26 FEBRUARY 2003

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Talk of war hounds tourism

By Kurt Sansone

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, Kuwait’s 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 won’t 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 inspectors.
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. Turkey’s border with Iraq would give the US military a second option for a terrestrial invasion of Iraq.
kurt@maltamag.com



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