We are strongly engaged in developing a more accessible, transparent and effective digital market for all SMEs dominating the tourism sector across the European Member States. This is a major goal and a necessary implementation for the recently launched Digital Tourism Network.
‘Tapping into the benefits of the Digital single market’ and ‘Digitalisation and Collaborative economy’, are amongst the Tourism Priorities set by the Maltese Presidency I presented to the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism. We must certainly consider these as vital facets of today’s evolving tourism sector.
The collaborative or sharing economy is directly linked to digitalisation. This recent business reality has been the subject of various debates within the EU Commission and amongst most Member States. Indeed, the discussions also emerged amongst local tourism industry stakeholders.
Today we are witnessing a rapid development of new digital technologies, business models and changing consumer patterns. As a result, we are facing a number of challenges and, accordingly, questions are being raised about the functionality and feasibility of platforms within the Digital Single Market (DSM). The European Commission is therefore emphasizing the necessity of both the issue itself and the collection of evidence serving as the basis for a comprehensive analysis of the role of online platforms. Indeed, we are fully in agreement and will pursuit this strategy.
These concerns touch on various aspects of the tourism industry. In fact, this situation is creating unfair commercial practices adopted by a number of digital platforms, especially within the accommodation sector. Rate parity issues, false discounts, withholding of guests’ personal data, non-transparent payment methods for higher hotel rankings and domain grabbing, are just some examples of the prevailing unethical and irregular practices. My Ministry has a clear duty to address these issues while ensuring a fair context for our growing tourism industry.
Another apparent issue affecting the majority of citizens is that of Geo-blocking. This and other geographically based restrictions, undermine online shopping and cross-border sales by limiting the possibility of benefiting from the extensive benefits of e-commerce. The DSM strategy includes a commitment to end this unjustified practice by way of legislative proposals.
Though digitalization provides a better environment for innovation and growth, we need to bear in mind that progress is uneven across sectors and varies according to the size of enterprises. The tourism industry has undergone broad transformations and digitalization is becoming essential for bridging consumers to businesses providing digital services and goods across Europe. Although Malta has just only started exploiting this advantageous possibility, digitalization is definitively enhancing the EU’s overall competitiveness. This calls for a careful study uncovering all opportunities and challenges of digitalization in order for us to start benefitting too.
Maltese citizens also stand to benefit from the convenience that digitalization offers. Timely information, extended choices and simplification are just some examples of what consumers seek in today’s face-paced environment.
Nevertheless, it is crucial that everyone operates within the law and, at an EU level, the Commission is assessing existing regulatory framework to solve the abovementioned concerns. We need to focus on effective implementation of existing laws while avoiding the risk of an overburden of regulation and bureaucracy. It is important to see that digital platforms are not hampered by cumbersome and complex regulation. We must indeed develop a balanced environment to increase competiveness, nourishing the economic growth of the European digital economies.
Legislative framework must on the one hand ensure consumer protection and, on the other, create a level playing field for all industry players, especially SMEs. We shall do our utmost to bridge SMEs to the digital revolution, as digitalisation represents a huge potentiality for innovation and expansion. Simply put, we need to make sure that SMEs strengthen their digital profile and exploit this opportunity fully which will, in turn, contribute to further job creation and economic growth.
Unfortunately, the dominance of global digital giants make it difficult for SMEs and micro-enterprises to be visible online. The ‘Think Small First’ principle should prevail when it comes to the digital agenda. We must acknowledge that the EU Commission is indeed implementing concrete actions to improve digital and e-management skills also through an ongoing series of webinars and the content enhancement of the Tourism Business Portal. However, SMEs also need to execute their part and move away from their comfort zone in order to completely embrace digital opportunities.
The development of European digital platforms must be supported and provided with the right conditions for growth. This can be achieved by delivering the DSM strategy, updating existing regulation with today’s digital trends, lightening the burden of regulation for small innovative businesses and by encouraging ease of access to finance through the Capital Markets Union package. Digital platforms are an opportunity, not a threat.
I believe that the implementation of the DSM strategy can serve as an opportunity for the European industry to tap into new global markets, while further increasing intra-EU tourism.
The DSM and the Sharing Economy are dominating the tourism agenda at present. These issues alongside other such as connectivity, seasonality, blue growth and the long-term sustainability of the sector, will feature within a high-level conference organised by the Ministry for Tourism to be held next May. During this important event, I will bring together an extensive cross-section of European stakeholders to discuss the future of European tourism.
I wish to conclude by referring to Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska’s answers to the European Parliament on this matter. She called upon the Parliament to start fostering and incentivizing innovation within the DSM. At the same time, she contends that we need to promote digital entrepreneurship and support the exploitation of digital technologies by SMEs also by curbing regulatory fragmentation and reducing administrative burden. I fully support this strategy, and I will diligently work to make sure that Malta and Maltese citizens exploit the use of digitalization to be at the forefront of the European Union.