9 OCTOBER 2002

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Vitalising the tourism industry

Tourism Minister Michael Refalo speaks to students reading the University of Malta course in Tourism Studies. Dr Refalo reviews the growth of tourism in Malta and the measures implemented over the last three years to stimulate such growth, which today accounts for 25 per cent of the country’s gross national product. Following are extracts from his address

It was not simply because in the seventies through to the mid-eighties the industry’s strategic interests had been completely ignored and neglected, so too any semblance of professional and human resource training, but even worse, tourism had become a "state" industry, with no soul, no heart, and no feeling.

Most tourism jobs were looked down upon as leftovers for non-achievers and the industry’s recognition rested only on the occasional glimmer when by luck and good fortune, rather than by design, arrival figures surpassed those in the comparative month one year back.

It has been a policy prerogative of mine to heighten the industry’s profile. To make people respect those who work in the industry. To make people understand that tourism is the powerhouse of our national economy. To recruit official and popular support and recognition.

One cannot do this by paying lip service but by proving that it is and that it deserves to be looked upon as such. At the last count the industry contribution to the nation’s wealth was assessed at 25% to GNP, 22% to Government income, and is responsible for the employment of one in three of all gainfully occupied.

I have no doubt that these findings determined the exponential increase in funding recently given and committed to the Ministry and to the MTA. Likewise the recognition accorded by this University to ITS diplomas which formerly enabled graduates to enrol and follow a course of studies partly dedicated to instruction about the tourism industry.

Therefore the pity and the inexplicable lowering of standards at ITS which for the thankfully brief 1997/98 interlude relegated the Institute to the functional production of bodies rather than the well trained young men and women which the industry needs. Thankfully, a return to sanity and the real interests of the industry, saved those students’ fate and solutions found to enable them to continue their studies at this seat of higher learning.

Long gone are the days when popular perceptions pigeon holed job opportunities in tourism as menial and acceptable to those who could not qualify for anything else. It was therefore a natural consequence that the time had come when my long held ambition to see the University of Malta offer a full four year course in tourism studies, leading to a B.A (Honours) degree, could be realised and achieved.

This course is totally funded by my Ministry and by the Malta Tourism Authority because we believe it imperative that the industry should recruit fully trained graduates not simply to operate hotels and other leisure and hospitality related outlets, but that tourism graduates should be present in all areas of decision making.

Experience is a good teacher but academia and experience make for a better one. Should the Ministry of Tourism be run by civil servants, dedicated though they may be to their profession, but without formal training and experience in an industry, which they may be called upon to plan for, regulate, monitor and promote?

Tourism needs friends, people who understand it and recognise its strategic importance, and can influence opinion in all sectors of the public administration. The industry is large and broad based enough to have a knowledgeable friend, supporter and promoter at the Ministries of Finance, Economic Services, Education and Culture, Environment, Transport and all the other ministries under the sun. The industry’s interests must be seen to professionally and everywhere.

Therefore one avenue, one career path open to you is the civil service. Another is the MTA and all the corporations, authorities and agencies whose mission is closely allied to the promotion of tourism in general, of any of the industry’s particular niche, and to the comfort, well being, satisfaction and services which we accord the many guests who visit us for leisure and other purposes.

It would be very amiss of our hotel chains, those who have already expanded their interests beyond our shores, others that are planning to do so, and not least those whose operations are presently local, to fail to take up the opportunity to recruit graduates from this course and enlist professionals equipped with a broad range of knowledge and tourism skills that include but also go beyond hotel management.

The banking world offers other opportunities. Funding and financing projects need much more than projections and bottom line calculations. They call for expert knowledge of world and local trends, potential and forecasts. It is knowledge that can be provided by graduates from this course. Allied so closely to economics the presence of graduates in architectural and accountancy firms, financial consultancies, to name but a few, offer further opportunities. And why not academia?

It is my Ministry’s policy that tourism is taught at all levels of education. That is precisely why ITS invites students to visit campus and why MTA goes on school visits. There will I hope be a time when tourism studies will find a place in the national curriculum. Today openings and places may be few, but always keep in mind those immortal verses from Ole Man River, "men may come and men may go, but Ole Man River, call it tourism if you will, will keep on rolling along."

You ladies and gentlemen are the second intake of students in a course launched, I must say very successfully, by the University in October 2001. Our initial projections, tentatively hopeful at the time, were to attract around 25 students. The first course attracted 51, with ten ITS graduates joining at third year level, and based on that result the faculty has had to revise that figure and now expects to have a total of around 260 undergraduates within the next three years.

My presence here this morning has one specific mission. That of giving additional exposure and further promotion of the existence of this course and to the fact that the industry, Air Malta, the civil service, banking and other professions will, come 2003 benefit from a ready stream of graduates well prepared, keen to join and give their very valid contribution to Malta’s largest industry.

But I have another mission as well – as I have been asked to review the industry’s main developments over the last few years.

Yes during these four years Malta has again topped the arrivals league, increased the number of persons employed in hotels and restaurants, the ripple effect has impacted on all sectors of the economy etc, etc, etc. I will not dwell on aspects that normally take the fancy and fill the pages and news bulletins of the popular media but will concentrate solely on those achievements and strategic measures which I believe will have a lasting effect on the future of Maltese tourism.

