The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

Summer 2020: Anything but a normal summer for English Language Schools

Giulia Magri Monday, 20 July 2020, 10:40 Last update: about 6 months ago

As COVID-19 restriction measures have been eased, hotels, bars, and restaurants open to the public and the airport finally open; summer seems to be in full swing on the Maltese islands. But is this the real picture?

It is obvious that the tourism sector plays a vital role in Malta's economy and that the English Language Teaching sector is an important multiplayer. At the beginning of the pandemic, a Deloitte report highlighted that the estimated losses from cancellations for schools amount to €8.8 million, resulting in a financial loss to the economy of €23.7 million.

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According to an NSO report published earlier this year, in 2019 alone, a total of 83,610 foreign students attended ELT courses at local licensed schools. Last July was the busiest month for these schools, with 18,457 arrivals.

During the re-opening of the Malta International Airport on Wednesday 1 July, Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli said that Malta is expected to experience 700,000 tourists by the end of 2020. 20,000 tourists have visited Malta after one week of the airport reopening, but how many of these tourists visited Malta to learn English?

In an online survey conducted by The Federation of English Language Teaching Organisation Malta (FELTOM), asked their Federation members regarding their expectations for the summer. The data was provided to this newsroom.

From member schools, approximately 73.7% decided to open their doors 1 July, the rest have decided to open a later date this summer or wait for further developments. From the schools that did open, 78% replied to the survey circulated.

The survey showed that the arrivals on the first week, when compared to last year, were an average of 9.0%. For July, it is expected to increase to 9.6% and for August it will reach a maximum of 12.8%. There was also a shift in student travelers, where 56% are adults and 44% are under the age of 18; which is not normal at this time of the year, which is usually predominately teens.

With regards to host families, currently, only 9.8% of student arrivals are being hosted in host families. Last year a total of 22,241 foreign students stayed with host families. Many host families are still unsure and wish to be cautious about hosting.

This newsroom also spoke to Julian Cassar Torregiani from AM Language and Rebecca Bonnici from BELS, two well-established ELT schools on the island, to highlight as to why this summer is not 'business as usual' not just for the ELT sector, but Maltese tourism as a whole.

Certain schools would have benefitted more by remaining closed

Apart from paying wages, the operation of a language school involves several costs, such as paying rent, electricity, and other amenities.  "At the beginning of COVID-19, schools ensured their staff that no one was to be made redundant, now six months later that schools were forced to open for the summer, many are worried that they will not keep up with the costs, "explained Cassar Torregiani.

He highlighted that this time last year, AM Language would usually host around 1,200 students, but currently, the school is open to 102 students. "Before schools closed back in March, we had 368 students, out of which a large number traveled back to their countries on repatriation flights, but 70 students decided to remain in Malta. Since the airports opened, around another 50 students arrived." He explained this summer is a 'complete loss' when comparing the current situation to last summers.

"It's anything but a normal summer for us, we are worse off now than when we shut down," said Rebecca. "All over the island, schools are empty, and most are operating at 10% of their full capacity when in July, our peak month, all of us would be operating at 100%."

Both explained that landlords now expect their tenants to follow up on their rent, even though schools are not generating enough revenue to cover the costs.

Drastic fall in junior students can have devastating effects on tourism as a whole

According to the NSO report, last year a total of 27,849 foreign students aged 15 years and under followed an ELT course. This means that junior students made up 33.3% of the total number of students who arrived in Malta. This year, the situation is very different.

Usually, at this time of the year we have 200 junior students," explained Bonnici. "Currently we have 30. Such low numbers can be seen in other schools, and is being felt by the industry as a whole." She explained that in July FELTOM usually promotes weekly alcohol-free, safe parties for junior students, hosting a few thousand young students per week. This year, parties will only see the likes of 150 students, per week.

Cassar Torregiani explained that during the peak months of Covid-19, most big youth groups cancelled their bookings, and that very few individuals are ready to travel, let alone parents allowing their children to travel. "We won't be seeing many youth students this summer, and this will take a toll on the tourism industry as a whole. Imagine how this will affect bus drivers, venues, restaurants, tour guides; everyone." He emphasised that such large youth group bookings are what make summer the peak season for the ELT sector.

The ELT industry is not the only one to suffer from the lack of students arriving this summer. "We need to take into account the number of multipliers which all have an impact not just on the ELT sector, but the tourism industry as a whole," Cassar Torregiani explained.

He pointed out that many host families this summer had confirmed that they are ready to take in students. "We need to take into account how this pandemic has affected host families," he said. Some families are young and decide to host foreign students to make extra income and subsidize costs. Other families are pensioners, even widowers, who look forward to hosting to learn more about other cultures and enjoy the company. At BELS, Bonnici explained that once they knew the airports were opening, they reached out to their host families to ask whether they would be comfortable in hosting this summer. "A large majority of our host families said yes; they are as desperate as we are to work. We need to understand how this sector feeds into so many other sectors on the island; taxi drivers, minibus and coach companies, tour guides, host families, and hotels to name but a few."

Concerns that certain players will face difficulties to operate past September; the need for Government financial rescue package

When asked regarding the situation of bookings, both stressed that August and September are "bleak" when it comes to bookings. "We lost June completely, for all of July the airport had many limitations when compared with available routes last year and the situation does not look great for the rest of the upcoming months," explained Bonnici.

She highlighted that currently there is no indication when third-country national students will be allowed to arrive in Malta. While there has been given indications of flights the Central Visa Unit and Embassies are not able to provide schools with any information regarding when visas will begin to be processed. "We cannot provide any information to potential students when they can travel to Malta, so that means we are losing these bookings to other destinations, from clients who usually stay in Malta for 12, 24, or 32 weeks. The potential for people to come to our shores to learn English from Ukraine, Russia, Columbia, Japan, and Korea is huge."

She said that she is not calling for the government to open to unsafe countries, as she highlights that the safety of the islands is the main priority. "I am not jeopardising the country's safety, I wish to acknowledge the fact that this, is not a normal summer, the tourism sector is not recovering, and people are still suffering and they will continue to do so for many more months to come."

Cassar Torregiani expressed the same concerns, and that recovery is a long way ahead. "Summer 2020 is a complete loss for the industry. Summer is our high season, which helps us gear up for the traditionally quieter winter season. Now, this summer adds on additional wounds to the months when we were closed, and we face risks of moving forward and overcoming these problems."

So what can be done? "The government and Tourism Ministry must look into specific rescue packages to assist the industry as a whole," said Cassar Torregiani. "We ask, do you intend on assisting the industry surviving past September? Then we need to work together and find the right approach to help the tourism industry, otherwise, we will see substantial numbers of employees being made redundant and closing of a number of schools, which will have a devastating impact on the tourism sector and the economy as a whole."

"We need to acknowledge that tourism as a whole has suffered this year and that many families are dependent on this sector," added Bonnici. "If come September the numbers begin to dwindle and nothing is done to assist the sector we will see people losing hope and being made redundant. We need to wake up and smell the coffee now before we have a serious problem come October."

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