The Malta Independent 29 February 2024, Thursday
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Going out to make friends or setting up to make friends?

Julian Zarb Saturday, 14 October 2023, 09:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

In 1974 the National Airline came out from the old setup that was formed during the sixties – Air Melita.  The scope for this airline was for the independent and soveriegn state to have its say on the question of accessibility between the islands and other countries.

 

Air Malta was setup with the backing of PIA – Pakistan International Airlines – and I can still remember the hype (during my early years in my career) around this occasion.  Pakistani Food Festivals at the Malta Hilton, colourful brochures promoting the new Malta and its national airline. The first slogan I remember was : “Air Malta – Going Out to Make Friends” , this was a great step towards the growth of tourism that was managed by locals and not dependant on foreign airlines or businesses. Now we are seeing the demise of this airline, not because it was not an asset, but purely because it has been mismanaged (whether through incompetence or deliberate is a question we need to answer and discover in the coming months) over the past decade. The question now is – will that demise put us back in the position of depending on “fly-by-night” airlines that have no loyalty or commitment to these islands.

In my last article, I wrote about the start of a new term at the university and various educational institutions that provide training and qualifications in tourism. I have to say, that in the past decade I have seen the quality and levels of these courses fall further and further down.  The tourism courses have become a platform or stepping stone to look for an temporary phase in seeking a job or career.  Tourism is all about earning money not about a career; it is all about doing an “easy” job not about providing a professional service; it is all about becoming a “wejter” or a “Recepionist” not about climbing the ladder to manage tourism professionally.

We have to ask ourselves – why is this the case? Why are students straying from a tourism course? Is it because of the instability during the pandemic? Is it the unsociable hours? Is it the low wages? Or perhaps it is because our so called professionals are driving them away by giving little attention to a career and teaching has become a mechanical action with no real drive.

I remember my time , many years ago, at the old catering school at the MCAST Polytechnic – the drive we all had to learn more about hotels, tourism and professionalism.  During the past 50 years, I suppose most of us have earned a reputation for high standards and levels of quality.  But these levels have been erased by the amateurish way in which managing tourism has dropped.

If we want tourism to improve, if we want to manage destinations of quality we must start with the development and education as well as CPD of our young students now.  Here are my six suggestions you may wish to adopt here – if there are those in authority who are serious about listening instead of playing about for their own interests, enjoyment and financial benefit:

1.     Encourage students and school leavers to follow a course in tourism not simply as a job but as a means of giving others the hospitality and service they expect and deserve.

2.     Ensure that study units and modules are revised each year through consistent and continuous dialogue with the key stakeholders and that there is plenty of opportunity for debate and discussion.

3.     Give importance to constant research and study that will add value to the industry or tourism activity and give students an opportunity of making their mark in this respect.

4.     Tourism should be taught as a classic study not a business study – it is , primarily, a socio-cultural activity not a socio-economic activity.

5.     Students need to learn about acting like professionals at an early stage – they need to inculcate this attitude instead of the laissez faire attitude of the service industry today.

6.     Finally, we must ensure that the Human Resources Directorate as included in the Malta Travel and Tourism Services Act of 1999 is reintroduced to ensure that we put quality into tourism studies at all levels.

This week, there is one subject tourism businesses and employees are talking about:  “What will happen after March 2024, almost fifty years after the National Airline came into being? Quo Vadis Malta Air or Air Malta?”.  My questions run deeper and I hope to find some answers in the coming months as we approach the demise of that airline next year – In whose interest is this change in the national airline being done? Certainly it does not seem obvious that this is in the national interest.  Why was this airline allowed to decline over the last decade?

I remember the birth of the national airline, with just three or four old boeings it managed to become a symbol of Malteseness; it was seen as our own way of welcoming visitors to the islands; it also indicated that an island of just 400,000 people , at the time, could also be proud of their own emblem on the tail of a plane! `I really believe that the error was made when we started to consider this airline as simply a cash cow for milking rather than an asset in the national interest. But, as usual, I will not dwell on the negative side of this demise but I will give six steps we could have taken (and perhaps still could do) to let the airline come out of its sad state:

 

1.      The national airline represents an important element in the travel and tourism sector to and from these islands – primarily, because it represents more profits in the local coffers and less economic leakage. We must maintain this factor and ensure it remains in national coffers and not in personal bank accounts – locally or otherwise.

2.     The situation of this airline should be the main theme for a working group consisting of key stakeholders, including the business community, the local community and local authorities.  This must be supplemented by a continuous and consistent dialogue with the public through open consultation and listening – none of this macabre cloak and dagger nonsense with which decisions were taken at the Ministry for Finance and the OPM to close the existing airline.

3.     The employees and their family need to be part of any decision about Air Malta, even being offered a profit sharing and shareholding position.  The employees must feel the ownership of this company.  We should have learnt from companies like BHS and Debenhams that were dissolved to the detriment of the employees and their families.

4.     The strategy and marketing plan for Air Malta must be prepared by the integrated working group so that we can all contribute to the plan through continuous and consistent public consultations to reflect the changes in travel experiences and demands.  If there is such a strategy and marketing plan (and I have very strong reason to doubt this) then it must be published now, well before January 2024.  

5.     Under the FOI regulations we all have a right to see any correspondence leading up to the decision to close the airline next month – and do NOT give me all that nonsense of commercial integrity, we are talking about a PUBLIC company.

6.     Finally, if it is found that it was mismanagement and incompetence (deliberate or not) that led to this situation for the national airline then those responsible need to pay financially for any losses as well as pay with their instant dismissal.

 

By following these six stages, we can ensure that these islands are managed professionally, sustainably and with the idea of developing a quality activity that attracts the visitor who wants to be here not the one who wants to be here.  Travel and Tourism to these islands today is about quantitative gains for the greedy and uncouth.  We need to put professionalism and hospitality back in the equation.

Still more facts in this short article that I hope will continue to encourage more people to write in and assist in the compilation of the Guidelines to Stewardship by Q3 of 2023.  Thank you to all those who have already shown their support from as far as the UK, Switzerland and Germany (incidentally three of our key source markets).  If we persist in ignoring these facts then , as I have said, tourism here will be an activity that may just attract sordid and nasty characters instead of the visitor who wants to be here – let us keep persisting.

 

This year I will be completing the Guidelines for Stewardships with the help of a number of individuals and NGOs who have already approached me and I hope to present this to you, as the community, to our politicians and to our authorities.  We may, yet, be able to save these islands from total oblivion as a sustainable and quality tourist destination – that is my New Year’s resolution. Will YOU join me?

 

 

Dr Julian Zarb is a researcher, local tourism planning consultant and an Academic at the University of Malta. He has also been appointed as an Expert for the High Streets Task Force in the UK.  His main area of research is community-based tourism and local tourism planning using the integrated approach.

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