The local tourism industry has been grounded for the past 15 months. It is now making an attempt to take off, hoping that the number of visitors will start to build up over the coming months as the medical crisis supposedly starts to become a thing of the past. The industry has tough challenges to overcome, as demand factors generally remain out of the control of policymakers and operators.

The government has announced it will inject another €20 million in aid of tourism. There is little doubt that it needs a kick-start to recover from the devastation it has experienced in the last several months.

Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo claims that last year the economy lost €2.2 billion in annual spending from tourism due to COVID-19. Had it not been for the government’s generous aid, the loss of jobs would have been much higher.

The tourism business lobbies have welcomed the new aid package with sunny optimism. There was no shortage of well-meaning platitudes like the importance of hardwiring “flexibility” into our plans and not “letting our guard down”.

An EU-wide agreement on issuing ‘green’ passports for those who have been vaccinated, allowing them to travel without any restrictions, would undoubtedly help once all the logistical and ethical issues have been ironed out.

Brand partnerships with online booking platforms, such as Expedia and Trivalgo, should also improve the supply side attractiveness for those planning to spend their holidays abroad.

However, other factors need to be considered by policymakers to ensure that the aid package financed by taxpayers’ money is used judiciously to ensure the best prospects of success for the industry.

The strength of the economic recovery will primarily drive post-COVID tourism recovery. The pandemic has badly damaged the economies of countries from where Malta attracts most visitors. Job losses may mean that many Europeans will this year forgo their overseas holidays and, at best, spend their summer break in their own country.

Some countries like the UK are now doing better in controlling the pandemic than others, which means their economies may also be slightly faster to rebound. France, Germany and Italy, other important source markets for Malta, are still struggling with the third wave of infections.

The possibility that the tail end of the medical crisis will be longer than antici­pated may also amplify traveller concerns about the health risks involved in spending holidays abroad.

Island destinations will be expected to recover more slowly if various governments continue to advise their citizens to avoid air travel. Malta can counteract this trend by providing clear information to travellers and businesses and trying to limit the uncertainty of holidaying overseas.

The declining case numbers is a good starting point to convince prospective visitors that the island is a safe tourist destination.

More can be done to restore traveller confidence. Operators, for instance, need to emphasise the processes they use to guarantee cleanliness inside their hotels and restaurants. Hotels and airlines should make it easy for holidaymakers to get a quick, full refund on their bookings should the medical crisis erupt again.

While kick-starting the tourism industry is a major priority, the gung-ho reopening that Malta engaged in last summer, with the long-term damage it caused, needs to be avoided at all costs. The need to prevent the entry of new virus variants should be at the top of policymakers’ minds.

Meanwhile, they need to start rethinking tourism for the future. The old business model based on mass tourism is no longer viable for a small, overpopulated island destination.

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