Time for tourism reality check

With the number of tourists visiting Malta in 2016 reaching record levels, the main risk that the industry runs is being lulled in a sense of false security. The future of tourism remains challenging and complacency could lead to tougher times in the future.

The president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, Tony Zahra, raised some interesting issues that are affecting the tourist industry.

He warned against taking growthfor granted.

One of his comments related to the absence of Maltese workers in the front office of hotel establishments. “Most of our front people in hotels are no longer Maltese. People come here for the experience to meet the Maltese and not Romanians or Bulgarians,” he said.

This is a valid point that needs to be taken with more seriousness by hotel operators. One of Malta’s main assets in the eyes of visitors is the friendliness of its people. But it seems that fewer young people are attracted to work in hotels and restaurants, either because they pay low wages or because work conditions are not attractive. The upgrading of training for hotel workers should lead to better wages, work conditions and social status. This encourages Maltese young people to see better career prospects in tourism.

The role of the Institute of Tourism Studies was rightly mentioned as a catalyst by Mr Zahra. The relocation of ITS to SmartCity must not cause any disruption to students. Instead, it would be encouraging to hear more about what ITS is doing to attract more students.

The most relevant comments made by Mr Zahra related to the broader theme of the state of the infrastructure that supports the tourism industry. He appealed to the government to “invest heavily in the island’s infrastructure that was never meant to handle large volumes of people, especially during the peak summer months. Roads are falling to pieces and the electricity grid needs upgrading.”

One could add to this the dirt that persists in some of the more popular tourist areas and the rapid deterioration in the urban environment as a result of overdevelopment, especially in the Sliema and St Julian’s area. With prospects of more high-rise buildings being sanctioned there, one is justified in asking whether Malta is killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

The unresolved future challenges of Air Malta that is so crucially important for the country’s tourism poses another threat to the prosperity of the industry. While Alitalia seems to be facing the challenge of viability with full transparency and openness, the Tourism Minister shies away from informing the public about the government’s plans to save Air Malta from bankruptcy. Waiting for the post-election phase to address this issue is only complicating matters for workers and the public.

Many rush to claim success for the improvement in tourist figures. Few acknowledge that other countries’ misfortunes may have contributed substantially to Malta’s recent success. Trouble in neighbouring countries in North Africa, Greece and Turkey will eventually be resolved and our tourist operators will need to offer a better product to attract visitors to our islands.

The comments made by Mr Zahra should lead to a reality check and highlight the strategic priorities that need to be addressed to put tourism on a winning trajectory.

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