An opportunity to ‘reflect, redevelop and rethink’ | Julian Zarb

COVID-19 has had a catastrophic effect on Malta’s tourism sector: but for Dr JULIAN ZARB – industry consultant, and president of the Malta Tourism Society – it also represents a unique opportunity to transform the country’s tourism product

Dr Julian Zarb
Dr Julian Zarb

In a recent interview, you argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is “a great opportunity to talk about sustainability [in tourism], and get ready to start a new chapter and putting things right.” Can you expand on that? What sort of reforms should, in your opinion, the tourism sector be talking about right now?

First of all, I have to say that – after 40 years working in the industry, in both the private and the public sector – I am now entering the next phase of my career: which includes consultation, lecturing and research. One of my most interesting projects, which has yet to start, is as an expert and facilitator in the UK’s High Streets Task Force: where I am involved in the re-opening of the high streets after lockdown. 

Which ties in with your question, on why we need to reflect, redevelop and rethink our tourism strategy; and why it has to be begin from today.

Because now we have a glaring opportunity to achieve, in practice, what we have only ever spoken about before. In a sense, we’ve had plenty of other opportunities, in the past. But we always used the excuse that: ‘it’s too busy; we cannot change things during the peak period; now is not the time, etc.’ There were always a hundred and one reasons to postpone any change. 

Now, however, we don’t have any more excuses. The whole world has stopped. This isn’t just a ‘slow-down’; this is a ‘shut-down’; and has been for the last year. So we have this ideal opportunity to reflect, and ask ourselves: what have we done wrong in tourism? What can we do right?

For let’s face it: we did make mistakes, in the past. We had ‘over-tourism’, for instance. Not just here in Malta: there have recently been protests in Barcelona, in Venice; and in practically all places where tourism was impacting the social life of the locals. 

So the question becomes: do we want to go back to that? Do we want to make the same mistakes again… or do we want to start a new chapter?

How do you envisage this ‘new chapter’ to work in practice? What would you say most needs to change: whether because of COVID-19, or for any other reason?

With regard to the demands of the current pandemic: to operate a successful tourism destination, first and foremost we need security, safety and responsibility.  Right now, however, we seem to be focusing only on gearing up for summer 2021: taking our cue, it seems, from what countries like Cyprus, and other destinations, have done. But are we actually ready for that? Can we really claim, today, to be a ‘secure, safe and responsible’ destination?

If you look at how the pandemic has been managed over the past year: out of 500,000 people living here, only around a quarter has been vaccinated so far. How, then, can we advertise ourselves as a safe destination…?

Government’s answer would be to point out that – while it is true that we are far away from herd immunity – our figures still place Malta as among the fastest vaccination roll-outs in the EU…

Well… figures tend to be manipulated in different ways. In fact, we see this all the time: statistics are interpreted differently, by politicians, by business interests… by all sorts of people, really… depending on the result they want to get out of it. 

But if you look at the facts on the ground, a different picture emerges. For instance: the UK, since January, had had a vaccine roll-out reaching 20 million people. If we had the same roll-out speed, the entire population could have been vaccinated within one or two months.

These are the facts. So while we can always cheat ourselves into believing that ‘we’re the best country in the world’; or that ‘we’re getting there’… the reality is that: yes, we are ‘getting there’… but very, very slowly. 

In some respects, however, not much is changing at all. There has been no lull in the construction sector, for instance – I can attest to this myself, having works being done next door – and traffic remains just as bad as it ever was. Nobody seems to be taking any notice that there is, in fact, a pandemic going on; and that we need to keep distances, to be safe.

We have, in a word, tried to carry on as if it were ‘business as usual’. I would even insist on the fact that we didn’t even consider another lockdown: had we considered that option back in January – when there were already signs that things were going to get worse – we could by now already be starting to recover…

And yet, much of the resistance to a second lockdown came, in fact, from the tourism sector itself. Now, it is the same sector that is suffering the most due to the restrictions. Do you see this as ironic?

It is ironic, yes; because a lot of the people involved in the tourism industry seem to have this misguided view, that it is possible to simply re-open, and go right back to how we were in March 2020… or in any year before that. There’s this perception that, by re-opening for business as usual, we will all just waltz down the Yellow Brick Road: back to the ‘miracle’ of having 3, 4 million tourists a year.

But that’s not going to happen. Or at least, not straight away. It will take time…

You also seem to be arguing, however, that… maybe it shouldn’t happen. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at a return to ‘3, 4 million tourists a year’. Are you suggesting, then, that we should be changing our tourism model instead? And if so: how?

Obviously, this is something that would need to be implemented gradually. But what tourism needs to be doing – and I’m not just talking about Malta here; this is happening internationally, everywhere – is to get ready for the changes that are about to take place. Because tomorrow’s tourism is going to be very different from that of yesterday or today. Very slowly, it will develop from an international tourism based on simple growth, and short-term economic gain… to a more moderated growth model, which is more sustainable.

