The limited SARS virus epidemics of the past were not even a foretaste of the widespread calamity borne of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the toll in human tragedy, the tourism industry and all its dependencies must surely rank second among the casualties of this disease.
In an inevitable game of diminishing returns, tourism abetted the fast, efficient and inexorable dissemination of the disease while ensuring its auto-destruction. To borrow a Grecian biological term, a doctor would surely rank this as a form of apoptosis.
More than a year after the start of hostilities, everyone is well aware that tourism can never flourish again without solid health frameworks and very low R-factors.
This preamble sets the stage for a new reality: health and tourism have become so intertwined that in a country reliant on tourism such as ours, a clear and holistic strategy is vital.
The national strategy of heightened testing has, from the word go, ensured that our health authorities have maintained strict infection surveillance. We should be confident that this first phalanx in our fight against disease will persist for the foreseeable future.
We have seen that this evidence-based approach leads to timely semi-lockdown, serving us well. Like never before, our hospitals are manned and equipped in such a way that, to date, we have warded off the tragic consequences that were witnessed in larger countries.
Future guests to our country should be offered easily accessible repeat testing at no charge. This would be a much more sensible incentive than handouts and it engenders safety and confidence.
Mass vaccination is the second phalanx in our country’s efforts to claw back into normality. At an unflinching daily rate of about 5,000 vaccines (some 1,200 in Gozo alone last Saturday), we are on track to achieve herd immunity sometime in June.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we are on track to be one of only two countries from the EU bloc (Ireland being the other one) making it to the UK’s travel green list.
To be sure, in health matters we are currently in a happy place although we have to be supremely mindful of the distress and hardship endured by the relatively few hospitalised patients and their families.
Flexible booking arrangements need to become mainstay
Revenue from tourism accounts for 20-30 per cent of Maltese and about 50 per cent of Gozitan GDP. Our healthcare is in part run and oiled by these contributions. On many levels, the resurgence of the tourism industry relies on health trust and confidence. Health has become the guarantor of tourism. In an international climate bordering on COVID-fatigue, stressing the merits of harsh discipline has become cliché.
From the perspective of a medical specialist born into family business, I would like to share a few considerations which I consider key.
It appears that face masks, safe distancing and scrupulous hand hygiene are all here to stay.
The where and how we travel are no less important. In the immediate future, we will probably avoid crowded and traditionally popular attractions and destinations.
We may very well baulk at the idea of boarding full-to-overflowing buses, aircraft and sea-craft. The once familiar herding and “move back please” should be consigned to history. Even with the best intentions and unwavering personal discipline, rubbing shoulders in economy class can hardly work better for the tiny but highly contagious particle that is COVID-19.
This is proven by the prevailing viral spiking trends in societies as diverse as Japan and India. The latter thought that ultimate victory was within reach when it was unceremoniously thrust into yet another abyss where oxygen supplies are running out fast.
While being very sensitive to the unenviable plight of struggling airlines, club, bar and restaurant owners and tour operators, we cannot deny that our erstwhile notions of generous occupancy need a drastic and downsized overhaul in order to kick-start and maintain consumer confidence.
Flexibility in travel and leisure arrangements, particularly in view of volatile policies and restrictions, is another key consideration. Flexible booking arrangements such as no-deposit and easy cancellation/rebooking options need to become mainstay.
To ensure their own viability, clubs, cafes, bars, restaurants, guesthouses and hotels have to actively instil guest confidence. In terms of having consistently high hygienic and sanitation procedures, the onus rests squarely with the owners.
There is no better start than to allow al fresco venues to start normal operations. The urge to recoup fast and ready income has to be tempered with responsible limitations to table occupancy and seating arrangements.
The hosting of large events such as parties, sporting competitions and festivals are anathema to most and constitute controversial minefields that, at present, go counter to our government’s understandably cautious approach to relaxation.
However, we need to regularly revisit these issues in the light of prevailing R-factors, expert advice, the advent of vaccination passports and the industry leaders themselves.
When it comes to large events, I would suggest mandatory and scrupulous pre-attendance testing. It goes without saying that lax enforcement (the proverbial keep-one-eye-closed approach) can and probably will jeopardise the lot and undermine the desired new-normal.
The health and safety of Malta’s population as well as that of our future guests is of paramount importance.
Tourism is our country’s lifeline and, make no mistake, without its proper functioning our country’s health services cannot operate as well as they have been for ever.
Maturity, responsible determination and synergy are key.
Jo Etienne Abela is a consultant surgeon and is visiting senior lecturer, deputy chair and post-graduate training coordinator in the Department of Surgery at Mater Dei Hospital. He is secretary of the Association of Surgeons of Malta, examiner of the European Board of Surgery and examiner/surgical tutor of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
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