Interview | Wednesday, 23 July 2008

A new face for tourism

Although Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism Mario De Marco may have learnt the ropes from a man whose political career climaxed in a different epoch, he has so far proved to be able to talk the talk of a proper new generation politician. Whether he can also walk the walk is to be first seen at the end of this season and then properly evaluated in the course of the next four to come. By DAVID DARMANIN.

Let’s face it, not many foresaw Gonzi’s plans for the tourism portfolio. That said, none of the industry’s stakeholders dared criticise the decision in choosing De Marco for the post. Seeming pleasantly surprised, related federations and social partners homogenously welcomed the move. But in this context, wouldn’t any eventual booboos on De Marco’s part, even the slightest, seem three times larger among the shakers and movers in the industry?
“I have to take advantage of the fact that the tourism portfolio lies with the Prime Minister,” he said. “I have direct and regular access to the Prime Minister, and this already goes a long way in ensuring that the channels of demand are kept as short as possible. Besides, portfolios relating to the environment and Local Councils, have also been retained by the Prime Minister. Since these are crucial areas largely contributing to the environment, this will surely help is in getting the desired effect for the industry.”
Elaborating on the environmental link to the tourism portfolio, De Marco mentions his aims at developing the sector in a sustainable manner.
“I don’t believe in the principle of developing at all costs. We have committed too many mistakes in the name of development. When we develop, we need to take into account our respect for the environment, social fabric and heritage.
“Another thing I aspire to is to have tourists get more of a varied and authentic experience of the country, as many visitors are seeing too much of the same. I would like to see more tourists venturing beyond the standard attraction zones. I would like to see places like Vittoriosa or our many village cores being promoted as an authentic tourist experience,” he said.
One only hopes too much “venturing” in these areas will not result in the loss of authenticity itself. Bugibba was authentically Maltese one day – and now it can be very closely compared to Thailand’s Pattaya (less the prostitutes) or to any retiree destination for ex-pat Brits, for all that matters.
De Marco is a lawyer by profession, but as a proponent of new laws, he is not as aggressive as Neapolitans bidding to regulate the authenticity of the Pizza Margherita, banning pizzas bearing the name unless they contain its traditional ingredients to the tee. That said, it is understood he intends using the carrot rather than the stick, by tapping on EU funds to conserve Malta’s authenticity in product-related tourism.
“The concept of selling something genuinely Maltese to tourism markets is to be praised in itself. I understand that a product is likely to lose quality if the supplier grows too fast, too soon.”
Rural tourism is also high on the agenda, as De Marco expresses a political will in maximising this area, while aptly pointing out: “Rural tourism requires heritage protection, and when you focus on such issues not only tourists stand to benefit directly, but also the Maltese.”
With the advent of low cost airlines flying to Malta, tourism figures shot up last season, marking an over-all record year. Perhaps also fuelled by PN’s campaign leading to the general elections, expectations for tourism this year were high. However, the language school sector, among others, has already complained of dwindling numbers.
“In the first four or five months of the year, we had an average growth of 15 per cent compared to the same period last year,” De Marco explains. “We are not getting this sort of growth in summer because we were already packed last year. That said, I’d say we have to be realistic and take into account the global situation of fuel and economic crisis affecting the UK and other core markets. UK travel supplements are in fact actively promoting internal tourism – and this market represents 35 per cent of our market.”
Surely, the public transport strike last week hasn’t helped either.
“Many people book last minute and we had a good number of cancellations because of the strike. Up to two or three weeks ago, a survey showed that 75 per cent of UK holidaymakers hadn’t yet booked their holidays for this year,” he said. “Then there are also other factors that contribute to intake. For example, when British Jet closed down, we lost seat capacity”
But didn’t Air Malta buy it over?
“Well yes,” he answered. “But they’re not operating the same routes.”
On a more positive note, De Marco said: “One must also take into account that in the five-star sector we registered an increase of 30 per cent in room occupancy, and we obviously have to keep on working at improving this figure. Even when you take into account all the factors working against us, indications are showing that we are very likely to reach last year’s figures for July and possibly also beat them.”
It depends in what sector, as in the Language school industry this doesn’t seem to be the case.
