The hospitality industry needs to wake up to the potential impact to tourism of the upcoming EU referendum, according to Travelodge chief executive Peter Gowers.
Speaking on a panel discussing UK competitiveness at the British Hospitality Association's Hospitality and Tourism Summit, he said that hospitality leaders must "stand up and be counted".
He added: "It's not my place as a chief executive of a UK hotel business to advise the British public whether we should stay in our out of Europe, and it's not my place to advise the prime minister on what constitutes a good deal.
"But it is my place to say that if the result one way or the other is to lead to it being more difficult for people to visit this country then we have a problem as an industry."
Gowers compared the government's proposed in-out referendum on continued membership of the EU with the vote for Scottish independence. David Cameron has pledged to hold the vote by the end of 2017, by which time he hopes to have secured and improved deal for the UK.
"The first thing we need to do is wake up," Gowers said. "Almost a year ago we watched as the UK came precariously close to being broken up. Lots of people said it can't possibly happen, and there was a lot of scaremongering, and we waited for leadership and it didn't really come."
He challenged those present to take the lead on the issue.
"There is little point in us pressing as an industry for an extension to the Schengen arrangement which helps Chinese tourists come to Britain if we're going to find that by the end of 2017 there are more restrictions on free movement," Gowers said.
"That is the principle issue for the industry. If people can't get into the country - what the infrastructure is, what the attractions are, what the level of service is - it's all irrelevant."
South Down MP Margaret Ritchie added that an exit from the EU would have major implications for hospitality operators in constituencies like hers in Northern Ireland.
She said: "We have a land border with the south of Ireland which would remain within Europe and it would become increasingly difficult to compete."
Ritchie added that it was already difficult for hospitality businesses in South Down to compete with their neighbours, as they are close to the border with the Republic of Ireland, where VAT on hospitality was reduced to 9% to stimulate the sector.
"We also need to persuade the government to lower VAT on tourism, because it is so much lower in other countries within the European Union," she said.
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