People are also going to be more aware when choosing their destination. They will prioritise other aspects: culture, history, a genuine experience of the local product. It is no longer a case of ‘price and availability’ being the foremost consideration.  

Yet that is what we have always relied on, in the past. I’ve had experiences of this myself, over my years of dealing with tourists in Malta. When you ask them, ‘why did you come here’… as a rule, they wouldn’t say ‘because of the culture, history or the interesting experience’. Most would simply say: ‘because the price was right, and there was availability’.

Is this the sort of tourism we really want to go back to? Is it just numbers? Personally, I think that we would need to move away from the purely ‘quantitative’ aspect…

But Malta’s tourism infrastructure – with its emphasis on large hotels, mass-excursions, highly- concentrated entertainment hotspots, etc. – is now geared up precisely for the ’miraculous’ figures you mentioned earlier. So wouldn’t a reform of that model also necessitate a radical restructuring of the industry itself?

Yes, it would. This is why it will have to be a slow process. And again, it’s not just Malta. If you look at Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Greece… a lot of their infrastructure is likewise geared up for the masses; for ‘quantity’ over ‘quality’. But this is also why I argue that we should take the pandemic itself as an opportunity to at least begin the process.

Everyone in the industry knows, ultimately, that these are changes that we were sooner or later going to have to make anyway. Yet, as I said before, we always found a hundred and one excuses to postpone the inevitable. And to be fair: it is also difficult to change things, at a time when businesses are doing well. 

Now, however, none of that applies. These are not ‘busy times’: now, all our hotels are empty.

And it gives me heart-burn to say that, by the way. I’ve worked in and around hotels, in Malta and the UK, for the past 40 years…. and when I walk into one (very cautiously) today, and see it empty – with, at most, a sole receptionist, looking bored out of his mind - it breaks my heart, to be honest. 

Hotels are all about welcoming people; about making people comfortable; about being busy around the needs of clients and guests. That is what the entire hospitality and service industry is ultimately based on. And it is precisely where we should be trying to get back to, right now.

This raises the rather inevitable question: how do we get back there, exactly? 

Today, we have the perfect opportunity to start seriously discussing answers. Yes, we might need to overhaul our infrastructure; and yes, we might even need to change some of our training needs. I’m convinced that, in a post-COVID world, tomorrow’s tourism is going to reconsider various aspects of skills, qualifications and jobs.  

This is also true of other industries beyond tourism. Right now, I’m reading Yuvel Harari’s book, ‘Homo Deus’; and while there are some objective points I might disagree with… the author convincingly predicts that, from 2030 to 2050, many industries are going to become fully automated: and hospitality is among them.

This is another reason we should be planning ahead. I myself wouldn’t like to see the tourism sector become completely automated – it is, at the end of the day, a ‘people-to-people’ industry.  So we need to invent new ways of ensuring that the ‘people-to-people’ approach continues working in future. 

Why should people book their hotel… check out of their hotel… and organize all aspects of their holiday, only by using their smart-phones? Where is the personal contact in any of that?

That, too, is part of the tourism experience.  It’s also about having a rapport with people in the host country. Automation cannot provide that; only people-to-people contact can. 

At the same time, however, the ‘people-to-people’ approach is also the one thing that has been completely wiped out by COVID-19. So isn’t it also a case of ‘force-majeur’? 

I wouldn’t say exactly ‘force-majeur’, myself; because the need for a change was felt even before March 2020. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the ‘Calvia project’: but there is a little town called Calvia in Majorca, which used to receive around 1.6 million tourists a year. In 1995, however, the local community, business sector and administration decided that they’d had enough.  They wanted something different; and they got together, and transformed their tourism product.  

Calvia, too, had its infrastructure geared towards mass-tourism, at the time; but it didn’t stop them from changing their model…

If I’m understanding correctly, the same consideration did, in fact, stop us from making similar changes here. And let’s face it: people have invested rather heavily in those mass-tourism projects; they are unlikely to support calls for a reform. Are there any discussions going on, within Malta’s tourism industry itself, about what you are proposing?

Well, the Malta Tourism Society, and various stakeholders and academics, are discussing this, yes; and have been for quite some time. I also know that, within the Malta Tourism Authority, there is a sudden rethink going on: they are now focusing more on sustainability and quality, rather than growth and numbers. 

But at the moment, it is still all just talk. And we’ve been talking about sustainability, in tourism, for more than 50 years. What has been achieved, in practice, in all this time? Very little, in terms of sustainability.

So sooner or later, we are going to have to start walking the talk, rather than just talking. And there is no better opportunity to start doing that, than right now.