Christine Said, EU Policy Executive
This Opinion Piece featured on The Malta Independent, on 22nd May 2022
In 2018, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the OECD reported that the tourism sector accounted for 12.8% of Malta’s GDP. With a sector that represents such a significant portion of the Maltese economy and that is expected to continue growing as we move beyond the pandemic, one cannot fail to overlook the European Commission’s strategy titled Transition Pathway for Tourism that was published earlier this year, and which presents insights on proposed ways forward for tourism activity from a European perspective. Being an island state, it is easy to dismiss ideas when presented in the context of mainland Europe. However, one must bear in mind that the tourist ecosystem impacts travellers, the environment, and many different businesses, often SMEs, who are still navigating through a new reality in the recovery phase from the recent pandemic.
The EU’s Tourism Transition Pathway identifies seven building blocks in shaping a resilient touristic sector within the EU. These include aspects such as sustainable competitiveness; regulation and public governance; R&I; techniques and technological solutions; infrastructure; skills; the social dimension; investments and funding.
The fulcrum of the strategy is the highlighted pathway to a green and digital transition. In achieving this, the Commission pinpoints several aspects that can be worked on EU-wide and that can ultimately lead to a green, digitised, and more resilient tourist sector. One that stands out in the Maltese context is ‘Agri-Food’ – a concept which proposes ways to improve the reliability of local foodstuffs and minimise waste. With such a wide array of eateries in Malta and limited arable land, any measures which bolster the support to the local agricultural sector whilst leading the Maltese eateries to more competitive and sustainable practices are welcome. A Eurobarometer survey shows that tourists indeed are favouring a shift towards such sustainable practices. The Agri-Food example is one of nine within the report showing that the tourism sector does not operate in a vacuum, and synergies with the other ‘ecosystems’ are needed to achieve this proposed transition.
Other topics such as sustainable mobility may be more challenging for Maltese tourism to embrace. The gist here is to create means and ways in which the visiting tourist can consciously reduce their carbon footprint. However, as the strategy itself notes, Malta as other destinations within the EU will always fully rely on air and maritime transport to serve its connectivity needs. Nevertheless, whilst the islands’ geographical makeup and current transport infrastructure do not necessarily fit into this mould towards climate neutrality, new public transport initiatives can still be adopted in working locally towards this goal. Just as an example, at EU level, multimodal journey planning and ticketing through digital services is being promoted in creating more seamless and sustainable transport modes. In Malta, working towards a greater number of e-bike and e-scooter stations and safe pathways is one basic example of bridging the gap in transport routes for visiting tourists.
In the move towards digitalisation, the strategy dedicates a section to the key role of SMEs. It is a fact that even beyond the Maltese context, the European tourism sector is largely made up of micro and small companies with many owners operating independently or under franchise from large groups. This presents greater challenges when working towards common objectives for greater resilience through greener and digitised systems. In overcoming this hurdle in the lack of knowledge of existing good practices and access to tools to implement them, the report proposes the establishment of a collaboration platform for tourism SMEs and destinations that supports their access to information, specific tools, best practice and knowledge sharing opportunities to support their engagement. This particular topic presents food for thought to Maltese partners and stakeholders in consultation with the Malta Tourism Authority, in creating such a digital collaborative platform.
One more topic that cannot be glossed over concerns the supply of skills in the tourism sector. The main outcome of this proposed action aims to achieve a greater percentage of EU-wide training for the tourism workforce. It is proposed that this is to be achieved through collaborative efforts at national, regional as well as local levels. In implementing this building block, Malta’s tourism companies, business representatives, educators, and other organisations need to all collectively agree that there is strong need to invest in increasing skills in tourism through further training. Within the Maltese context, examples such as the MHRA’s Winning platform, which aims to share knowledge, experience, and resources fits right into the Commission’s pathway suggestion calling for further partnerships among the key players within the sector and for the agreement of joint targets in increasing skill levels in tourism through further training.
The strategy concludes with a section dedicated to engaging stakeholders without which none of the aspects of the proposed transition would be possible. Ultimately, the strategy serves as a guidance tool, and it is up to the local stakeholders to apply it to context of the Maltese tourism sector to ensure it remains competitive yet resilient especially at a time of recovery. The European Commission opened a pledges and commitments form to any interested stakeholders in subscribing to this co-creation and co-implementation process during the first few months of 2022.