As the World Tourism Organisation predicted, the number of tourists decreased by 60-80% worldwide in 2020. The severity of the downfall being experienced by this industry and the ripple effect on the world economy has brought the world to a standstill.
Instead of counting the costs of the dramatic drops all across the tourism industry, Dr Julian Zarb, Visiting Lecturer at the University of Malta’s Institute for Tourism, Travel & Culture, says this global shutdown is a time for academics, practitioners and politicians to put their minds together and start strategising in the long-term.
You’ve been a lecturer at the ITTC for many years now. In this role, how have you seen the Institute evolve?
I’ve been involved with the ITTC since 2008, since before it branched out and evolved into an Institute, and started offering courses for undergraduates, Masters and PhD students.
This is an interesting question coming at a time like this – because although I myself have seen it a while ago, more and more people should realise the value of this type of education being offered. Students have this opportunity to learn through lectures, through dialogue, and through discussion – through using their minds.
Tourism is not just about catching an airplane or checking into a hotel, and this is unfortunately a misconception even among some of the students who enter any of our courses. It’s about an activity that is a national, sociocultural activity, not just one fuelled by and fuelling the economy. The role of the Institute is one that helps everyone understand this better, and helps plan for a better way forward.
You’re heavily involved in tourism planning, here and overseas. But in an oxymoron kind of way, there are some things tourism cannot plan for, like COVID-19. In your opinion, what’s in the future of tourism in Malta?
There has never been a more interesting time in which to study tourism. We need more people to study it, think about the options it can offer and reconsider current paths.
The situation up to March was not perfect, and the pandemic made it even less so. But this is a great opportunity to talk about sustainability, and get ready to start a new chapter and putting things right. We need more researchers and students to discuss and consider tourism in the wider sense.
One of the things we need to look at is alternative sources of tourism. It is my firm belief that we should not just go back to mass tourism.
We should look at quality not quantity – and by this, I mean we should not look at who it is we are trying to attract (their status), but rather at the tourist who wants to be there, and not just happens to be there.
Tourism is not going to magically make a surge forward just as vaccines start coming out and being administered.
We need to be more cautious about the revival of tourism. Another thing that is direly needed is for all of us to really get our brains together – the local authorities, the academics, the community, and all stakeholders – and plan an integrated approach.
We are on equal footing with other countries here as this global shutdown affected everyone – they might be ahead of us because they’re already thinking ahead and we need to start doing the same.
And what is your personal opinion on how the country reacted to the pandemic?
Unfortunately, local tourism has always been short-termist.
We need to get away from that fire-fighting and turn it into long-term thinking and planning ahead.
Whilst the short-term plans will create a benchmark, long-term plans through this integrated approach is more considerate of the quality of life of those involved in the sector, and its consumers.
The Mediterranean needs to rebrand itself from a sun and sea destination to a cultural one.
We also need to be aware of what other countries are doing. Take Calvia, a town in Mallorca as an example – they managed to improve the quality of their environment, and bring in quality tourists. It’s a place we need to look more closely at, as they use the integrated approach.
Can virtual tours ever be a plausible interim substitute for actual tourism?
If you can’t travel, there can be no tourism. Virtual visits are not a substitute – tourism is where you’re actually experiencing a different community on site. It is about sharing knowledge and making new discoveries.
And may I remind you that, we should take this time of quietude to look at the current plans and improve them. It’s useless saying we should wait until the people start coming again, because it will be too late then.
And here is where the Institute at the University needs to step in. It can provide research findings and bridge that gap between the academic world and the policy-making one.
What does this integrated approach in tourism consist of?
In my time within the tourism sector, I managed to understand that it is one of the most fragmented industries I’ve come across – travellers think one way, agents think in another, hoteliers in yet another, and there isn’t that coordinating point.
Remember the 70s, when we heavily depended on two operators who pushed the lower echelons out of the market? Instead of going about the future of tourism in an individual way, we need to think of an integrated approach and see the big picture. We need to think collectively.
You’ve said that “tourism has become an industry based on quantitative return, or mass production”, a point you’ve mentioned before. What makes tourism a career, rather than just a temporary job?
We had plenty of career-seeking people who were committed to the industry, who had gone through the different levels of learning, who were committed and could talk as professionals. What happened was that because of the issues we just talked about, there was a price war and something had to give.
And thus the perception shifted to one where people sought the tourism sector for an easy job. I still occasionally hear the term “għax dak biċċa waiter” (that’s just a waiter). No, waiting is a profession. It is about more than just slamming a plate in front of a client, or taking an order on a slip of paper. It is about looking after the client, helping out in menu choice, knowing the menu, and facilitating the client’s satisfactory experience. Christmas is a time when these people work harder – and you can see the ones who consider this a fulfilling career standing out from the others because to them, the festive season is synonymous with work.
How can tourism be innovative and sustainable at the same time?
We need to support the employees in the industry – we can have all the 5-star hotels we like, but without the committed, professional staff, then we won’t be able to manage.
If we don’t mentor our staff now, and help upskill them, we will not have people who are proud to be in this industry.
And again, this is where the ITTC comes in – if we want to compete with other industries, we need to promote the idea that our graduates are the kind of professionals we need to bring this industry forward by thinking ahead, by thinking strategically, and by thinking collectively.