Blue sky thinking is one of those easy-sounding turns of phrase that come up in an organisational life but are not always clarified sufficiently for people to understand what is expected when asked to do it.

Tourism policymakers and operators have gone through a few blue sky thinking phases in the last few decades.

A simple search online over the last several years will remind us of tourism policymakers calling for thinking different from the prevailing norms.

They dream of new and unfamiliar strategies for the industry, unclouded by habitual tendencies, offering a longer and more precise view of things, somehow uplifting and energising in their impact.

Former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi was an expert in blue sky thinking. When Air Malta was struggling to keep flying, he articulated a dream that saw Air Malta spanning the globe flying its few leased aircraft to and from New York and Mumbai. Thankfully, the blue sky thinking phase of the national airline has now been abandoned.

Malta Airport CEO Alan Borg has confirmed that direct flights between Malta and the United States are unlikely to happen any time soon. He argues “realistically, seeing a direct connection to the US in the short to medium term is challenging.”

Malta Tourism Authority Deputy CEO Leslie Vella does not want to give up on boosting tourism from the US. He believes that the 50,000 US travellers who visit Malta every year is an excellent start.

He argues: “we continue to be very active in pursuing the US market; we find it very attractive; it has a traveller profile that has the attributes that we are after – smart and sophisticated with year-round interest and interested in what we have to offer – a cultural product.”

It is time for policymakers to be more realistic about what the tourism industry needs to do to attract better quality tourists. When the rubber hits the road, dreaming of attracting tourists from the US, Australia and Asia can soon become a disappointing illusion.

The industry is still plagued by endemic mediocrity that is only tolerated by the lower end of the market, driven by low-cost airline travel.

Every day we face a sobering reminder of why the policymakers’ dream of upmarket tourism is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon.

Rubbish accumulating in our streets, especially in tourist hotspots, air and noise pollution because of heavy traffic on our congested roads, and dozens of tower cranes building unsightly apartments wherever we go are some of the realities that confirm that the dream of quality tourism is no more than a painful illusion.

To this, one must add the escalating rise in restaurant prices that, in some cases, are now comparable or even higher than those of major European cities that are magnets for quality tourism like Venice and Paris. 

Borg is correct when he argues, “The mathematics around operating long-haul flight compared to a short one is dramatically different. Long-haul costs an airline around three to four times more to operate.”

Tourism policymakers and operators must focus more on making the fundamental changes needed to improve the Malta experience they promise visitors rather than keep judging success by counting the number of tourists.

The industry can do this if it goes beyond blue sky thinking by dreaming of attracting airlines to use Malta as a hub for intercontinental flights.

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