You can’t fool around with science | Philip Fenech

Malta’s tourism sector has just been dealt a critical blow by the Omicron variant. But PHILIP FENECH, deputy president of the Chamber of SMES, remains confident that the industry can not only survive the latest crisis… but even ‘bounce back’ in the New Year

Philip Fenech
Philip Fenech

2021 seems to have ended on a particularly ominous note: for the economy in general, but for tourism in particular. Yet your own recent statements on the subject have sounded surprisingly optimistic. Why are you so hopeful about the future?

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the year that has just ended. For the first six months of 2021, the entire industry was essentially closed. Actually, it had been at a standstill for a lot longer than that; I remember addressing a press conference in Paceville in March 2020, on the day our industry was shut down.

Now: when I say ‘closed’, I’m talking about how the vast majority of businesses were affected. Truth be told, there were some which carried on ticking over throughout the crisis; and some which even made a profit. No doubt about it.

But for the vast majority, it was a different story. Hotels and restaurants in tourist areas, or which cater almost exclusively for tourists… and even shops; because when we, as Chamber of SMES, look at tourism, we don’t only look at hotels, restaurants, bars and the hospitality/entertainment side of things. It is also a fact that 70% of all retail also depends, either directly or indirectly, on tourism.

In any case: all of those sectors suddenly saw their revenue drop right down to zero, from literally one day to the next.

Bear in mind that this pandemic also broke out right after the industry’s most successful few years ever: 2017, 2018, and especially 2019 – which, with its 2.7 million arrivals, had broken all previous records. So many operators had invested heavily in new tourism projects, for what they (understandably) thought was going to be a continuation of the same successful streak…

That, in a nutshell, was the situation when the pandemic first broke out.  So when we reopened last June, there was high expectation among operators… and sure enough, tourists started coming.

Things were admittedly disrupted in July, when there was a spike in new infections: coming mainly from language students.  But even then: we managed to contain that spike, by introducing tighter regulations. After that, the numbers started falling again almost immediately; and carried on stabilising until November.

But the bottom line is that – notwithstanding the pandemic, and the fact that we were closed for six months – looking back, 2021 wasn’t really a bad year for Maltese tourism at all.

As things stand, we are going to close with a total of 920,000 tourists; and when you consider that we only worked from June onwards… and that the effects of COVID were at their very worst, at that point, in most other European countries… that is actually quite good, by any standard.

Even at the height of the crisis, then, we still managed to attract one-third of the figures for 2019: when tourism was at its most optimal levels ever. And not only were the figures themselves positive, in terms of volume… but we also attracted a better ‘spend’ of tourist, too. In fact, from August to October, we saw that tourists were spending even more than in 2019...

I find all that very encouraging, myself: because it means that – as long as we all do our bit, and respect the regulations – we can manage to keep the industry ticking over; until hopefully we return to the overall sustainable levels, where we left off in 2019…

But can you really compare today’s crisis, with that of last year? For instance: the CDC has just put Malta at ‘Red List Level 4’; and the US State Department has just issued a warning against travelling to Malta.  Doesn’t that threaten the very lifeblood of the tourism industry: i.e., the ability for tourists to actually come here at all?

Actually, that’s only one of the ways Omicron has messed things up for us. Once again, the numbers are shooting up at a time when we were only just beginning to see some kind of ‘positive future’, growing out of all this; and once again, the virus itself first hit the EU – especially the countries that we rely on the most: the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Spain… before hitting us.

So it was a double-whammy, in a sense. First, there was an abrupt drop in tourism arrivals, with bookings dropping straight away as Omicron hit Europe. Then, all of a sudden, the same thing happened here: with the difference that this time round, it also affected the domestic market.

The figures for Christmas Eve show this quite clearly. Even though there were no new regulations in place, until just last week… people started cancelling their bookings, and withdrawing from consumption, of their own accord. Either because they were themselves infected; or because they were in quarantine; or because they were scared… but whatever the case, it wasn’t because of any new regulations, imposed by government, to shut down the industry on Christmas Eve.

And of course, this is all happening at the most critical time of the year for the hospitality industry: the Festive Season...

Yet just a few moments ago you seemed optimistic (and still do) that we can pull through this latest crisis, like we did last year.  What makes you so confident?

I wouldn’t call it ‘optimism’, myself. It’s more a forecast based on… well, let’s just say that I do a lot of research; I speak to people; and I am in contact, at all times, with every aspect of the entire supply-chain. And the message I am getting, from various quarters, is that: yes, we are going to face another large spike, like the one we are experiencing now… but also, that the Omicron variant itself is getting ‘weaker’, so to speak. It is more contagious; but its effects are less severe.

From this perspective, the important indices now are hospitalisations, much more than the rate of transmission. And statistics indicate that the percentage of cases needing emergency treatment is far lower today, than it was last year.