I will do so chronologically without giving the various measures any order of priority or importance.

1999

1. Setting up of the Malta Tourism Authority. The national body was endowed with a wider focus and more funding. It brought together the public and private sectors in harmonious synergy. The latter’s influence in the field policy formulation and in the implementation of Government policy achieved government’s goal of giving a determining say to the private sector.

2. Due to the industry’s broad based structure it was found essential to establish a co-operation framework with other areas of the public administration. An Inter-ministerial Committee on Tourism, chaired by my Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, was set up and whose main function is to alert ministries and government departments to the industry’s requirements, reduce the level and short cut the bureaucratic process.

3. Government imposed a three-month moratorium (July to September) on infrastructural works in tourism zones. The end result is a vast improvement in the orderly appearance of areas most frequented by visitors.

4. A review of curricula, entry qualifications and structures of the ITS was undertaken. This, in turn, led to the solution of problems, to recognition of diplomas by the University and an increase in the student population.

2000

1. The Malta Tourism Authority launched its first ever Strategic Plan (2000 – 2002). The Plan clearly delineates the parameters of Government policy for the sector and outlines the Authority’s strategies and goals.

2. The Ministry of Finance agrees to a four year financing programme for the MTA and to a substantial increase of funding. This measure removed previous uncertainties and allows the Authority to plan well ahead.

3. The MTA issues clear guidelines for the operation of accommodation establishments thus updating previous legislation which had become obsolete.

4. The MTA decides to terminate subsidies to UK tour operators under the TOSS scheme and commences a phase out process in agreement with the trade and UK tour operators. This decision made additional financial resources available to MTA which the Authority applied towards stronger and more aggressive marketing and promotion of the Maltese Islands.

5. Following consultation with the relevant associations Timeshare Regulations and Package Travel Regulations were published. This was the first time that timeshare had received legal status. The Package Travel Regulations accord Maltese citizens the protection enjoyed by their peers in the European Union.

6. An in depth study of the Tourism Carrying Capacity Assessment of the Maltese Islands was commissioned and completed.

7. The Ministry brokered an agreement between MTA and MEPA on a route map for the processing of tourism related building applications. In this way both agencies are informed and participate in the applications’ evaluation process.

2001

1. Government reviews tourism development policies and bases its decision on the findings of the Carrying Capacity report. The policies, framed around a controlled development scenario and based on the principles of sustainability, give preference to the refurbishment and addition of facilities to existing establishments rather than the construction of new properties.

2. The funding of a B.A. (Hons.) Course at the University of Malta.

3. MTA draws up a plan for Gozo Tourism thereby tangibly recognising the diversity that exists and complements the offer that Malta and Gozo place on the international tourism market.

4. Malta ratifies the WTO Global Code of Ethics.

5. The Ministry commissions and published a report on the provisions of the EU Acquis relating to their impact on SMEs, particularly accommodation establishments and travel agencies, as well as on the guiding profession. The report shows that Maltese tourism legislation complies with the Acquis and proves that Malta’s tourism industry only stands to gain from accession.

6. Malta and China sign a tourism agreement granting Malta approved destination status and opening the door to tourism from China.

7. MTA establishes criteria for the building of new accommodation establishments and thereby bringing legislation up to modern day standards and requirements.

8. Agreement reached with the building industry on the acceptance of voluntary regulation of construction practices during July and September.

9. Establishing the Tourism Journalist of the Year Award. This is intended to get more journalists interested in writing about and investigating the tourist industry.

2002

1. To instil public and trade awareness about the importance of the natural and man made environment in the interests of the industry the Ministry of Tourism co-ordinates activities undertaken by Government Ministries, Departments and bodies on the occasion of the UN International Year of Eco-tourism.

2. The MTA takes over duties under the Act, previously performed by HCEB and the Department of Tourism.

3. Regulations relating to various aspects of the industry updated and published.

4. Launching of incentive scheme for subsidised loans to enable owners of accommodation establishments consisting of under 100 rooms refurbish and add facilities to their properties.

5. ITS granted Quality Service Charter.

6. The MTA launches its Second Strategic Plan (2002-2004) and launches its website in five languages.

7. ITS extends tuition and training to persons already employed in the industry.

The Ministry’s primary task is to follow developments locally and overseas, frame tourism policies, ensure adequate funding for the MTA, ensure the smooth running of the Authority and above all make a strong case in the industry’s interests at every opportunity.

Just as the Ministry cannot work in isolation and needs the continual support, co-ordination and input of other areas of the administration, the private sector, that occupies such a high profile role at every level of national decision making and consultation, must be on board as well.

Very often enthusiastically and willingly, occasionally tentatively, and rarely grudgingly, I have always found the industry to be very supportive. One mistake that occurred repeatedly in the pre-87 era was to ignore and ride roughshod over the private sector. One lesson that a tourism minister should learn, treasure and apply from day one is that he will always need the private sector’s support and advice. Ignore it at your peril.

 



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Editor: Saviour Balzan
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