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Raising quality of tourism

Paceville in a quieter moment; it usually drags down the surrounding area. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Paceville in a quieter moment; it usually drags down the surrounding area. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

The chairman of the Corinthia Group, Alfred Pisani, recently made a powerful plea for Malta’s tourism quality to be raised “to the next level”. Considering his considerable contribution to Malta’s tourism and his huge international experience, it is a case worth listening to.

He made four main points. First, Malta had to move away from mass market tourism and embrace quality tourism if it was to survive in a hugely competitive market. Second, despite the super yachts berthed in our marinas, we should recognise that we have not yet achieved the lure of top places because we are simply not polished enough to attract their owners. Third, Malta has all the attributes to be on the same level. But, fourth, we must improve our facilities and infrastructure; and we must provide better service.

The government has launched a consultation document entitled ‘A National Tourism Policy, 2015 to 2020’. It covers four main areas: accessibility (such as air connectivity); marketing (including attracting new markets); improving the product; and generating more tourism for Gozo.

The policy attempts a long-term vision up to 2030. An Action Plan will follow the consultation period.

We’ve all lost count of the number of reports into Malta’s tourism industry produced by successive consultants and governments over the years. Each new minister for tourism, anxious to make his mark, has initiated reports and promised the dawn of a new golden age.

The issue is not the analysis of the problem, or the often excellent proposals the reports and consultations contain, but the drawing up of a plan of action and its implementation. Herein lies the rub.

I am not an expert on tourism. However, I can see what’s wrong with the quality of the Maltese tourism product simply by looking around me and through my daily experience in conducting foreign friends around this tiny island.

Despite our well-intentioned aspirations to offer a quality tourism experience to the 1.6 million visitors who travel to Malta each year, the product on offer – as Pisani so rightly highlights –falls woefully short.

We are attracting tourists to Malta under a false prospectus.

The government’s consultative document suffers from one major defect. It fails to acknowledge at the start that Malta’s tourism quality is poor because the basics are poor. Any government serious about raising the quality of tourism should focus on five fundamental issues: the environment and Malta’s infrastructure; the look and cleanliness of the island; the facilities available and the quality of service they offer; our cultural heritage; and enforcement of standards.

On should start with Malta’s environment in its broadest sense of the countryside, built heritage and the coastline.

The issue is not the analysis of the problem but the drawing up of a plan of action and its implementation

There are parts of this country to which I consciously avoid taking guests. Paceville, Qawra, Buġibba and parts of St Paul’s Bay are an embarrassment. They can only be redeemed by a comprehensive programme of regeneration and the demolition of the scruffy, badly built, ugly structures of the 1970s and 1980s.

Attempts at tinkering failed – no sooner done than these areas look tatty again.

Paceville is a copybook case. It may be a nightlife Mecca but it drags down the surrounding area. Our best hotels and most prestigious residential apartments and the beauty of Spinola Bay are undermined by Paceville’s presence on their doorstep. Unless it is contained, there is a danger of the Paceville contagion extending beyond its boundaries and contaminating everything around it. Its regeneration should be a priority that acts as the model for what should be done elsewhere.

But there are wider policy issues which affect the quality of tourism. Malta’s countryside continues to be threatened by over-exploitation. The built environment is under threat from demolition and ugly design. Malta has a well-earned reputation as a shabby, permanent building site.

The cultural landscape is threatened by the extent of the encroaching built-up area, industrial and coastal development, tall buildings and urban fringes that obstruct views of historic centres.

The road network, clogged with traffic, is Third World in many parts. Poor standards of design and workmanship and lack of maintenance are everywhere. Unrelenting noise and air pollution are among the worst in Europe. The limited coastline with its overcrowded, dirty public beaches has been abused and pillaged with the connivance of both political parties.

As to the appearance and cleanliness of Malta, I challenge anybody to walk for more than 50 metres anywhere in the countryside or the town (perhaps Mdina is the one exception) without encountering litter, rubbish, shabbiness and ever-intrusive and disfiguring construction development. The problem is a national disgrace.

If the National Tourism Policy report were able to find an answer to this cultural problem – and this country infrastructural deficiencies which go with it – we should be well on the way in succeeding to achieving a quality product.

As to the facilities available, we have a handful of top-class hotels. We have many good, if sometimes over-priced, restaurants. Service in all of them is variable. Courtesy, the heart of good service, is not a natural Maltese trait as our taxi and public transport drivers so often demonstrate.

Malta’s cultural heritage should be at the heart of the island’s tourism product. The fact that there are so many outstanding historic sites within easy striking distance for the visitor is what distinguishes this little island from so many other destinations. Yet, successive governments have short-sightedly failed to invest properly in this area despite the heartening strides which have been made with EU funding in the last 10 years. The Heritage Fund postulated under the Cultural Heritage Act 13 years ago remains empty to this day. Quality tourism in Malta would benefit massively from a proper branding of this sector and the injection of additional funding.

Lastly, enforcement. Like almost every sector in Malta, the lack of law enforcement in tourism is endemic. Visit any popular tourism area from St Paul’s Bay to Comino and from Sliema Ferries to Marsaxlokk and the law is being flouted.

Some restaurant owners at St Julian’s commandeer the promenade and place tables and chairs illegally without any control being exercised. If this were to persist, Spinola Bay’s reputation as a quality restaurant destination could be seriously jeopardised. There is need for coordinated action by the tourism authority, the police and local council to prevent this beautiful setting from going the same way as Paceville.

If Malta is, indeed, serious about raising the quality of tourism, there is an urgent requirement to draw up a coordinated plan of action which addresses the five basic issues highlighted above.

This involves not only the key stakeholders – the tourism authority and the hotels and restaurants businesses, which have, so far, made the running on this issue – but also virtually every major department of government, from the police to local councils, environment, infrastructure, the planning authority, culture and others.

Quality tourism?

I’m beginning to doubt this government knows what it means. The decision to set up the monti at the entrance to Valletta provides the answer in spades. I despair.

Real, committed action to address the fundamentals of quality tourism does not currently happen and I suspect has never happened. It explains why the standard of our product has languished and will continue to do so.

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