Government committed to finding strategic partner for Air Malta – Edward Zammit Lewis

Tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis says the government remains committed to finding a strategic commercial partner for Air Malta • Strict regulations for tour and concession operators in Comino in the pipeline

Air Malta is in talks with Alitalia for a 49% shareholding takeover
Air Malta is in talks with Alitalia for a 49% shareholding takeover

The government will pursue its efforts to secure a strategic commercial partner for Air Malta, although it would not rule out local investment or the possibility of issuing an IPO in the future, according to tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis.

The minister, who was speaking in parliament – as the house discussed the 2017 budget estimates for tourism – said that the government was totally committed to finding the best solution to the national airline’s dire financial status and that Air Malta’s long-term viability was of top priority to the government.

Zammit Lewis said the government planned to meet the record two-million mark in tourist arrivals in 2017 and to continue strengthening Malta’s non-seasonal attractiveness.

He said airline carrying capacity to and from Malta will be increased by 20% in the coming winter months, as part of the government’s commitment to strengthen the country’s multi-seasonal attractiveness.

Tourist arrivals had already risen by by 35% between 2012 and 2016, while bed nights rose by 25% and income generated by tourism, he said.

The industry grew by 6% between 2014 and 2015 alone, more than the average growth registered in other southern European countries.

Zammit Lewis said that new stricter regulations for tour and concession operators in Comino will be introduced following the conclusion of an ad-hoc study being carried out by the Malta Tourism Authority.

He said that MTA and other operators were promoting Comino perfectly, but tourists visiting the island found a totally different – and unacceptable – reality upon arriving there.

The aim of the study was to provide guidelines and regulations to ensure that tourists visiting Comino would no longer be subject to the bedlam that currently characterised visits to the island.

Tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis
Tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis

As to the opposition leader Simon Busuttil’s assertion that the government had no plans or projects for the tourism industry, he said that the government had countless projects planned to boost the industry.

These included a new €60 million building for the Institute for Tourism Studies, increasing demand from the film industry, an initial €15 million investment at the Rinella film studios and the new master plan for Paceville.

Zammit Lewis said the government had set up an insolvency fund to assist any people who may stand to lose money in the case of tour companies going bankrupt, as had happened in the case of Fantasy Tours.

“Instead of spouting nonsense in parliament, the leader of the opposition should explain why his party – in all the years it spent in government – never sought to assist such people,” he said.

He noted that the government had been criticised for ignoring the sports tourism industry, when in reality – in 2016 alone – 16 football teams had visited Malta during the summer, utilising 9,000 bed nights.

The great strides in the cruise liner industry were also proof of the government’s success in the industry, with a second cruise ship having chosen Malta as its homeport from 2017.


Opposition’s reaction to tourism budget estimates

Opposition spokesman Robert Arrigo said that he had hardly seen any improvement in the tourist product in the past few years, including the state of roads, street furniture and traffic.

Relying solely on the North African and Middle East markets remaining inaccessible would not be wise as this would not guarantee that the income generated by tourism would be maintained without any serious effort by the government.

The memorandum of understanding with China was welcome, but we could not depend on the 10,000 Chinese visitors forecast until 2018.

“More multi-lingual staff are needed at hotels and restaurants to be able to assist tourists,” he said. “But staff also needs to be trained so as to be able to answer any questions on Malta’s history, culture and geography.”

PN MP Antoine Borg said that the failure to discuss the future of Air Malta in last week’s budget was a huge shortcoming, particularly due to its importance to the country’s tourism industry.

Government to introduce stricter regulations for tour and concession operators on Comino
Government to introduce stricter regulations for tour and concession operators on Comino

111 words alone in a two-and-a-half hour budget speech were dedicated to the national airline and the current negotiations with Alitalia, without any consideration of the airline’s and workers’ futures, he said.

Borg said he hoped contingency plans were being drawn up to make up for any possible shortfall in tourism from the UK once the country leaves the EU, following the Brexit vote.

Kristy Debono too said that an action plan for a post-Brexit strategy was of the utmost importance in view of the share and impact of UK tourism on the local tourism.

She called on the tourism minister to list any planned projects funded by the income collected from the accommodation tax tourists are charged each night they stay in Malta.

Such projects should be planned after consultation with all interested parties, she insisted.

On the proposed master plan for Paceville, Debono said the concerns of many businesses and residents needed to be addressed swiftly, since many were worried they might have their homes or business taken away to make way for the new development.

Claudio Grech said that a concerted effort by all interested parties was needed in a bid to raise the average spend per tourist that visits Malta, and to ensure that the country offered a product that attracted tourists of higher value.

Malta’s tourism industry could not become solely reliant on low-cost airlines, he said.

“Government should show it is open and willing to find an alternative solution to Air Malta’s financial woes, instead of persisting in giving up company shareholding to Alitalia,” he said.

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