Just opening borders and taking a ‘calculated risk’ like Italy is planning to do or opening flight and road corridors in limited bubbles of similar countries may not be enough.
Italy’s jump into the unknown is doomed to fail. Mass tourism from all countries and cruise liners will bring with them the coronavirus from outside Italy once more. The first cases had their source in Alpine ski resorts, business travellers coming back from China and football matches or carnival celebrations. Tourists crowding airplanes, cruise ships, beaches, restaurants and nightclubs will just do the same thing.
The sacrifices made will be just thrown away and by just opening up the airport and harbour, Malta will have outbreaks at levels not experienced before. What can we do instead?
As an island we are ideally placed to create a new form of tourism, ‘healthy tourism’.
To achieve this we need vision, government, economic help and a new policy, as well as thorough controls. The vision should be one of absolute health and safety with top quality, high prices and lower volume. The only way to have healthy tourism is to ensure that the tourists coming are free from the virus, that their trip to our island is a safe one and that their stay is in line with social distancing, sanitisation and avoidance of crowds. Much needs to be done in this respect.
First of all, the government should select the countries from which tourists are allowed to come. But just allowing planes and ships to come from certain countries is not enough. Each passenger on each plane or ship must be tested or be tested at boarding and any infected person should be forbidden to board. Each passenger should be a resident of those countries. Trans-shipment or flight connections from prohibited countries should be banned. Anybody found to have sidelined the rules on arrival is to be placed in 14 days obligatory quarantine at their own cost or put on first flight back.
We may all wish to remain a healthy, expensive and low-volume tourist destination even after the vaccine and global inoculation occurs- John Vassallo
Each plane is to have obligatory mask wearing and empty middle seats. Seat rows are to be distanced to ensure 1.5 metres space. This will reduce the volume of passengers per flight and prices should be increased accordingly. A tourist coming to Malta wants a healthy and risk-free stay and should be prepared to pay for it. Those not able to afford tickets costing €300 or €600 instead of €100 or less should either holiday in riskier countries with greater chance of catching COVID-19 or holiday every second or third year.
Rules apply to all private and commercial flights. The same for ships. There needs to be social distancing, mask obligation and sanitisations of cabins and testing of all passengers before a cruise liner enters Valletta to ensure tracing. Any company failing the test should be banned from entering Valletta harbour.
Taxis in Malta should invest in self-opening doors and perspex glass protection booths for the drivers paid by card or cash through a hole in the perspex.
All hotels should use only alternative floors on a weekly basis, halving their occupancy, but allowing complete sanitisation of all rooms on the unused floors. All arriving tourists will know that for every week they will have newly-sanitised rooms and less guests in the hotel. Mask obligation, distanced seating in restaurants, perspex glass at concierge and reception, automatic sanitisation dispensers at all contact points and distancing at the pool side and all hotel services should be a must at all hotels.
Prices at hotels should be doubled to cover the new reduced incumbency, thus making hotel revenue the same as pre-pandemic. Of course, this will select the incoming guests by pricing out the mass low-spending tourist.
The same rules apply to restaurants, museums, sites and beaches. There should be numeric quotas for each beach, restaurant and site in Malta and Gozo plus towel or deckchair distance controlled by tourist health inspectors with full powers to deal with breaches by the closure of sites, beaches, restaurants and hotels.
Price increases will help retain jobs at pre-pandemic salary levels, profits too. All employees in the entire tourism industry must be obliged to be fluent Maltese language speakers to ensure authenticity of the offer.
For those owners and investors at the bottom end of the tourism offer, namely the cheap hotels, lousy Airbnb chicken coops, bad quality bars and restaurants, crowded Paceville bars and nightclubs, there should be government support for the capital losses these will suffer when they are forced to close. For the establishments which upgrade and for the airline which will have to reduce its number of seats per flights, the return will come via the increase in prices.
When the vaccines arrive, we may always relax these measures and return to mass tourism if Malta so prefers.
Investments now will pay back because of the reputational damage that the careless and risky tourist destinations will suffer. We may all wish to remain a healthy, expensive and low-volume tourist destination even after the vaccine and global inoculation occurs. Who knows?
Not doing anything but just opening up spells disaster. Nurses and doctors’ unions have already expressed their concerns. Just keeping the airport and harbours closed will not help tourism either.
Without new approaches, we can end up like Italy, simply opening up without restrictions and face the risk of losing the entire tourist industry should Malta get a name for new waves of COVID-19 returning to the continent. On the other hand, Malta can create changes that may prove to be the best long-term economic, social, environmental investment we may have ever made.
John Vassallo is a former ambassador to the EU.
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