Perhaps, as the stakeholders in the tourist industry debate, its state and what accounts for it, they might pause to repeat to themselves the following question: If I were a foreigner planning a holiday abroad, why should I decide to go to Malta? It is all well and good for those who depend on the industry to get angry with and slam each other. In the first, middle and final analysis, it is not how we see ourselves that counts, but how others see us.
Why do people go abroad on holiday? What do they want to experience? These two questions underpin the leisure industry. Tourists want time off - to do things in a far more leisurely fashion than they do them at home. They want to experience well whatever it is that they do. The adventurous among them - and tourists always have a broad or narrow streak of the adventurous in them - want new experiences.
Malta targets various sectors. It has always done so. With more focus coming from critical reviews such as that carried by Deloitte & Touche, and an effort to brand the island, the targeting gets somewhat narrower and deeper. Part of the focus is on conference tourism. That is not really something that has much to do with the Malta Tourism Authority.
Essentially it relates to the facilities offered by the leading hotels, and how they themselves promote them, largely through the network of international hotel operators they bolt on to.
Executives, salespersons and other individuals who come to Malta for conferences do not tend to have much say in the choice of venue. It does not really start with them, though they are the main conference participants, even if sometimes it is a thinly camouflaged perk that passes unnoticed by articulate and vociferous shareholders.
The majority of the participants end up going where the top management and executive directors, and controlling owners in some cases, decide they should go, whether they are employees, or stakeholders.
Put differently, most participants in conferences are not required to answer the question Why should I decide to go to Malta? It is not they who decide. Nevertheless, the decision usually also includes leisure considerations.
Which is to say that those who are responsible for all that goes into the infrastructure related to tourism can ignore this sector. They cannot ignore any sector at all, whether conference, package, or self-designed over the Internet. The infrastructure is common to all segments.
Availabilty, EASE and price of connections, the state of the island when one gets here, the cost of meals and entertainment, are among the factors that, to one degree or another, influence all types of tourists - once they get here.
If they do not like what they see and get, whether they pay for the stay out of their own pockets, or come at their company and shareholders' expense, they'll carry the bad image back.
The damage will be felt in terms of lower return visits, including erasing Malta from the short-list for future conferences. Even worse, it will take root with an adaptation of the demonstration effect to conscious or unconscious bad-mouthing simply by recounting one's actual or perceived bad experience.
Hoteliers remain angry because, though arrivals were up on a year-to-year basis in 2005, the increase fell short of the target set by the government, while the tourist spend declined.
Whatever may have happened in comparable competing destinations, the defence put up by the Tourism Minister and the chairman of the MTA, hoteliers have a right to be upset to the extent that they can show that the public allocation to promoting tourism is not being spent effectively. Is it?
The MTA has passed through too much unnecessary turbulence at the top. Ministerial involvement and choice does not automatically equate to good results. The type and degree of such involvement should be critically examined.
Tourism should have a minister - yes. But, unless the appointee happens to be an expert in the field, his/her role should be largely to co-ordinate the determined and vigorous central effort that has to go in building and maintaining the precisely defined infrastructure. A tourism minister should not be the apparent throttle and thrust of the industry.
An indecent amount of media exposure does not equate to an effective top-down contribution.
Private economic agents who take operational decisions do appreciate easy contact with those whose responsibility it is to take political decisions. Far more than that they want and appreciate the taking of the right decisions, as and when required, and with timely implementation.
Ministers, whoever and in whichever sector they may be holding the key of political responsibility, tend to make a hash of things when they try to manage themselves, whether directly or through appointees handpicked for their guaranteed subservience to their political masters. The fact that it is ministers who are accountable to Parliament, and to the people, for what goes on under their watch does not translate into a justification for them to attempt to do things.
The political aspect that has to be part of how the tourism is macro-managed has to relate to that area which it is the responsibility of the government to account for - through the various interrelated portfolios of the Cabinet, and not simply that given to the tourism minister.
The best two things that the tourism minister can do, whether his name is Francis, Evarist, or whichever, are (a) to ask himself the simple question - Why should I visit Malta if I were a tourist? and (b) to ensure that all those who are paid out public funds and thereby accountable to the people through him incessantly ask that question of themselves and come up with continuously upgraded vibrant answers, not clichés.
In addition to exercising their right to be angry to the extent that they can show that public funds to promote tourism are not being spent effectively, hoteliers and other stakeholders would do well to find due time to look critically at themselves and other private stakeholders as well.
