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Tourism and number limits - John Consiglio

The new academic year gets ever closer and it’s always nice when some VIP provides us lecturers with yet another useful “bite” to use for discussion during our lectures.

The most recent contributor to my “Economic Blasphemies” lecture is Gavin Gulia, the executive chairman of the Malta Tourism Authority.

Listen to this. In his contribution (the Times of Malta, September 1) about the demands of a rise in tourism and population, he wrote: “This rise need not be seen in terms of repercussions, especially within the Maltese context, but rather in terms of challenges that are constantly anticipated and catered for.”

And then he simply fobs off all other potential economic realities by rambling on about an evening out throughout the year of the tourism influx, entertaining the tourists who come and simply providing them with infrastructural improvement.

Would that economic life and realities were that simple. They aren’t. In a first instance they are subject to the basic truth that there is no such thing, ever, as an economic decision of any sort that is always totally positive in its consequences.

Secondly, and this is my biggest gripe with Gulia, you can never, ever, simply hope to get away with the realities and limitations of numbers.

Here’s a simple question for Gulia to mull over: when Malta achieves an intake of, say, 2.5 million in a year, what then after that? Three million? Four, five million? How much? And, I insist, I want a numerical answer.

He shows that he is psychologically aware of this simple truth of the limits of growth when he uses the words “within the Maltese context”.

Because, whether we are talking about the annual tourist intake, the annual increase in the resident and visiting population, annual new car permits issued, annual Planning Authority permits, annual expenditure on infrastructural changes, annual consumption rises for water and whatever else one may wish to mention, the fact is that the tyranny of numbers – numbers that are particular and specific to a country 17 miles by nine – the limits of numbers simply give the lie to all those who glibly continue to talk about this thing called “sustainability”.

The limits of numbers simply give the lie to all those who glibly continue to talk about this thing called ‘sustainability’

(Like the proverbial elastic, sustainability, too, has its limits).

People like Gulia still have to learn that “La matematica non è una opinione”. Mathematics and numbers tell the level-headed person factually that in everything there is always a point where one has to stop. And it pays to think about and to know where such limits are and plan for them wisely.

Even after the evening out, the national tourism intake over all the months of the year still does not eliminate the need for a national maximum potential target. Even the MHRA has hinted at the wisdom of having a decreasing annual number of targeted tourists coming here, who would be welcome to stay fewer days and spend more, staying predominantly in the high-class accommodation that earns the country ever more.

The boutique, agritourism, Isle of MTV-type, obviously low-class tourism charades, will only help to make this situation of pressures on our environment, traffic, rampant low-quality dining outlets and travel connections ever higher and worse.

This newspaper asked Gulia: “What needs to be done to meet the demands of a rise in tourism and population?”

His replying column was nothing more than a rehash of a typical Maltese profiteering businessman’s fantasising, one which simply reeks of “Let’s have ever more and more of the same.”

So much for the ability for brave thinking out of the box and bravely looking beyond any politically constrained short term at what the real needs of the country and its indigent people really are.

Gulia finishes by saying that the way that the continuously rising numbers of tourists are handled is also constantly evolving. Factually there are no tangible signs of such an evolution, and such signs would perforce have to include the realities of number limits.

He will be believed only when attentive and realistic observers are presented with numerical facts.

Until then, he will only continue to be taken with bag full of salt.

John Consiglio teaches in the Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy at the University of Malta.

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