A no-deal Brexit would be a “catastrophe” for travel and tourism, according to UKhospitality chief Kate Nicholls, who insisted “we’re making ministers aware of that”.

Nicholls told the UKhospitality conference in London on Tuesday: “We’re in for a pretty rocky ride until October. If we fall out of the EU with no deal on October 31, it will be catastrophic for the industry.”

She said Tory leadership hopefuls Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt “need to ensure we don’t slip into negative messaging” during their election battle.

Nicholls said she had met Johnson in the past week and he had “held out a hand of friendship to hospitality”. She added: “We know Johnson well and have worked with him in the past.”

Nicholls said the government would signal support for the industry by announcing a sector deal for tourism “if not this week, then next”.

“The sector deal will be game changing,” she said. “It means I can give the government a prod every time it comes up with some stupid piece of legislation.”

Nicholls, who sits on the government’s Tourism Industry Council alongside Mark Tanzer of Abta and other industry heads, may be the industry leader in most contact with government. She said: “We’re now the sixth sector going into meetings in Downing Street alongside manufacturing, financial services, retail, the CBI and small businesses. I’m in monthly meetings with the Department for Culture, monthly meetings with the Home Office and weekly meetings with [environment secretary] Michael Gove on Brexit.

“We’re working with Number 10 on how our sector provides a shop window for the UK. We plan a ‘soft capital strategy’ endorsed by Number 10, whoever is in charge, [and] the departments that regulate your business will be responsible for ensuring they don’t get in the way of promoting that.

“Building on the sector deal, we plan to make the UK a world leader in delivering global events.

“We’ve had categorical assurance that whatever happens [with Brexit], our EU workers are guaranteed settled status – every EU worker in the country, even if here for a day, has the right to remain.”

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