23 August 2006

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Business Today

Angry hoteliers’ conditional “yes” to tourism minister

Karl Schembri

With the tourism operators repeatedly calling for the tourism minister’s resignation over the last months now appointed on the tourism consultative board, it will be a question of time before they will turn on the minister to fork out the money they deem necessary or tender their own resignation.
That is at least one of the conditions laid out by the former MHRA president and current MIA board member Winston Zahra Jr before accepting to sit on the new consultative board after months calling for the resignation of Francis Zammit Dimech.
“My acceptance included the condition that we would be given the tools and resources we need,” Zahra said yesterday when contacted. “If we are not given the tools to turn the tourism situation around we can’t function, there is no magic solution.”
Zahra would not go into whether the board would ask for its own budget.
“I can’t confirm that,” he said. “We’ll be holding our first meetings in the next couple of weeks to set our action plan. We’ll have to see what is left to spend at the MTA, which will remain the implementing body.”
Apart from others, Zahra is flanked on the board by two hoteliers who have been also calling for Zammit Dimech’s resignation – Kevin Decesare and Michael Zammit Tabona. The latter also referred to “seriously needed government funding” to solve the current tourism crisis, adding that they were “not magicians”.

“We’ll be recom-mending what needs to be done, as there are many problems we’re facing in tourism,” Zammit Tabona added. “For the first time they have realised we have a serious problem and they are taking it seriously.”
Zahra echoed Zammit Tabona’s words in saying that “government has finally realised and accepted there is a problem” after months of denial about the tourism crisis.
On the other hand, Labour’s spokesman on tourism, Evarist Bartolo, said government just wanted to give the impression it was doing something.
“The American economist JK Galbraith used to say: ‘Boards are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything’,” Bartolo said. “There are already a lot of consultative boards where the private sector is involved within the Malta Tourism Authority structures. Is there a need for yet another board? Will it have its own budget to carry out its ideas? Will it push them through the executive MTA board? What will the MTA board’s role be now, how different will it be to this new board? We have the Interministerial Committee on Tourism chaired by a weak Prime Minister who cannot instil team spirit within this committee. We have the MTA board with representatives from the private sector. We have the segment advisory boards also with representatives from the private sector. All these structures are inefficient and ineffective, starting from the Interministerial Committee downwards, all working on their own with no coordination as they do not operate within a strategic national tourism plan. I cannot see how this new board will change anything for the better.”
Zahra however says that since he left the MTA board around 18 months ago, some of the most important changes made in its restructuring report were never implemented.
“Unfortunately a great deal of changes that were recommended before I left were not implemented, so I’ll be picking up what has been left 18 months ago,” he said.
The MHRA’s Chief Executive Officer, George Schembri, said he was satisfied with the setting up of the board as it had experienced people appointed in their personal capacities who could find solutions.
“This board will be able to tackle the tourism problems, while MTA will keep promoting Malta and enforcing its regulations,” he said.
The Opposition’s spokesman was however critical of the way different sectors have been excluded from this board.
“This consultative board is composed only of people coming mainly from the hotel sector,” Bartolo said. “If government wanted such a board it should have put on it somebody from the hotel sector, but then also others from the rest of the tourism industry which is made up of a wide range of sectors. Excluding these sectors from this board sends a very negative message to them.”
For Bartolo, government is “trying to silence its vociferous critics by co-opting them on this board” but that would not solve anything.
“We need a serious emergency plan for the coming months,” he added. “Then we need a strategic mid and longer term plan to innovate tourism. We must give today’s tourists what they are looking for: both in terms of price and quality. If we do not improve air links to our islands, if we do not improve the way these islands look and the services and products they offer tourists, tourists will continue to go elsewhere.”
Zahra however promised he will remain vigilant and vociferous: “Putting me on a consultative board will not silence me. I say this categorically.”

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