A future in the world of tourism | Tony Coleiro

Tourism in Malta is a lifeline for many a company, whether directly or indirectly. The blows delivered recently to the industry have left many wondering how to make ends meet.

Working from his offices in Birkirkara, Tony Coleiro gets straight to the point. 

“I don’t agree with a lot of what is going on in the industry in Malta. The industry has faced a critical year in 2009 and we are only just getting back on our feet again. To be delivered such blows at this crucial time is not conducive to the recovery of the tourism industry on which we all depend so much.”

Coleiro has been part of the tourism industry for some 27 years. He recently set up a business consultancy firm specialising in the tourism industry. He is also on the board of the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA).

Talking about the flights reduced by Air Malta in the coming summer, Coleiro is concerned.

“I understand that the situation at Air Malta is not a good one, but why should the entire industry pay for actions taken by the airline? Reducing capacity from the UK, which is one of our key year round markets, can only hurt the industry.”

Coleiro claims that the 2% VAT increase on accommodation is untimely, as business is already pre-contracted. In the longer term the increases just make the package less and less competitive.

“Even though VAT on accommodation is of the lowest in Europe, we simply can’t afford to be less competitive and lose tourists to cheaper destinations.”

He is sceptical as to whether the money generated will be used for route development.

Utility bills are another issue that is hurting the industry. With bills in the thousands it is difficult to make ends meet, let alone operate at a profit.

“The issue of increasing costs in the tourism industry is a hot potato that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Change is inevitable.”

Coleiro is investing all his experience in the industry into a consultancy company to help both local firms in the tourism market that are experiencing difficulties and international clients who wish to begin operations in Malta. His clients range from hoteliers to bus co-ops that he will help fill gaps in the market as well as helping companies to operate in an already saturated market.

Untapped markets

Malta is often sold on the sun and the sea, but Coleiro says there are many other markets we can tap into giving Malta a more diverse basket of tourists.

Social tourism is one of the markets Coleiro is working on at the moment. The concept behind social tourism in the past was that trade unions subsidised holidays to members that could not afford to travel, a concept that all but died out.

Coleiro joined Antours Ltd three years ago, which is an outbound travel agency owned by the General Workers Union (GWU). During this time he tried to establish contact with international links of the GWU to arrange exchange of tourists between Malta and the UK at a reduced rate.

“Eventually I started to make contact with other international trade unions and began to see the potential for a whole new market. We formed a focus group with the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), Air Malta, GWU, Avis and the Corinthia Group and started to invite delegations from the unions over to Malta.

“We have worked with unions from Italy, Germany, Cyprus, Tunis, Egypt the UK and Norway to develop package holidays for members from the four pillars for social tourism – families, youths, the disabled and pensioners.

“We hand out passwords to the unions we become involved with and these are in turn handed out to members. These can then be used to access members only areas of our portal where holidays can be booked at 15% less than the published prices.

“We currently have a network of 110 million people and we haven’t even tapped into 25% of the market yet.”

The idea of social tourism is expanding to more than simply union members, and are beginning to include political parties, the co-op, the Knights of St John and the Gozo Business Chamber. International contacts of all of these groups are only serving to expand the network further.

Though the project is still far from complete the model has been so successful that it is being used by Rambol University, which is conducting research into social tourism.

When the portal was set up, both Mario de Marco and Mary Louise Coleiro attended the opening ceremony.

“Never before have both sides worked together on one project like this. It is greatly satisfying and encouraging to see government officials pulling together on one project.”

Aside from the individual market that social tourism has to offer, conferences are also being attracted by this new market.

“This year we attracted three new conferences which are usually held in Brussels. The European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) – of which Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) forms part – held their annual conference here along with some others.”

Another market that shows potential is sport tourism. One of Coleiro’s partner companies is Tracking International, a sports company which specialises in biomechanical software.

“In northern parts of Europe it is cold to train outdoors so football teams and other sporting teams go away for training camps. At the moment a Norwegian team is training in Turkey but we are working to bring them over to Malta.”

Although this team will be coming to Malta at a later date, Coleiro sees the need to improve facilities to encourage more people to come over the Malta for sporting purposes. He thinks the proposed facilities in Marsa will help the cause tremendously, however he is sceptical of when this project will be completed enough to be operational.

Another gap in the market is in medical tourism. Although St James hospital and the Fortina Spa Resort are taking advantage of this field and advertising their services abroad, there is much more potential.

“Our prices for surgical interventions are very competitive compared to the rest of Europe. A simple hip replacement in Malta is up to €1,000 cheaper in Malta than it may be abroad.

“Once a person comes over for a medical procedure family usually accompanies them and these make use of a variety of services from restaurants to cultural tours.

“Mater Dei Hospital is fully equipped to handle this market in so far as medical equipment and trained specialists go. However there are already problems with locals having to wait long periods of time for certain procedures, so these issues need to be ironed out.”

The future of tourism

As for the future of tourism in Malta, Coleiro’s reactions are mixed. On the one hand, the industry is facing new challenges in the form of reduced capacity, increasing VAT on accommodation and ever-increasing utility bills. On the other hand however he is confident that the MTA are working well as a team, together with parliamentary secretary Mario de Marco, doing whatever is necessary to promote the industry in Malta and to make the most of untapped markets. What is required is more government support.

Coleiro insists that it is important to pay more attention to the services provided in hotels.

“Categorising hotels according to the facilities they have is not enough. Though most of the five star hotels in Malta offer a good service I am still not completely satisfied. As far as three and four star hotels go a lot more emphasis needs to be put on quality of service provided.

“There are European funds available to for investment in training. We just need to make use of them. Everything is possible with the right funding and the right people.