Tourism: back to square one

Who cares? So long as the shops, the bars and the restaurants are full, everybody is happy!

File photo
File photo

The COVID onslaught on the tourism industry is apparently over. In the last four months or so, our tourist numbers have made a notable comeback. The only exception to the ‘back to normal’ scene is that for the first time in the history of our tourism industry, Malta has had more tourists from Italy than from the UK.

I think this is a temporary blip caused by the problems associated with the pandemic and how each country tackled these problems differently and not in any uniform way.

Many in the tourist and catering industries are happy and have breathed a sigh of relief. The only problem they seem to have is a lack of workers. There is no one to replace those that had lost their job. In my opinion most of these were moonlighting and not regular employees.

On the other hand, I feel that Malta has lost a golden opportunity to shake up its tourism industry and decide on a new vision for this important sector in our economy.

Instead all the players bided their time, doing nothing while the tourism authorities managed to spend money that in no way led to more tourists coming to Malta. Now we are practically back to square one.

Over seven years ago – when no one had heard of COVID-19 – the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) spoke of the need for Malta to explore a new vision of our tourist industry that would take into account Malta’s maximum tourist carrying capacity. There was hardly a reaction from the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), who should have made the call in the first place.

Tourism planning is the prerogative of government, after due consultations with all stakeholders; for it is government that must somehow reconcile the country’s conflicting national physical, environmental and social limitations, not to mention the conflicting interests within the tourism industry itself.

Year over year, MTA’s budget has always been increasing and has more than doubled over the last ten years. The volume of tourism rose steadily until we had a record year in 2019, even though nobody knows how much of the number of visitors described as tourists were actually foreign residents who came to live in Malta. These are not tourists and they contribute more to the rental market sector rather than to the tourism industry.

A substantial amount of MTA’s budget is spent subsidising low-cost airlines, Air Malta and events with dubious benefits to the tourism industry.

MHRA’s call for a new vision for our tourism industry was never heeded. More recently, the hiatus with a lack of tourism activity during the Covid pandemic should have been used by Government to take a good look at the role that the tourism industry has to play in the future and to learn from past mistakes... and to propose a new way forward.

Instead the MTA continued doing nothing while frittering away money on sponsoring activities that did not affect our tourism numbers in any way.

Under the premiership of Robert Abela, we have had two inexperienced Ministers of Tourism, who had no new vision of Malta’s tourism industry. They just plodded on and on with silly interviews on the foreign media and hoped for the day the evil pandemic will disappear so that they could boast of the number of tourists who are visiting Malta.

Currently, the number of tourists is increasing at a fast rate and so we will soon be back to square one – same old tourism ways, same constant increase of the burden on our infrastructure, same middle-level spenders buying cheap souvenirs, and the same lager louts.

Tourists from cruise liners – that are listed separately – are also increasing with the same old queues of people visiting St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and cruise liners belching pollution in the Grand Harbour.

And government will soon be boasting again of the large number of tourists visiting Malta, ignoring the fact that most are actually being subsidised, in more ways than one, by the national coffers.

Who cares? So long as the shops, the bars and the restaurants are full, everybody is happy!

The age of protests

The Washington Post recently carried a report on a study that looked at demonstrations between 2006 and 2020. It found that the number of protest movements around the world had more than trebled in less than 15 years.

Every region saw an increase, the study found, with some of the largest protest movements ever recorded – including the farmers’ protests that began in 2020 in India, the 2019 protests against President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests since 2013.

The trends are clear. In 2006, just 73 protest movements were recorded by the study. In 2020, there were 251 – higher even then after the 2008 financial crisis or the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. Europe and Central Asia had seen the largest increase in the number of protest movements and there were more protests in high-income countries than in countries in other income brackets, but a rise in protests was found across all regions and income levels.

The study titled “World Protests: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century,” was made by a team of researchers from the German think tank, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, (FES) and the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, a non-profit organization based at Columbia University.

The authors highlight one particular problem: democratic failure – a majority of the protest events they recorded, 54% – resulted from a perceived failure of political systems or representation.

The study’s authors say policymakers do not respond adequately. As senior expert on global economic policy at the FES and an author on the study, Sara Burke explained: “People protest for good jobs, a clean planet for future generations, and a meaningful say in the decisions that affect their quality of life.”

Apart from issues with democracy and political representation, the report identifies rising inequality as another broad theme of protests around the world, contributing to nearly 53% of the protests studied.

Individual issues brought up by protesters included corruption, working conditions, and the reform of public services followed by ‘real democracy’ – whatever that means.