“We had an excellent year in the language school industry last year, with figures of some 85,000 students coming over to Malta to study English. Between 2006 and 2007 there was also a massive growth in the intake of Spanish students, primarily due to the fact that the Spanish government offered a number of scholarships intended to fund studies in English in a number of countries, including Malta. This year in Spain, less than half the amount of students applied over all, not just those bidding to come to Malta. While this factor has contributed to the fall in student numbers from Spain, the number of students hailing from other countries is still showing positive signs – and in some cases even improvement over last year. This sector is highly competitive, while we have to bear in mind that it is very important for us to maintain standards and quality. We must ensure that teaching is kept to the highest of standards and that teachers are qualified and experienced. Accommodation must also be of a high level. By all means, certain documentaries like the ones appearing in Sweden and France do not do any good to our image,” he said, referring to a foreign TV production discussing the educational value of language school programmes in Malta, suggesting they were at times counter-productive to the formation of teenagers.
Back to the public transport strike situation, De Marco claims it is too early quantify how much damage it has actually done to the tourism industry, but: “there are various direct and indirect repercussions, both financial and non-financial. A large number of tourists could not take daily excursions. At one point I was faced with a leading UK tour operator threatening to cancel operations to Malta with immediate effect, as a safety measure. I am also informed that an Italian operator cancelled a number of room allocations it had reserved for this week. This is not to mention the damage the strike has done to our reputation. From an image point of view, the violent incidents witnessed by tourists throughout the strike could be felt in the months and years to come. This is why I deemed it important to visit students witnessing a violent incident, the moment the strike was over.
“The MTA is also incurring additional expenditure in conducting an emergency marketing campaign to ensure that overseas operators regain their level of interest in Malta.”
Throughout the four days of the strike, De Marco stayed in close contact with operators of the unscheduled coach service run by tour operators and destination management companies. One out of the four days of the strike, unscheduled coach service drivers refused to work for excursions as the situation threatened their own safety and that of their passengers.
“I needed to ensure that this coach service carries on working to the airport,” he said. “We also arranged with the Commissioner of the Police for these coaches to be escorted by a police officer.”
For those losing their flights, amounting to about forty passengers, Air Malta was kind enough to offer alternative flights at no charge. In any case, no damage limitation exercise could actually keep this type of situation from resulting into a disaster for the tourism sector. So much so, the government has deemed the strike illegal.
“The stoppage was totally illegal,” De Marco confirmed. “Industrial law states that a strike may take place when there is a dispute between employers and employees. In this case there wasn’t, as the stoppage had nothing to do with industrial relations.”
Ironically, bus and taxi drivers had just graduated from an MTA-EU funded programme entitled “Merhba”, aimed at training the drivers on how to best respond to customer needs, particularly those of tourists. When reminded about this, De Marco’s immediate reaction was that of laughter.
“It didn’t really work the way we would have liked it to didn’t it,” he said, still laughing.
But will the MTA pursue such training programmes though?
“I’m an optimistic person,” he said. “Jokes apart, I think these programmes were over all helpful in letting the drivers get in touch with their foreign counterparts, as they shared knowledge and different experiences in how to deal with different situations encountered in different countries.”
In a recent interview on this newspaper, MHRA President Kevin De Cesare had pointed that prices of hotel rooms in Malta are far too low for the sector to grow the way it would want to.
“We have to operate at European costs with North African prices,” De Cesare had noted.
The indication given by De Marco on this issue did not seem to result in a note of encouragement for the MHRA.
“Government cannot take measures to increase hotel room rates, as it is also in our interest to keep as competitive as possible.”
But quoting a report compiled by the MHRA itself, De Marco said that five star hotels have this year increased their room rates by 16 per cent, four star hotels by 24.5 per cent and three star hotels by 28.2 per cent. Gross operating profit has improved by a staggering 92.1 per cent in the five-star sector, 99.4 per cent in the four-star sector and 52.1 per cent in the three-star sector. Impressive, but does this mean that time to improve salaries has come?
“If you speak to the hotels they’ll tell you that they have already increased their payroll. But the issue is not simply with increasing wages, but rather with improving conditions. In tourism, hours are generally long and employees get to work whenever their friends or families are resting or enjoying themselves. We’re already seeing a shift though. Am I happy? Not yet. If we are to see the industry being strengthened we need to see more pride. We must stop treating hospitality jobs as transitory but rather as a career. Our biggest challenge is to retain the right people.”
A bigger challenge than perhaps working on neglected areas, such as Marsascala?
“I agree that we need to work much harder in Marsaskala. There is potential for a yacht marina there, and also for the whole street leading to the former national pool to be thoroughly embellished. The area is also a stone’s throw away from the SmartCity project, so it also makes sense to spend money in that area.”

23 July 2008

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