Realism, together with the hard evidence of declining tourism statistics, indicate that as our normal markets battle recession and therefore have less spending power, Malta can expect a worsening impact on our tourism income. Readers who travel frequently know that Malta is relatively expensive and tends to give lower value for money than many of the top grade tourism destinations. The problems of higher energy costs and the need Government has of scraping cash from any source – taxation, licences, fines and anything else our elected representatives can dream up – do not help in improving our price competitiveness. The problems being faced by mass tourism markets such as Spain will make these countries even more fiercely competitive and our prospects are not good.
Unfortunately, we tend to be reactive and thus end up taking corrective action too late in the day thus throwing away months or years of opportunity and millions of euro in the process. Time and time again we have told ourselves we need to be proactive and try to forestall problems and not wait until they hit us. The low cost airline saga was a case in point and had we accepted that we had to change with market demands earlier, today our tourism industry would have been stronger and more able to face the rough seas ahead.
We need to accept that the immediate tourism future is not going to be business as usual and those in the trade need to modify their business model accordingly. Moreover the entire country, and therefore our elected representatives, need to rise up to the problem. In fairness, Tourism Parliamentary Secretary De Marco is taking some important steps such as the recently announced agreement with the banks to allow a one year loan moratorium to “deserving” tourism industry customers. But tourism is nationally so important that everybody else, and not merely Dr De Marco, needs to consider how to improve our product.
It is easy to make a whole gripe list starting from the state of our roads to the civility of public transport operators to the quality of service available from many of our establishments. It is good to recognise our defects and most of us enjoy a good moan.
But let us be positive. It is also true that Malta attracts appreciable repeat business and this country, despite its defects, manages to charm many of our visitors. The sun and sea play a part but this is in common with the entire Mediterranean and more exotic areas such as the Caribbean and South East Asia. In fact our beaches do not even start to compete with what many others have to offer. Our 7,000 year history is unique in being so extremely concentrated but it lacks the publicity and aura of what Rome, Greece and Egypt have to offer.
After years of reflection and discussing the subject with foreign friends, it appears that what attracts many people is the Maltese character. We are an intense people that give high importance to matters other consider trivial and happily ignore global problems. We are curious but helpful and cheerfully assume that everybody else feels the same way. Despite over a century and a half of being associated with the British, we have not begun to learn the art of understatement, the aplomb of being reserved and the virtues, however cowardly, of personal introversion. Yet, unlike the Americans, we have not made a virtue of vulgarity, unlike the Italians we are not unduly brash, nor do we idolise our own values - like the French. For all our intensity and emotive nature, we are quite tolerant. Perhaps, having been a port state for millennia, we have learnt that others have made their own choice of values and if it works for them, it is fine by us.
In other words, we are refreshingly different. In many respects Malta, and to a greater extent Gozo, represent an anachronism. We evoke nostalgia of the times when life was simpler and common sense tended to prevail before political correctness and a misguided sense of liberalism made such a hash of things – and not only of the economy. After all, people do not go on holiday to experience exactly what they have at home. Some visitors do not like Malta. The holes in the roads, the expensive taxis, the brusque waiters and our myriad other failings make us intolerable to many. Realistically, we cannot change this aspect in time to counter the impending market gloom. But despite our negative points, we need to look at and ensure we preserve our positive points, those points that hundreds of thousands – and this is no exaggeration – find irresistible. We need to ensure we capture more Malta aficionados and to get them and their friends back in future.
Unlike Spain, Italy or France, we do not need or want millions of tourists – we do not have the space to host them. There are enough people who like or will like what Malta is to counter any economic downturn. However bad the economy, many millions of people have been bitten by the travel bug and while many may not be able to go on holiday as frequently, many will still somehow manage to get away. If we play our cards right, we will not only survive the recession but come out stronger when times improve.
This is where our legislators and regulators come in. Keep Malta different. This obsession to make Malta more European than Europe is detrimental in the extreme. All over Europe, people complain about the nanny state impositions – impositions that curtail the freedom of action of normal, law abiding citizens but do nothing to quell criminality and the loss of values of all types. In Malta we are increasingly moving in that direction. Do-gooders impose draconian rules on us for the sake of our health, safety and what have you. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and to hell is where we are being taken. Let us have the courage to change where change is required but to resist change where this has negative connotations. Removal of the freedom of the right of choice is a negative. We have made many mistakes in copying the foreigners only to realise, as the foreigners also did, that this was a mistake.
Ultimately dumping the nanny state mentality is not good only for our tourism. It will also improve our own quality of life and help make Malta a better place to live in. Let us review all the restrictive practices we have imposed and dump as much of them as possible.