Keeping fingers crossed | Joseph Formosa Gauci

Unlike many other government officials who can only speak about better times ahead, MTA Chief executive Josef Formosa Gauci can already speak about success in the present. Keeping his fingers crossed that no new volcano eruption or terrorist attack brings airports to a halt, tourist statistics suggest that, in this sector at least, Malta has already beaten the recession.

All this despite the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud in Spring which might have cost Malta 14,000 tourists, Malta has scored well in all tourism benchmarks.

Compared to 2009 – which was a disastrous year due to the recession – arrivals are up by 12%, bed nights are up by 11% and tourism expenditure is up by 20.5% – which means ˆ 132 million more circulating in the economy. 

Malta is back to the level of arrivals enjoyed in 2008 – the best year ever. And expenditure has been 27 million higher than in 2008.

He acknowledges that bed nights remain just marginally lower than 2008 levels (-1.2%) but this could also be the result of the increase in independenttourists   who take a short break in Malta .

The recovery did not come by accident and apart from “fine-tuning our marketing”, greater accessibility brought about by the opening of new routes toMalta was the major factor.

Along with Air Malta , that still carries some 60% of all tourists to Malta , low cost airlines – which started operating to Malta in 2006 – played a significant part.

“55% of tourism in Europe goes by land. We are left with the 45% who travel by air. Today 40% of those who fly travel on low cost airlines. The reality is that if we didn’t have low cost airlines we would have been cut off from another big chunk of the market.”

One major factor   contributing to making 2010 a successful year was the opening of new routes to Malta from countries like Spain , the UK , Scandinavia ,Italy , Syria and Israel , amongst others.

“Lets not forget that June, July, August and September have been all time record months. This did not happen by chance… if we did not have these extra routes we would have had an increase, but not the level of increase we are seeing.”

Legacy carriers, predominantly Air Malta , can still boast of bringing the majority of  tourists over to Malta .

He recognises that the beleaguered national airline “has a very important role” but he makes it clear that the   structural changes required at Air Malta are not exclusively due to Low Cost Carriers.

“Lets not kid ourselves. People in Germany do not sit at home and say ‘I want to go to Malta and if there are no low cost airlines I would come over, irrespective of the cost’. They sit at home and say ‘I want to go on holiday’ and look at the prices of five or six other destinations. If Malta is way over-priced, we are out….”

But he does see a risk in Malta becoming dependent on low cost airlines like Ryan Air, which brings 20% of our tourists.  

“There are risks in all decisions of a commercial nature. This too is a risk which we have to manage.”

The arrival of low cost airlines in 2006 coincided with the weakening of tour operators at the international level.  Without low cost carriers Malta would have still lost an important component of its market without attracting the independent traveller.

Tour operators still account for a significant 45% of the market but this previously accounted for around 75%, up until a few years ago. 

The shift towards independent travellers is also resulting in higher expenditure by tourists as well as an increase in tourists who take their second “city break” holiday in Malta in the shoulder months.

With the advent of the independent traveller, the profile of the tourist visiting Malta is also changing.

The British used to account for 70% of all tourists visiting the Maltese islands. Today they account for around 30%. 

On the other hand, the Italian market has increased by 29%, while the number of   Spanish visitors has increased from 12,000 in 2006 to 50,000+ in the first eight months of this year.   The increase in Spanish visitors is directly related to the opening of new routes from Spain .

By becoming less dependent on the British market, Malta was spared the ravages of the recession. While Malta has seen its arrivals increase by 12%, British-dependent Cyprus has seen an increase of just 0.7%, while the equally British-dependent Balearic islands have seen an increase of just 0.5% over 2009 figures from January – August 2010.

NSO figures also show that the largest percentage increase of tourists is taking place among the under 24-year-olds. This increase cannot solely be attributed to students,

whose numbers have remained stable.

One factor leading to this change is marketing aimed at changing the perception among young people that “ Malta is the place where grandparents go on holiday.” “Something like the organisation of the Isle of MTV concert in Malta made people abroad stop and say: ‘hold on, if MTV have decided to have their main summer event in Malta that can’t be just grandparents going there’…”

But does it make sense to try to attract young people while expecting every place to close down at 4pm and even earlier, in case of open air activities?

But according to Formosa Gauci , Malta is different from many of its competitors who can afford all-night parties since we are a nation state and not a destination with specific tourist resort areas having a negligible resident population.

Apart from the nuisance caused to local residents one also has to keep in mind that even tourists in hotels need a good night’s sleep.

“It is the major five star hotels who complain about noise in Paceville .”

Only last week I was attending an outdoors concert by Maltese band Brikkuni at Mtarfa , which was stopped at midnight by the police.  

Formosa Gauci explains that the law states that if after 11pm somebody rings up the police to complain about noise disturbance, the latter have to act without even asking the person making the complaint for evidence.

The unruly behaviour of some language students during summer has prompted some people to doubt whether Malta is getting a good deal from this sector.

“One may well say that one can easily replace 70,000 students by finding two new routes to displace them. But this ignores the fact that these students spend money to book their language schools and generate income in a different niche.”  

One of the problems affecting popular perception is that these students go around in large groups in areas like Sliema and St Julian’s. This might give the impression that Malta is flooded by students, when this is not the case.   

But he acknowledges that some students tend to behave badly.

