12 JUNE 2002
MTA Chairman John C Grech is no newcomer to change and reform and he confirmed this when he talked to The Malta Financial & Business Times about his vision for tourism
"Let me take you back," John C Grech told me. I had just queried him about the basic difference between the Malta Tourism Authority and its predecessor, the NTOM.
"The MTA," the MTA chairman said, "is wider in scope and it has divided its operations according to the strategy it is following. The Travel and Tourism Act gives the MTA a lot of authority," he explained.
Marketing, followed by Product placing, Human resource support and the enforcement directorate were the four main pillars within the MTA structure.
I met John C Grech at the newly renovated premises at the former old Post Office in Merchants Street. The new MTA head office is attractively refurbished with wide white-washed corridors enclosing a lovely courtyard.
Mr Grech is not a new comer to change; indeed reform and change appear to be intrinsically linked to his personality. He emphasised that his remit was to put substance before form and that he very much believed that one should not pull wool over peoples eyes.
The former Bank of Valletta chairman and senior consultant in the business and economics sector is a strong believer in defining standards.
"We must define standards for host families, catering and hotels, and the lot and we also have the responsibility of enforcing."
He describes that the MTA has taken over new functions such as the former HCED, a board previously responsible for hotels and catering establishments.
The MTA Chairman was well briefed; as he explained that the MTA was indeed a public private partnership.
"Though," he said," The budget is 90 per cent government subsidised and 10 per cent originates from the private sector."
He said that all the members of the MTA board were from the private sector.
"I would say that to a certain extent the government has empowered the private sector."
We came to the strategy shift.
"Going for plain volume is not on the cards," he said.
"We have undertaken a study on carrying capacity, at present 1.3 million tourists and this works out at 36,000 tourists a day. Adding more is no virtue."
Mr Grech pointed out that instead of strong volumes, what was needed was the repositioning of the industry.
"The Sun and sea product is not an option for Malta anymore, there are several destinations which are cheaper, better and more competitive. And more importantly they can handle bigger volumes."
"We have to look for elements which are different, which are special, such as the long history, the Neolithic past, the cross cultural society, rich folklore, English-speaking, but Latin temperament and finally small, but jam packed with attractions."
"In short we can be a fantastic cultural attraction."
The MTA chairman believes that our success lies in being niche specific.
He spoke at length about visitors that come to Malta to learn English.
"More Germans visit Malta to learn English as a language than the UK.
"English speaking students also tend to return because they create a bond"
Mr Grech very much believes in this bond issue.
"When tourists go around the Island they experience the country and the people; hospitality gives that special value and this makes for repeat business."
He pays much importance to the hospitality and the need to treat every tourist as a client. He underpins the importance ourism plays in the wide sense.
"It is unfortunate that in reports on sustainable development in Malta, there is little or no reference to tourism.
"With tourism representing quarter of the GDP, one third of all employment and 1.3 million visitors, there is no doubt that the strain on resources is high."
Mr Grech is somebody who calls a spade a spade.
"For example, at MTA we oppose Tuna pen farms in bays. We are not against Tuna pens but we cannot agree with their present location. Tuna Pen farms cause damage to bays. Tuna pen farms can be moved to open sea and shifted from one place to another as is the case in Italy."
In this context he says that is why a structured relationship with the Planning directorate is crucial.
Having an opinion on Tuna farms surely meant that the MTA chairman also had something to say about Golf courses.
"The problem of Golf courses is the siting, not the concept."
He dwelt over the culture of creating a controversy on every issue.
We returned to MTAs goals for the future.
"We must spread arrivals; work on the unique experience when visiting Malta."
Mr Grech concludes that there must be a realisation of how important tourism is to our economy. He was pleased that he had an open channel with Minister of Tourism Michael Refalo, who supported his way of thinking.
He continued to emphasise that substance versus form philosophy.
"You cannot give what you do not have," he says, highlighting how important quality is to sustain tourism. Cleanliness, service and hospitality were crucial to this industry, he said.
John C Grech was talking to Saviour Balzan