeguarding personal data.
Data security and credit cards
If you handle customer's credit/debit card number, you must follow the standards of the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council. The standard is applicable to any organisation that stores, transmits or processes cardholder information.
Find out how to protect your customers and achieve the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) compliance; See accepting online payments.