Tourism is understandably one of the hardest hit sectors as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the years, tourism numbers increased substantially as a result of an increased connectivity: the reverse happened the moment that connectivity was restricted or became practically inexistent.
Earlier this week saw the first arrivals at our air and seaports. Slowly, connectivity is being restored. It is expected that tourism will now start a slow recovery. Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia-Portelli is on record with a 700,000-tourist target for year end. Malta International Airport CEO had earlier opined that it will take at least two years to recover to pre-pandemic level airport movements.
Will tourism ever recover to the pre-pandemic levels?
There are various estimates of the contribution of tourism to the economy. One such estimate points at a direct contribution of around 5 percent of our economy. However, as a result of its impacts on other sectors the overall contribution rises to around 12 percent. Bars, restaurants, retail trade, events, entertainment and transport (in particular car hire), are heavily dependent on tourism. Specific sectors such as the English language school sector as well as diving are important sectors in the tourism economy.
Much has been stated on the impact of the pandemic on the hotel industry. The providers of non-hotel beds, however, have also been heavily impacted by the pandemic, but they have not featured much in the post-Covid-19 debate. This is a sector which involves a number of small-scale investors and micro-businesses each employing less than ten employees.
UNCTAD, the UN Trade and Development Agency, earlier this week stated that the four-month standstill of the tourism industry due to the pandemic Covid-19 could cost the industry around $1.2 trillion. This estimated cost could more than double, depending on the severity and spread of a second wave of the pandemic.
Jamaica could lose as much as 11 percent of its GDP, Thailand 9 percent, Italy 5 percent. In the EU, the worst impacts are along the Mediterranean coast where the economy is heavily dependent on tourism. In addition to Malta, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Greece are also heavily impacted. Turkey and Tunisia, Mediterranean players in the tourism industry have also been almost at a standstill, after experiencing a substantial expansion of their tourism industry throughout the years.
It is understandable that government through the Malta Tourism Authority is currently focused on getting tourism back on its feet. This is however not enough. We must start discussing a long-term view of the tourism industry.
At the end of 2019 the 2.8 million mark of tourists visiting the Maltese islands had been attained. The point at issue is whether this is sustainable in the long-term. This has been a perennial issue in tourism politics since the days when the numbers were much lower. The debate was and should be whether we should focus more on quality than on quantity.
The advent of low-cost carriers as an essential part of the tourism equation places more emphasis on numbers than on quality. It is a choice which may need to be analysed and revisited. Economic impacts have to be viewed concurrently with environmental impacts. We must remember that tourism has a considerable environmental impact. It is about time that the tourism debate is carried out within the parameters of the Green Deal.
Aeroplane emissions will at some point in time in the near future have to be addressed. Carbon taxes will sooner or later come into play. Unless they are addressed immediately it will be more difficult, if not practically impossible, to address the Paris Climate Change conclusions to which Malta has adhered. At that point it will not be just the tourism industry but our whole lifestyle which will be in for the chop.
The Maltese archipelago, like all islands, will bear the brunt of climate change impacts. The coastline will be severely hit by a sea level rise. It may be pertinent to remember that the coast houses practically all of the tourism infrastructure. The longer we ignore this basic fact, the more severe will the impacts be.
By now all of us are aware that Tourism is a very volatile industry: any shock will result in mass redundancies. Tourism is currently way too seasonal, and consequently it only serves to create precarious working conditions.
It is the time to plan ahead: thinking carefully of the social, environmental and economic impacts of all decisions. This is what sustainable development is, after all, about. It is the only way to ensure that the negative impacts of the tourism industry are addressed by us sooner rather than later.
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 5 July 2020