Complacency in tourism

 Published on the Malta Independent¸ issue Wednesday¸ 17 October 2010



Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has warned that¸ notwithstanding the good results¸ Malta must not be complacent about tourism. Speaking at a seminar¸ he pointed out that the positive achievement of a 12 per cent rise in performance¸ coupled with an improvement of 20 per cent in tourist expenditure¸ needs to be sustained in the years to come. These results are due to careful planning in the lean years since 2008. The opening of new routes to Malta certainly meant greater accessibility¸ and this is considered a major factor.

Negotiating a subsidy for low-cost airlines¸ which started operating to Malta in 2006¸ has paid good dividends. It has been reported in the media that roughly 40 per cent of those who fly travel on low-cost airlines. One notes how¸ in a short period of time¸ Ryanair is now carrying 20 per cent of our tourists.

Critics of low-cost airlines blame the losses being registered by Air Malta on the stiff competition they face¸ and being disadvantaged by their old style business model. On the other hand¸ one expects structural changes to be implemented by the national airline if it hopes to survive the next winter without massive subsidies. It is a fact of life that the airline business today is composed more than ever of independent travellers who apparently save on tour operators by booking online and thus have more money to spend during their stay. Extra spend means an increase in second “city break” holidays in the shoulder months. Finally¸ the penny has dropped that the island’s strong points are a good climate¸ warm hospitality¸ unequalled scuba diving and heaps of history and culture.

Nothing can beat a relaxing holiday with a swim before lunch followed by a tour of Valletta¸ the Knights’ legacy of architecture dating back to the 16th century¸ followed by a cosmopolitan nightlife. Throw in for good measure an evening spent at a village festa with colourful fireworks or enjoy free MTV events under the moonlight at The Granaries in Floriana. For history lovers¸ nothing equals an educational morning tour of the Hagar Qim prehistoric temple now under new management.

But there is a fly in the ointment in that the quality of the service tourists receive must continue to improve. Losses suffered in 2009 have forced hotels to cut back on quality and some may have resorted to trimming service levels. It is all a reality check. How can one reconcile owners making do by keeping their staff employed while seeing a poor return on their capital. One may slate profit as being a dirty word and say that banks are only there when it is sunny and withdraw support when it is cloudy¸ but profits fire the industry’s cylinders. Yes¸ there is a grave risk that¸ due to the losses suffered in the past¸ there is now a race to the bottom. This has to be resisted¸ because the lasting impression a first-time tourist gets is from quality of service in restaurants and hotels (not to mention a ride on rickety buses). Another factor is the damage to the environment inflicted by the dense population of both locals and tourists during the peak season. MHRA has warned its members that if we destroy the environment¸ we destroy the hospitality industry in the long run. The model of sun and beach tourism¸ which we chose and have marketed since the 1960s¸ has caused both the spectacular urban¸ demographic and economic demise of small coastal towns once inhabited by farming and fishing families who eventually came to make the