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Bleak prospects - more of the same is not enough

In the last sitting before Parliament rose for its summer recess, Government was given the opportunity to turn over a new leaf in tourism and accept the helping hand offered by the Labour Opposition to lead a national effort with a new sense of urgency and draw up an emergency plan for the short term to revive tourism.

Government has done nothing to consider ser-iously the Labour Party's motion in Parliament on the state of tourism in our islands. The motion was a wake-up call to Government to acknowledge the difficult times our industry is facing and mobilise the necessary, whole-hearted commitment from the whole country to give tourism a new beginning. Government's reaction was that there is no need for any emergency plan as we are not in a crisis situation.

Just after the debate in Parliament on tourism, new official statistics were published showing that in the first half of this year 12,000 fewer tourists visited our islands and spent Lm2 million less than last year. Government's target to attract 70,000 more tourists than last year is going to be missed. Other countries, like Spain, Italy and Greece, are enjoying growth of over six per cent for this year after overcoming the stage of stagnation and decline as tourist's destination through a lot of hard work to rejuvenate themselves and offer products and services desired by today's travellers.

In Malta, Government seems set to continue in its complacent attitude that basically it is doing everything right and if there is anything going wrong in our tourism it has nothing to do with government policies and leadership.

During the parliamentary debate Government gave no new hope to the industry that it was going to draw up an action plan to revive tourism in Malta and Gozo. Instead Government seems satisfied that finally the strategic plans for the Malta Tourism Authority and the government tourism policy for the years 2006-2009 have been published and they will now be discussed in the coming months.

These strategic plans should have been published in November 2005 according to the implementation plan of the Malta Tourism Authority's restructuring. Government has fallen behind by at least a year, as much more work needs to be done to improve these strategic plans to have a strong, co-ordinated plan of action, with the necessary vision, resources and support to revive our tourism. We do need these mid- and long-term strategic plans but we also need an immediate, short-term emergency action plan to face the crisis we have in tourism.

Government does not want to draw up such an emergency action plan as it does not want to admit that we are facing a crisis. At the height of summer, things are still looking bad. An occupancy survey conducted by the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) for the summer, and still unpublished, shows hotels of all categories, but especially those in the three- and four-star categories, are seeing a drop in their occupancy rates. Hoteliers have complained that their rates are slightly better, if at all, than the poor winter ones. Some have been saved by packing three to four English language students in their rooms. Schools had to find alternative accommodation for their students after Government mishandled the taxing of host families and turned a considerable number of them away. Other tourism operators in the catering, transport and entertainment sectors are also suffering because of the poor tourism season we are experiencing.

Yet Government feels no need to take the necessary urgent action to address this difficult situation. No amount of rebranding, advertising and low-cost airlines will revive our tourism if we continue to get the basics wrong: a good product and the right price for it. Branding will help, but it has to go hand in hand with improving the urban and rural environment in our country.

So a total, effective branding exercise is not simply changing the packaging and improving perception; it is part of a holistic plan to make the country a nicer and satisfying experience for those who live in it and visit it.

Learning from the Greeks

We are a mature and declining destination. Other Mediterranean destinations, pioneers like us when mass tourism started 40 years ago, have also gone through their phase of decline. But they took steps to rejuvenate and reinvent themselves as destinations. Take Greece: in 2002-2003 the Greek economy lost €2 billion due to declining revenue from tourism.

But Greece has bounced back. In 2005-2006, 1.5 million more foreign tourists are arriving in Greece with additional revenue of at least €1 billion in income for the Greek economy. Greece spent €70 million for its new strategic advertising campaigns for 2005 and 2006 between November and March when many people in different countries decide to book their holidays.

Greece targeted each specific market according to its particular characteristics and did not make the mistake of having a campaign of 'one size fits all' for all its markets. But the revival of tourism in Greece is not simply due to better advertising. Greece has worked hard to transform itself and not remain a destination where 'sun and sea' is the be all and end all. While it worked to develop the necessary facilities to offer services for new forms of tourism, Greece was careful to promise only what it can deliver. Too much focus on types of tourism where services are not yet in place for the most demanding tourists can do more harm than good.

The Greek Minister of the Economy has also developed policies to support healthy business in tourism and designed appropriate tax and incentive policies to help them improve their competitiveness. Greece also embarked on a vigorous national educational campaign to make Greeks aware from a young age how crucial tourism is for a country that every year welcomes a number of people greater than its own population.

The Greek government also embarked on a comprehensive national plan to improve the country not just for the Olympic Games but beyond. Greek Tourism Minister Fanny Palli-Petralia said recently: "The Olympics offered Greece a total rebranding exercise any European country has ever undergone, which means new infrastructure, new improved highways, new subways, new hotels, a comprehensive security plan and a new airport."

Greece took a wide range of measures to revive tourism. The Greeks did not make the mistake of concentrating only on one miraculous cure for their tourism ills. They did not identify branding or low-cost airlines or better advertising and promotion as the one single measure that would solve all their problems. We must do the same. It is, of course, easier said than done. But we have no option if we want to revive our tourism industry, which generates thousands of jobs and provides a livelihood for thousands of our families. We need to focus all our energies on understanding and providing what today's tourists want. We have lost our competitiveness. We are surrounded by competitors who are beating us on quality or price, or both.

We must draw up an emergency action plan for Malta and Gozo to help us navigate through the difficult times we are facing and then we need to improve the strategic plans just published by Government. We need integrated and co-ordinated planning and implementation. As a small state, it should be easier for us to mobilise the whole country to have a wholehearted commitment to bring about a thriving tourism industry.

But Government seems totally caught up in its arrogant complacency and is only ready to go on with the mindset that more of the same is enough. It is not business as usual. More of the same is not enough. Government is incapable of giving tourism the new beginning it sorely needs.

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