Nowhere as blue as in Malta
Tourism Minister Mario de Marco made a telling point on the occasion of new routes opened by Air France, which constitute an important contribution to the carrying capacity to the Maltese Islands. Apart from enhancing our existing markets, we also have to find new emerging ones, he said. (The Times, April 2)
He gave as an example the Israeli market. Arrivals from there had climbed from 3,000 to 30,000 in three years. Arrivals from Spain had trebled since 2009, from 20,000 to 60,000 last year. These two markets can expand further, notwithstanding increased tension in Israel and growing unemployment in Spain amidst fresh austerity measures.
Other emerging markets can be exploited with good marketing and the right flight connections, for instance China and other countries in the Far East. Linked to increased arrivals and the need to forge new links, other data quoted by Minister de Marco are relevant. For instance, the fact that Malta had increased direct scheduled routes from 47 in 2007 to 81 this year.
This confirms how essential it is to ensure that Air Malta becomes viable once again, under a new business model which may have to be developed even further than the restructuring currently being examined by the European Commission, in the context of objections from a number of low-cost airlines.
If Brussels clears Air Malta these airlines would still have a role to play under the national business model. They have made a difference, even at some cost to Air Malta which cannot blame all its woes upon them. Its problems began well before low-cost arrivals and it behoves this government to take them to heart. The airline went into the red during its long term of office. In his interview with The Sunday Times, Albert Mizzi, one of the island’s leading businessmen and former Air Malta chairman, went off the mark on a number of issues, but hit a particular nail on its head when he referred to ministerial interference under all hues of governments.
Looking beyond what one hopes will be a positive reply by the European Commission the political parties must resolve never again to lay a heavy hand on the airline. While it should not be completely privatised, one can consider a different shareholding structure.
When he was setting up Air Malta, Prime Minister Dom Mintoff tried to involve the private sector. That the sector, other than for one brave man at Cassar and Cooper, stayed away is another matter. Mintoff’s idea might be refreshed and expanded at this stage of the airline’s life. Consideration should be given to identifying a suitable strategic partner. Consideration can be given to reducing the government’s shareholding on the model of the Bank of Valletta.
Again, whether that happens or not future governments must ensure that they appoint Air Malta directors on the basis of their business acumen, and let them get on with their job in the context of overall public policy. Such an approach would be a challenge to the main parties. They will be inclined to stress the importance to keep Air Malta in the public domain. That can be done without keeping the politicians’ hands on Air Malta.
Meanwhile, the focus on tourism has to be sharpened to diversify it further, as Minister de Marco pointed out. For that to happen the attractions of our islands that distinguish them from Mediterranean competitors have to be refined. One of the best investments put in place by this government is the effort to restore the fortifications to their former magnificent glory.
The heritage of the Maltese Islands dating to pre-history make it a sensible choice to place culture at the top of the marketed attractions, without turning our noses up at the many tourists who still come for what might be captured in a single selling phrase – The Mediterranean: nowhere as blue as in Malta.
In parallel development of the islands’ infrastructure and of the tourist product has to be seen to and accelerated. A road-building and refurbishing programme is essential. But it must be better planned. As for the tourist product a report in the weekend’s The Sunday Times is chastening.
It referred to online reviews on Trip Advisor, which millions of tourists consult on the internet to plan their holiday. It focused on negative reviews. It is the bad reviews which, if consistently probing the same spot, require reaction. Too many of those who commented on Trip Advisor wondered whether Malta’s rating system, conducted by the Malta Tourism Authority, was for real.
Most of them centred on some hotels that carry a four star rating. The onus to give client satisfaction rests on the hotel operators themselves. But it is up to the Authority to supervise and inspect them to ensure they adhere to all of its requirements. An Authority spokesman told The Sunday Times that more regular inspections are held at hotels that have been lax in observing standards. But have inspections been rigorous enough? The Authority revealed that it is discussing a revised set of regulations to introduce qualitative criteria for tangible features of hotels, such as public amenities and furnishings.
There is no time to waste. If Minister de Marco’s objective to diversify arrivals further, preferably at the middle to top end of the market is to succeed, the Maltese Islands must be raised not one notch but several. Good marketing is essential but, in the first instance, there has to be a fresh jump in quality.