What’s your outlook for the tourism industry in Malta in 2018?
The outlook is a positive one. In the study that we recently conducted with BOV and Deloitte to research the impact that this year’s Presidency of the European Council had on Malta’s tourism, there’s a trend towards the strengthening of the hotel sector on the back of consistent growth in Malta’s tourism numbers. Valletta 2018 is expected to contribute to the further success of that formula.
Malta’s increase in flight connectivity is one of our recent successes. This year, the Ministry of Tourism publicly communicated the establishment of various new routes from Malta. The more connected you are to towns and cities the better the chances of increasing the success of a country’s touristic attraction.
The other aspect is spreading into new markets. This is a positive strategy the government has also embarked upon this year. In fact, Air Malta is being used positively to further increase the sustainable level of our tourism growth. That said, Air Malta remains a challenge – and the fact that it is so, proves just how important it is for our tourism sector as there is a clear and direct correlation between its contribution and the success of our tourism sector.
MHRA is being kept informed by the Minister for Tourism on the various restructuring initiatives being carried out yet there is still more to do. Air Malta is an important operation for Malta which functions in a dynamic market and is sensitive to changes within the market. It is unacceptable for unions to be fighting against each other creating unnecessary problems that could get in the way of its success. In this respect, everyone should be on the same page pull his own weight.
What are the key elements which will affect Malta’s tourism industry and its ability to replicate its year-on-year success?
The biggest challenge is that we are at a crossroads – boosting further growth or nurturing the sustainable development of the sector? It is important to focus on further strengthening the current markets, but it is equally important to open Malta up to new markets such as India and China. The MHRA has contributed to this by creating Diwali festivals, targeting the Indian market and attracting the Indian community in Europe, particularly in the UK.
Celebrations and festivals such as music, films and weddings are also an important segment and we need to continue tapping this market. This could help us set Malta as a hub for culture which will make it stand out for the right reasons in the international eye. Furthermore, faith-based tourism around the key Mediterranean cities is a niche where Malta can offer a lot. Malta should position itself at the centre of the Mediterranean Christmas trail. After all, Christmas isn’t about just the chubby fellow coming from the North Pole; there’s more to that. Malta offers plenty of religious sites and a unique tradition of Christmas cribs. We can offer a true, authentic experience to our Northern counterparts here.
We need to encourage people to spend more by way of providing them with the right experiences and the right products, keeping what we offer fresh and updated to our tourists.
What can or should be done to improve Malta’s tourism product?
From a macro perspective, we definitely need to have a vision. Where do we want our country to be in 50 years’ time? If we set this benchmark we can start to work backwards, and this can dictate the necessary infrastructure. We need to have a clear, long term vision.
For example, in the case of the proposed Paceville master plan, the MHRA’s suggestions have been taken on board and these are now being reviewed. We need a master plan for all the different regions in Malta and Gozo however. It is only this that can provide an equal, positive contribution to the citizens across our islands. If we risk getting lost in firefighting and get ahead of ourselves because more tourists are visiting, we risk seeing the bigger picture and end up by getting lost in the woods.
We have to remember that Malta is our tourism zone not just Sliema or Valletta. Nowadays, visitors are exploring other parts of Malta which were not so popular before. Making otherwise unconventional places around Malta attractive, is a way to spread the impact and the economic benefit but that needs to be managed sustainably. It can also become a headache for the Maltese people who are living in these relatively quieter areas to have such an influx of visitors, so it is important that we maintain the authenticity of what is now making these areas attractive and take care of the local residents. It will be interesting to look out for what has recently been communicated in the government’s budget – that is, restructuring Malta’s infrastructure.
Do you think Malta will be able to maintain its reputation as a safe and pleasant country to visit?
Despite the current headlines Malta has made locally and internationally, as Oscar Wilde put it, "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. But let us talk about the positive things and our recent successes instead and let us direct attention towards Malta in a positive way.
We have to be innovative – this is key. We need to create new products and new experiences. Yes, it is good to celebrate success, but it is more important to keep moving forward, refreshing our level of quality in our hotels, services, food and the experience in general so that people keep on talking positively about us. Malta should give its visitors new reasons to keep coming back.
In relation to the shadow economy, the EU needs to provide incentives, not more regulations. We cannot afford to suffocate the tourism sector. Even though regulation is important, there is a risk that it will suffocate its performance. For example, the homemade cuisine method is often an attractive experience for visitors, but this often goes against EU safety regulations. The EU should instead encourage such small businesses to continue being creative and market themselves, rather than going to certain extremes which might kill them off completely. In this regard, it is imperative that the EU creates an even playing field for all, suited to the size of the businesses within this sector.
A version of this interview appeared in the latest edition of Business Agenda