Malta’s tourist hotspots are unrecognisable from a year ago when tourists thronged day and night around bars, restaurants and beaches. The pandemic shutdown has had a devastating effect on the tourism industry, with many jobs lost and businesses facing liquidity and solvency challenges.
When the Malta International Airport reopens on July 1 many hope that tourists will start gingerly flying in to enjoy the glorious weather that characterises Maltese summers. Realistically, few expect that the number of tourists visiting the island this year will be anywhere near what it was last year.
There are still doubts about whether the medical problem is indeed behind us. More importantly, many Europeans might not want to take the risk of being caught up in another lockdown should the medical emergency erupt.
Health authorities in Italy, Germany and the UK among others have been urging their citizens to opt for staycations this year as the medical uncertainty persists. This is not good news for countries like Malta and Greece, where the tourism industry has a significant share in the economy.
Many local businesses that thrive on tourism have introduced well-thought out tactics to boost domestic tourism, assisted by the government incentive of €100 given to every person over 16 to be spent on hotel accommodation or restaurants.
There has been some more good news for local households in the way of significant adjustments in pricing for hotel accommodation for weekend and short breaks.
The return of tourists would be good news for many who depend on this industry for their livelihood. But many others are re-embracing the relative slowdown in the external environmental elements that marred their daily lives. Traffic gridlock, noise pollution, dirty streets and overcrowded beaches are some of the unpleasant aspects of over-tourism. Many locals understandably hope that the pandemic will serve as an opportunity to create a permanent shift in the tourism business model.
It would be a mistake to return to the previous model of ‘tourists, tourists and more tourists’. We have a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-make the tourism industry so that it might have a more positive impact on a broader group of locals, by improving environmentally friendly mobility and consumption and long-term economic investment.
The Minister of Tourism would also do well to address some worrying issues in the operations of the Malta Tourism Authority. The Public Accounts Committee recently revealed the lack of accountability and transparency in the way the MTA manages its marketing budget financed with taxpayers’ money.
The MTA should focus more on upgrading standards to ensure, for instance, that our limited beaches are not taken over by caravans that have become an almost permanent ugly feature on the limited coastline accessible to bathers.
Equally important is the upgrading of skills of those who deal with tourists in their jobs every day. The industry is getting addicted to the employment of low-skilled, untrained casual workers in restaurants and hotels, and this does nothing to enhance the visitors’ experience.
Upgrading our tourism product means rolling out the red carpet for visitors who choose Malta as their holiday destination. Today all the talk is about jobs, jobs, jobs, which means hotels, airlines and restaurants. But tourism is at a crossroads.
Policymakers should not miss this precious window of opportunity to rethink and reinvent the visitors’ economy. We must not be driven by nostalgia but by a vision of an industry that adds value to the whole community.
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