Talk of war hounds tourism
No missiles have been fired yet but the mere talk of
war on Iraq has already left its toll on tourism and a number of incoming
groups from the US, Canada and Japan have either cancelled or arrived
in smaller numbers according to Tourism Minister Michael Refalo.
The clouds of war grew thicker yesterday as Saddam Hussein told a US
journalist that the missiles earmarked for destruction by the United
Nations are not illegal. UN inspectors have asked Iraq to start destroying
the medium-range Al Samoud II missiles by Saturday or face consequences.
With the tourism sector still facing an unsteady comeback after the
11 September terrorist attacks Minister Refalo would not forecast the
extent of the impact a war on Iraq would have. "Certainly some
destinations will suffer more than others," Refalo told The Malta
Financial and Business Times.
The minister said that the first signs of the probable impact a war
would have on the US tourist market were visible at the Milan fair last
week. "US stands were empty," Refalo said.
"The same applies to trans Atlantic travel. Internationally, long
haul travel is already feeling the pinch. Malta is no exception and
I know of US, Canadian and Japanese groups that either cancelled or
arrived in small numbers."
Refalo said that being outside the missile range, Malta was in a better
position than destinations within the sector. He added that the proximity
to the Italian mainland meant that Malta did not fare too badly and
2002 was a record year in the Italian market."It is not the outbreak
of war that worries me but the very real possibility of parallel and
post hostility terrorism," Refalo remarked. The minister referred
to recent terrorist attacks in tourist areas in Indonesia, Yemen and
Kenya and insisted that although Malta and Gozo were not natural targets
for terrorist activity he cautioned for vigilance.
Comparing the situation with the Gulf War period in 1991, Refalo said:
"Tourism practically stopped as soon as the alliance mustered sufficient
troops and armaments for the liberation of Kuwait. A quick war was followed
by a virtual standstill in bookings."
Refalo added that when bookings picked up after the 1991 Gulf War, Malta
and Western Mediterranean resorts gained business at the expense of
Eastern Mediterranean resorts.
"This could be the 2003 pattern as well. However, I still hope,
very much against the odds that war will not break out. That would be
best for Malta as this winter season is shaping up quite nicely."
Asked by this newspaper whether the ministry has drawn up any contingency
plans to tackle the impending crisis if war does materialise Refalo
said that the situation is being followed very closely even if it is
still business as usual for the Malta Tourism Authority.
"We have been monitoring arrival and booking trends and the early
booking situation is encouraging but most leave their travel plans to
rather late decisions. It could be more Internet use, expectation of
better bargains, the fear factor, uncertainty, the threat of war or
a mixture of all this and more. The UK market has performed extremely
well while the German market remains quite stable."
Refalo said that a gut feeling in 1991 that US hostilities would end
by 25 February, Kuwaits national day, had proved to be correct
and as soon as war ended the tourism authority was in a position to
launch its new marketing campaigns before anyone else.
"There wont be any lucky coincidences this time. Planning
is more difficult. Our contingency plans are mostly centred round holding
operations. It would be great to see Malta repeat its 1991 success but
I would prefer it to be on merit and not at others expense."
The drums of war escalated on Monday when a UK-sponsored resolution
backed by Spain and the US, to condemn Iraq for not complying with UN
demands was presented to the UN Security Council. If approved the resolution
paves the way for military intervention. However, intense diplomatic
lobbying is going on behind the scenes as France and Russia have presented
a counter resolution asking for more time to be given to UN weapons
Meanwhile, Turkey is set to admit 62,000 US troops after negotiations
between US and Turkish officials on Monday broke the stalemate between
the two Nato allies. Turkeys border with Iraq would give the US
military a second option for a terrestrial invasion of Iraq.