Hoteliers have invested massive amounts of their own money and borrowed further financing on the strength of the security and business plans they put up. Very generally they go by the basic rule that their starting point towards targeted profit is to give value for money.
Are all stakeholders giving value for money?
Is pricing - not only of rooms and hotel services, which is as close to the bone as probably can be - sensible right across the board?
Is the leisure sought by the tourist adequately available within a parcel of amenities, private and public, that makes sense in terms of both quality and price?
Are the experiences that are unique to Malta available to the degree that they are promoted abroad?
Are they promoted properly?
Whether we like it or not, Malta is a tourist island. There is no reason why we shouldn't like it, if we also like the idea of making good use of our resources endowments.
Fundamental to that statement is the island's identity, natural beauty such as has managed not to be defaced or destroyed, its temples and architecture, the kindliness of the people, the skills that come naturally and the natural ability quickly to acquire new skills.
We know all that. How can we be sure that enough of the millions out there who are considering taking a holiday also know it? To what extent are we anticipating their question - Why should I go to Malta? - and preparing the right answers?
Debating the question is essential. Anger is wasteful. Anger merely burns energy that could be much more positively utilised by trying to provide and constantly polish answers to that question.
It is, one should hope, a question that can burn constantly, unless we are so foolish as to extinguish it by ignoring it.
Just Jeremy - not Jeremiah
People to can go factory blind, and fail to see themselves warts and all. Over here we seem immune to that risk in so far as it relates to not seeing prevailing shortcomings. Note, for example, the extent of critical views expressed in the letter pages of our newspapers, which are far more indicative of public opinion that single-opinion columns like this one.
The way the political sound and print media and fellow-travellers pick at each other, the diminishing inclination to bow meekly to whatever the Curia says, the inbred trait of complaining about anything that moves or stands still, all amount to a society possessing a not insignificant degree of critical attitude and irreverence.
It does help, nonetheless, when there comes along someone who can look at us from the outside, critically but because he wishes us well. Such a man is Jeremy Boissevain, a Dutch social anthropologist whose second home is Malta. He researched and produced rigorously analytical as well as hugely entertaining academic work concerning our island home and we, its peculiar people.
He first came here nearly 50 years ago and lived among us for years, learning the language quite adequately as he and his wife went along. Two of their four daughters were born in Malta. So did two of their grandchildren. On Wednesday he was the guest speaker at a 'Today Seminar' organised by MediaToday, publishers of MaltaToday, the vehicle through which Saviour Balzan and Roger Degiorgio and a tight team of journalists and columnists are penetrating vigorously into the media-body.
There couldn't have been a more provocatively stimulating event. Jeremy gave a talk that was simultaneously entertaining and challenging. He set out to stake stock (of Malta) "after 50 years" and to query and probe "where to now?"
The speaker examined what in his view has changed in Malta since he first set foot here, what has remained the same, and what is to be done. He was as critical as an academic who does empirical research and has a keen eye for human and physical detail can be. Some might even have peered at the programme to check whether his name was Jeremiah.
It was not. He spoke out of love and concern for Malta. Not a word in his clinical analysis was unfair, or a conclusion based on anything other than a carefully reviewed premise. He did not fail to detect the rampage of runaway consumerism, the filth that insults the spots the countryside off-the-beaten-track where he and his wife tried to picnic on this of their latest caress of the Maltese Islands.
He suggested, in sadness tinged with anger, that Malta has become the dirtiest country in Western Europe. A prevalent weak sense of heritage that destroys national patrimony, the stupid notion that more-is-better, the endlessly sprouting billboards that suggest we are turning into a 'nation of hucksters' were among the things that did not fail to hit him in the eye.
My short comments here do Jeremy Boissevain an injustice. They do not even begin to skim the surface of what he packed into the relatively short time at his disposal. I have been deliberately selective to suit my theme of today.
Not all visitors to Malta will observe us with his clinical but not unkind eye. Many will see the warts without seeing the rest of Malta's body, and particularly its spirit. Those who will, unlike our Dutch Jeremy friend, sound off Jeremiah-like will not pose burning questions.
They will sow damage, where Jeremy Boissevain has sown challenges; wreak havoc, where Jeremy has tried to construct aims and reachable models.
We may not be factory blind. But, it might not be out of place to ask ourselves whether, for all our picking holes in each other, we do not blind ourselves to the realities of our collective shortcomings...
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