Even so, however: we still have to remain cautious…. because even a small percentage of a very large number, can still be enough to overwhelm our health services. But that’s precisely the point I was making before: our recent experience shows us that we CAN successfully keep the economy going, whilst also containing – or at least, managing – the epidemic.

Admittedly, things are looking very tight, now. The next few weeks are going to be critical. But if we succeed in riding the crisis through, for the next couple of months… then yes, we could be looking at a bounce-back, some time around March. It will be difficult; because January, February and March are generally the slowest period, even at the best of times…   

But once the present spike subsides, and numbers start stabilising again… we will no doubt be looking at a sudden explosion in global demand for travel again. For let’s face it: the reality is that there will always be a demand for travel, no matter what. Our own experience proves this: tourists kept coming to Malta, in their usual numbers, throughout last summer… even at the height of the global Covid pandemic.

There is no reason to suppose that they won’t do that again, the moment travel restrictions are lifted. If anything, it is only natural to expect that the demand will be even higher, after so many months of isolation and anxiety…

But that assumes that the present spike will indeed subside sooner, rather than later. What would happen, however, if the numbers keep rising, and government is forced to introduce more draconian measures (of the kind that many people, rightly or wrongly, are currently demanding)?

I certainly do not think we should go for more draconian measures, at this stage. And people who are calling for a ‘lockdown’, should really pause and look at what’s happening in the rest of Europe. In the UK, for instance, the statistics for December indicate a sharp increase in new cases in England – where the restrictions are stricter – but a decline in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland… all of which have the same sort of regulations that we do; but no lockdowns.

All the same, however, I don’t think we should be too liberal about it, either. After all, we have lived through scaremongering, blind optimism and times of carefree attitudes, too. But we only got it right by having appropriate restrictions in place - resulting in four very good months for tourism, from a standing start in July; and ending with a full recovery in clear sight… until Omicron disrupted the road ahead.

So I think we should stick with the same, very cautious approach we are taking right now.

As for when, or whether, the spike will subside… I can’t, of course, speak from any medical expertise: but we are still learning about this latest mutation; and from what I understand, indications are that although the figures will be alarming, severe illness and casualties won’t be in proportion to previous Covid variants; and we will see some respite after it peaks.

Another point to bear in mind is that, after almost two years of living through the pandemic, day by day…  people are now much more aware of how to deal with Covid. That includes people in the hospitality/leisure sector.  So when we talk about the possibility of a bounce-back for the leisure industry… it will not be a simple return to how things were before.

The entire sector has, in fact, already been forced to adapt to a whole new dynamic; and again, it wasn’t easy… because the hospitality industry thrives on all the things that Omicron ‘likes’ the most. Let’s face it: until recently, the measure of a ‘good party’ was whether people ended up dancing together, getting intimate together; holding each other; hugging each other, etc.

All that has already gone: we have moved from ‘crowd events’ and ‘mass-parties’, to smaller, more restricted seating arrangements: which create a different sense of intimacy – more of a ‘lounge’ setting, where people can have a conversation without contact… and we have even managed to stage successful live musical events, with limited seating and spacing restrictions.

This is another reason why I am hopeful that we will see a bigger comeback for tourism in 2022. A lot of the investment has already been done: not just to adapt to the new circumstances, but also to introduce new, safer forms of entertainment. Many of the new investments and refurbishments will be completed during 2022; and some of the biggest are coming in 2023.

So Malta is already geared up for the challenge. The industry is keeping faith, in itself and in the country…

Nonetheless, there have been mixed messages from the tourism sector. At the beginning of the crisis, the pandemic itself was dubbed ‘Project Fear’: and earlier this year, you yourself argued against the ‘vaccinated-only’ approach now being taken by government. What made you change your mind since then?

That was something I lobbied against, at the time. My argument was that, if we were going to accept only fully-vaccinated people… as a tourist destination, we would end up becoming an ‘old people’s home’. Because at that stage, the situation in all our target European countries, was that that only the 65+ age-bracket was fully vaccinated. In our mainstream market, however, the tourists we usually attract are aged around 30- 50.   

So I insisted with the authorities, to allow people to come with only a PCR test certificate. For common sense would tell you – or so I thought, anyway – that if you had passed a PCR test, the chances that you’d be carrying COVID would be very low.

But it turns out that I was totally wrong. And the doctors were right. Because what happened was that a lot of those people who came here with PCR certificates, actually were contaminated… with the symptoms coming out later. We have, in fact, learnt that you cannot fool around with science. Science always wins, in the end.

But what science is telling us now is that: it can be done, at the end of the day. It is possible to find a way to live quite comfortably - and keep the economy ticking over - if we all simply stick to the basics: by which I mean that everyone gets their booster jab; that we continue practising social distancing; wearing masks, and so on.

And it can be done without the need for any lockdowns, or other more draconian measures…