“We need to be more rigorous in enforcing laws but we should not become a police state.”

Is Malta ’s reputation tainted by the easy availability of alcohol for young people, who in other countries would not be able drink before turning 18?

“One gets cases of people who buy cheap alcohol to drink it in the streets or on the beach. This is where we have to be stricter by clamping down on those who sell alcohol to minors. We cannot allow these cases to affect our image abroad.”

Over the past few years, Malta has also witnessed a proliferation of gentlemen’s clubs which, apart from catering for locals, also attract males visiting Maltaalone on business or conference-related holidays.

But giving the impression that our entertainment is all about gentlemen’s clubs could have a negative impact on the image of Malta MTA wants to convey. 

“We have to be careful. Lets not surround the four and five star hotels with these clubs, giving the impression that this all you can get.”  

One thing which jars is the large number   of adverts for gentlemen’s clubs on various local, tourist-oriented publications. 

“One does not get that impression when one picks, for example, the Lufthansa in-flight magazine, notwithstanding the fact that there are a lot more such establishments in other countries. But when you open the pages of the locally-produced magazines, you get quite the opposite impression.”

MTA ’s strategy for attracting tourists seems to be that of putting many eggs in different baskets, a clear departure from the catch-all ‘sun and sea’ image of the past.

“Lets be realistic: if you want just a pure sun and sea holiday with miles of sandy beaches, we are not the place. Malta ’s strong point is that of having a good climate, some beaches and a lot of history and culture.

“And over and above that, we have it all within a short distance.  If you go to Egypt and you are staying at Sharm El Sheik, to go to the historical sites it takes you four or five hours each way. Here you can wake up go to Valletta, Birgu or   Hagar Qim in the morning, go to the beach in the afternoon and in the evening enjoy either the cosmopolitan nightlife or attend traditional events in the various towns and villages.”

But all this depends on the quality of public transport and taxis. Formosa Gauci   considers the reform of public transport fundamental in view in the shift towards independent tourists.

In the past, this did not matter so much as tourists on a package holiday were bussed around the island by the tour operator but this is not the case with the independent traveller.

  “Up until a short while ago, the last bus to Mellieha left at a ridiculous hour, especially considering the fact that you have 14 hotels in the Mellieha area. How can you have 14 hotels cut off from the rest of the island at such an early hour?”

One important issue is the quality of the service tourists receive. Is there a risk that due to the prevailing economic climate and higher bills, there is a race to the bottom, with restaurants and hotels resorting to cheaper sources of labour like young people or people who do not have a clue about Maltese culture?

While recognising restaurants all over the world tend to resort to younger people available for summer jobs, Formosa Gauci warns that operators should be wary of becoming completely reliant on this sort of labour.

“Even in hotel receptions, if a tourist asks where Valletta is and what places to visit there, the tourist expects an answer. One can’t have people providing this sort of service who do not have a clue about the destination.”

One way of encouraging good quality service is to give recognition to individuals through the annual Star Awards.

“Last year, one such award was given to the car park attendant of Golden Bay … at the end of the day, the tourist does not just meet the staff in the hotel, the tourist meets beach managers, car park attendants, staff in museums… the Star Award pushes this recognition across the board.”

The MTA has also focused on the improvement of beach facilities, achieving Blue Flag status for St George’s Bay and the perched beach at Bugibba, as well as Beach of Quality status for Ghadira, Ramla l- Hamra and Golden Bay . Lifeguards  are now present in seven beaches, including rocky beaches like Fond Ghadir and Ta’ Fra Ben point in Qawra.

Is it right to conduct infrastructural works in tourist localities like M’Xlokk in the middle of the summer season?

“Timing is always an issue. But when you issue tenders, in virtually every one you always have an appeal and this creates delays… it would have been better if the work was conducted in winter, but at least the work has been done properly…”

The appointment of Mario de Marco as parliamentary secretary for both tourism and environment seems to have officiated the marriage between tourism and the environment.

“The industry has realised that if we destroy the environment, we destroy the industry itself. This is evident in the fact that we are, as far as possible, not building more hotels on virgin land but, rather, promoting the refurbishment or rebuilding of existing hotels or parts thereof, as well as, for example, the transformation of existing properties into guesthouses and/or boutique hotels…”

The MTA used to object to locating wind farms on onshore or near shore localities. prompting the government to delay these developments by looking for alternatives in deep waters.   Now the government has opted for a large near shore wind farm in Mellieha and two smaller land based wind farms.

“Our position is that we have to go for renewable energy and that such development should be properly assessed by environmental studies, as is happening for the proposed wind farm in Mellieha .”

He also cites examples abroad where wind farms become a tourist attraction in their own right.

“In Madiera , a section of the island has been dedicated to a wind farm which is in itself become a tourist attraction. I am not advocating this. But one thing does not exclude the other.”

One of the challenges in the future due to global warming will be that Malta ’s source markets in northern Europe will have a warmer climate in a way that they would not have to come to Malta for its sun and sea.

“But our advantage is that we have sun, sea and culture, all within very easily reachable distances. We have moved in a direction which enables us to still attract tourists even if the weather improves in source countries.”

One particular niche were environment and tourism mix so well is diving. Malta was recently voted by Dive Magazine as one of the leading international diving magazines as having the best dive sites in the Mediterranean and one of the top three sites in the world.

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I don't think enough is being done for the North American market.