The tourism industry in Europe is nowadays characterised by a high level of destination competition from both within and outside the region. In my opinion new and emerging short and long-haul destinations will continue to augment competition for established destinations, such as Malta. If we are aiming to secure our share of the market, we then need to be much more pro-active and immediately intensify our efforts in this respect.
My agenda is line with the EU Commission’s tourism policy framework which underlines the need for Europe to promote and develop its image in global markets and promote cooperation with China, Russia, India, Brazil, Japan and the United States, amongst other markets.
From a ‘Malta-tourism’ perspective, the efforts to improve visibility of ‘destination Europe’ are of course much welcome; however, these present a number of challenges for a peripheral island destination like Malta. Such efforts to ease intra-EU connections and air-transport accessibility need to ensure an even attraction to all EU tourist destinations.
Over the years, Malta has been fairly successful in securing its market share from European countries, but the challenge of distant-market penetration is considerable for a country the size of Malta and indeed other small Mediterranean destinations. I have looked into various Commission documents on the subject of tourism proposing that Mediterranean countries together collaborate and cooperate in an effort to identify common goals and increase promotion in distant markets. I foresee these proposals leading in advantages that can be achieved through a branding process of the ‘European Mediterranean’ which can support and complement the brand-identity of the individual destinations. The promotion of this brand image with these distant markets is also important to accentuate the rich cultural elements of the Mediterranean, which at times is more associated with sun, beach and mass tourism. I reiterate that the benefit for these destinations, such as Malta, is not just about quantitative gain but also, if not more importantly, about the quality as some of the long haul markets like the U.S. and China have a registered higher tourist-spend.
The Mediterranean therefore is in a strong position to appeal to these countries. It is known that Chinese tourists are amongst those that find the concept of European Mediterranean more appealing. Action has already been taken within the EU framework to attract tourists from this region, such as the 2004 EU-China Agreement on the status of approved tourist destination. This agreement allows Chinese tourists to travel in groups to Schengen area member states. To further strengthen the relation that exists between Malta and China, a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries was signed in July this year. Amongst others I consider this in providing enhancement cooperation in tourism and culture, in addition to a new air services agreement for better connectivity between the two countries, which is a crucial ingredient for success.
I am working towards attracting and encouraging more Chinese tourists to Malta, the stakeholders, to participate in the main tourism trade fairs and exhibitions, such as COTTM which is organised in Beijing that represents a very significant platform for our islands. I am pleased to mention that in the next months, the MTA will also be launching the ‘Visit Malta’ web portal in Chinese version to make it accessible to this target market.
I am determined to create a strong brand that will put Malta on the radar of these non-EU emerging economies. The Malta Tourism Authority is rebranding its marketing activity, both in the United States of America and Canada, following the appointment of a representative based in New York. In order to attract tour operator’s interest to our islands, in September the MTA will be hosting an exclusive inspection visit of top US tour operators in cooperation with United States Tour Operator Association (USTOA). Furthermore, in the last quarter of this year we will be launching an online educative program reaching more than 80,000 travel agents and tour operators across both the United States and Canada. The objective of this initiative is to educate and inform the American and Canadian trade community about the product, service and experiences that Malta & Gozo offer to their visitors.
We need to look more towards travel facilitation. The reduction of visa bureaucracy must be improved to successfully penetrate these markets. Europe’s competitors are growing in appeal and the region needs to continue working on travel facilitation if we are to capture a bigger share of the global market. Malta, like other EU countries and members of the Schengen agreement are bound by the rules governing the issuing of visas, but the process has at times hampered growth prospects from a number of potential new source markets to the Mediterranean.
In order to stimulate the European economy and to facilitate travel towards the EU has proposed important changes in visa rules. The proposed package of measures shall improve the application processes and facilitate repeat travel. The proposal of a new type of visa, ‘Touring Visa’ shall allow legitimate travellers to circulate within the Schengen area for up to 1 year, without staying in one Member State for more than 90 days in any 180-day period, would also prove helpful. The proposal is currently being discussed and negotiated among member states at EU level. In addition a high-level meeting of EU Mediterranean member states was organised in Malta with the collaboration of the Hellenic Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the European Commission under the theme ‘Facilitating Tourism to the Mediterranean through the EU’s Visa Policy’, in order to encourage collaboration among EU Mediterranean member states in this topic.
This is surely a step in the right direction, but we need and we are working on reducing barriers for tourism, while keeping the necessary security safeguards. A balance must be struck between travel facilitation and an appropriate level of security that can efficiently curb irregular migration. All points of contact with European authorities are important, from consulates in China, India and other countries, to immigration processes at airports on arrival. Improved visa processes are a key success factor to the expansion of these important new markets.
We need to be well prepared to maximise all opportunities as important changes in travel demand and supply will continue to emerge. This strategy will however need to be supported by the provision of an attractive and quality tourist product and service, as this will secure a high level of visitor satisfaction, which will encourage loyalty and increased spending at the destination. I am confident that this is possible. Together we can make this happen and ensure more economic benefits from this important sector to our economy.