The Malta Independent 17 May 2021, Monday

Releasing the Golden Goose

Monday, 19 April 2021, 07:53 Last update: about 28 days ago

Mantas Stockus

In January 2021, according to the National Statistics Office, ‘a total of 11,536 inbound tourists visited Malta for holiday purposes’, a drop in the ocean compared to the same month a year ago when ‘a total of 131,865 inbound tourist trips were undertaken’. A pre-Covid life without signs, restrictions and doubtful decisions seems as distant a memory of the past as the French Occupation of Malta and yet, only a year has passed since the outbreak.

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Once bustling parts of the promenade from Manoel Island to Fort Tigne, now, stay silent. No longer are there small and large cruise ships, embarking and disembarking crowds of people daily; no longer are there ‘Gozo, Comino, Blue Lagoon’ stands, addressing everyone in the radius of a ticket seller, and no longer are there queues to the Sliema-Valletta ferry, blocking the entire path. Only the ill-kept ticket booths remind us of the golden times of tourism when more than two million tourists visited the island yearly.

In the 1950s, Maltese authorities aspired to allocate new areas of economic development to tackle the perception of the island as a British military base in the Mediterranean Sea and tourism was perceived as a favourable candidate. In the coming decades, grant programmes, diversification strategies, competitive packages, segmentation of industry niches, low-cost airline tickets connecting Malta with mainland Europe have produced a substantial growth – with a few stagnation points – of the tourism sector in the island.  

According to the Tourism Authority, in 2019, 2,753,239 people visited the island, injecting 2.2 billion euros into the local economy and notably contributing to Malta’s GDP and employment; therefore, it is understandable why there is an effort and push despite numerous perils to bring inbound tourism back to its glorious past. Nevertheless, it is particularly important to scrutinise this terrain before taking a step forward; the present is extremely capable of making us fall on our face as the past year has shown.

Despite Covid cases being the lowest since December, one must keep in mind the fact that almost everything on the island is closed, so people tend to stay at home or else visit places like Dingli Cliffs, resulting in smaller gatherings in the towns; while the vaccination is still in progress and far from completed. Nonetheless, as soon as the restrictions are loosened or lifted completely, the numbers will start climbing up again as people will go back to living their lives. It is as inevitable as the rising of the sun. Hence, the priority should be to stabilise and eventually neutralise the number of domestic cases with the help of the vaccine before speculating and promising things without certainty and confirmation. As the decision making is solely based on statistics that are inherently very erratic, as the past year has shown, the high number of cases can result in another wave of protests, an official announcement, new restrictions with the final outcome being us taken back to March 2020.

In addition, a negative test and a vaccination passport does not guarantee that a person is immune from getting the virus after the arrival on the island. Naturally, most of the tourists will not sit in their rooms and will spend their time exploring different places in Malta and Gozo, meaning that an unlucky person can double the numbers of cases in a matter of days and the country will then find itself in a situation of another lockdown with restaurants, museums, hotels and other places completely closed. With this in mind, a number of people can get stuck in Malta for months, putting extra pressure on the medical sector of the island that is already raising its concerns about the thought of opening the borders for inbound tourism. Consider for a moment if the number of daily cases reaches 500 again, the country will find itself in an extremely uncomfortable position as the tourists who came for a holiday were promised a holiday, not another lockdown.

Instead of looking at the past, this time could be used as an opportunity to consider the future of tourism in post-Covid years and make a long-term planning a priority; in Dr Julian Zarb words, ‘the short-term plans will create a benchmark, long-term plans through this integrated approach is more considerate of the quality of life of those involved in the sector, and its consumers.’ Delve into the notion of alternative sources of tourism and ‘look at quality not quantity […] at who it is we are trying to attract, but rather at the tourist who wants to be there, and not just happens to be there.’ Critically explore the idea of reshaping the image of the island as a cultural hub with a vast and rich heritage instead of as a destination of sea and sun. Invest in domestic and, most importantly, sustainable tourism to preserve and prevent the island from losing its unique and fragile ecosystem.

Meanwhile, while contemplating this, we could turn our focus to stabilise the situation in the country: complete vaccinating of everyone who is in favour of a vaccine, implement steps allowing slow return to a life without restrictions and fear of each other, lift the economy of the island on both feet as much as possible, promote domestic tourism, ‘get away from fire-fighting and turn it into long-term thinking and planning ahead’ and acknowledge the fact the world has changed after the outbreak and will continue to change.

In the past decades, Malta has heavily gambled on inbound tourism that has brought wealth to the island, resulting in a rapid economic development; however, despite how tempting it is to milk the same cow again, one must not forget that ‘tourism is not going to magically make a surge forward just as vaccines start coming out and being administered’. It will take time for it to bear fruit, and we do not even know if the fruit will be eatable; thus, to invest and count on inbound tourism, at least in the coming months, is a dangerous gamble, capable of bringing devastating consequences. 

 

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