If I had to vote for the event that symbolised the silly season this year, I would vote for the argument that there was in Rome near Fontana di Trevi last week, when a Dutch teenage girl and an Italian-American woman came to blows over a selfie.

They both wanted to take a selfie at the same time and in the same place, presumably with the iconic Fontana di Trevi at the back. Neither of them wanted to wait till the other had her turn. They both expected the other person to wait. The argument was so hot that they came to blows and eventually even relatives joined the fray, until Rome police stepped in to stop the whole scene.

Some may ask what this may have to do with Malta or with any economic issue. It has to nothing to do with Malta, either directly or indirectly. However, it does have to do with an economic issue and I would like to apply it to Malta.

That the selfie has become the be all and end of all for some people is a known fact. What these selfies are saying is that it is more important that one has been somewhere and can prove it with a selfie, than to experience the place one has visited. This is like those people who actually jump into the waters of Fontana di Trevi or those that have jumped into the waters of the Canal Grande in Venice, also last week. All for the sake of a selfie.

The tourism sector no longer creates the economic multiplier it used to for a number of reasons

Where do I want to take this? We need to remember that tourism has nothing to do with simply visiting a place but with experiencing a place, in full respect towards the population that lives in that place, its culture and its heritage. Saying one has been somewhere with a selfie to prove it is simply not what tourism is about.

This needs to be considered in the light that tourism is an important pillar of the economy for a number of countries, including Malta. We have been happy to read about the increasing number of tourist arrivals year after year. We used to have a saying in Malta, which went something like: “Everyone benefits from tourism”. This indicated the significant economic multiplier that tourism has, even in this country.

Over the years, and if one reads the book of John Pollacco (a highly-respected person for his contribution to the tourism sector in Malta from the 1960s onwards), In the National Interest, one notes that this has been a recurring argument for the last decades. We have been saying that Malta needs to shift its focus in relation to tourism, from quantity (number of tourist arrivals) to quality. Some may have defined quality as higher spending tourists.

I ask if this is really so. Do we just want more tourists who spend more of their cash in our country? Is such a tourism strategy really sustainable? If this were the correct strategy, then all we need to do is see how we can extract every euro possible out of the tourists that come to Malta, irrespective of the service they are given. In fact this is what many tourism operators in the various sectors (catering, accommodation, transport, etc) have ended up doing.

I would put forward a totally different argument. For us, the quality tourists are those that seek to truly experience what Malta has to offer and live it with us Maltese. It means persons who appreciate what excellent service means and who appreciate and enjoy our culture, our way of life, our heritage.

We need tourists who will say that they have experienced Malta and recommend to others to do the same. They need a selfie to do this but their good word is more than enough. I also strongly believe that, since such tourists fall in love with what our country has to offer, they tend to spend more of their euros here.

One important side note about our tourism sector. It no longer creates the economic multiplier it used to for a number of reasons. The first is the significant number of foreign workers in this sector, who eventually send money back to their country. The second is our reliance on the importation of what tourists consume. Thus, a significant part of the income generated by tourism gets leaked out of our economy.

In this silly season, we shall again be congratulating ourselves about the increase in the number of tourist arrivals. I believe we should take a hard and deep look at our tourism sector, maybe like we have never done before, before it is too late.


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