Now is the time to re-think our tourism strategy – Dr George Cassar

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“Trying to save our tourism sector has helped us realise that our immediate health and safety are more essential than the economy. However, now is the time to see how best to rejuvenate this industry and the best way to start is to let go of mass and low-quality tourism,” says GEORGE CASSAR who besides being an educator for these past 40 years is also a researcher, author and editor, a historical sociologist and a cultural and heritage tourism academic.

What are your passions?

Books and the seeking of knowledge are a top interest and passion. In my spare time (of which I have to admit I have little) I am a keen collector of miniature military figurines, die cast vehicles and numismatics.

You have been teaching tourism-related subjects especially those related to cultural heritage at University level for many years. How have you seen this area develop over all these years?

Cultural tourism is today an inseparable part of the tourism industry globally as much as locally. Cultural heritage with the wider cultural sector were present from day one at the Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture at the University of Malta, set up in 2010 and of which I form part. Indeed, the establishment of the ITTC was a significant advancement on the previous Department of Tourism Studies which had been within FEMA. The new autonomous Institute added two sectors – travel and culture – to its original tourism remit. This was a noteworthy message to the industry that one could not study tourism as a sort of anonymous subject. The world was changing and besides travel, which is the main vehicle for tourist movements, culture was one principal pull element of tourism that could not be taken for granted anymore.

How important is ‘cultural tourism’?

Cultural tourism is indicated by statistics and widespread research as constituting around 40% of global tourism. Thus the wealthier a destination is in history, heritage, culture and related assets, the stronger is the possibility for it to attract higher quality, more discerning visitors who are seeking experiences that go beyond pure or mere leisure, entertainment and relaxation. Cultural tourism is one way of educating and enriching oneself in a meaningful and long-lasting manner. It brings cultures together and helps people to interact and share their cultural heritage. In a word, it brings people closer; culture and cultural heritage are ingredients for a tourism of quality and a means by which a destination and its peoples can showcase themselves and announce their pride in who they are. This is what we teach our students – many of whom will be the future tourism operators, stakeholders, professionals and policymakers – in the hope that through their work and decisions cultural heritage is safeguarded, protected and given its deserved status. To say that everyone is aware of this would be a gross overstatement. While many have taken up the fight for the survival of our cultural heritage, many others seem to have vowed to destroy it in the name of progress, economic advancement, so-called development, modernisations and ‘moving with the times’.    

You recently published a book Tourism and the Maltese Islands: Observations, reflections & proposals. What were the most salient outcomes of this publication?

The book which is co-edited by me and Dr Marie Avellino, focuses or the realities of tourism in Malta and beyond. The authors included in this publication look at how tourism is changing while at the same time, how this change is affecting destinations. The various studies highlight the problem of over tourism and its many negative impacts on the social and natural environment of destinations. This book looks at what benefits, tourism can bring to a destination but does not shy away from indicating the problems it also creates. For example, Malta has for many years been procrastinating in embarking on a carrying capacity exercise and thus continues to put off the officialising of the realities – including those negative – which indicate numbers on their own mean nothing. Indeed, while many in the tourism sector admit that that Malta has for some years been weighed by large numbers that are critically affecting the infrastructure, essential services, air quality, natural and built environment, besides the peaceful existence of the locals, this reality has not as yet been illustrated clearly through a serious soul-searching carrying capacity study. This book aims to raise awareness and offer guidance and insight to those working in tourism and who have the authority, power and responsibility to address the effects of tourism for the wider benefits of the destination and its inhabitants.     

Tourism has been dealt a huge blow by the current pandemic. What opportunities do you see that could help us reshape our tourism product?

Undoubtedly Covid-19 has meted a deadly blow to tourism worldwide, not least to Malta. At present tourism is trying to pick up but in doing so may, in fact, be endangering the inhabitants of a destination more than procuring benefits. The dilemma many governments are facing at this moment is to see which, between the economy and health, merits the more attention. A country lacking a strong economy will eventually falter, while a people who are unhealthy cannot contribute to strengthen their economy. The ‘chicken and egg’ impasse is an evident predicament that is causing discussion, debate, condemnation and all sorts of other reactions. In real fact no one knows what can be done to combat an enemy which seems to be invisible. Going round it does not seem to be working too well, if at all. To pretend it does not exist or that it is largely innocuous, has proven to be even more devastating. It needs to be admitted that only an efficient and effective vaccine can bring the world back on its feet so that while safeguarding the people, the economy can really and truly pick up. As things stand at the moment, the future is too shaky, the people are too unsure, and the economy while essential, is considered by many as less central to their lives than their immediate health and safety. 

What is the benefit that has come out from this situation?

Paradoxically, in such a situation tourism has been given a breathing space in which it can rethink itself while evaluating where it was up till the end of 2019. A destination can and should during this breather take stock of its tourism situation before mayhem struck. While admitting that little significant can happen in the sphere of tourism until mid-2021 (hopefully), the industry and government authorities, should take the opportunity to start anew, so to say, by focussing on a tourism sector where numbers countless, while quality means more. Pressure from the industry operators, it is assumed, would generally push for mass tourism as this fills the beds and the restaurants. However, this undoubtedly impacts negatively other assets of the destination. Indeed, it is time to look at a more sustainable, greener, and more robust and rational tourism offer that looks more towards the future instead of seeking only the quick buck and immediate gratification. Tourism needs to invest in its own future for it to survive and safeguard the destination in which it operates – which after all constitutes its product and its offer.      

How would you describe the profile of the typical tourists visiting Malta? How interested are they in Malta’s cultural heritage?

Most tourists who visit Malta are still mainly leisure-seeking, sun, sand and see tourists. However in more recent years an increase in cultural-minded tourists is also being detected meaning that Malta is now also being considered and chosen by a large minority for its rich cultural heritage especially showcased by its historical assets – such as its prehistoric temples, baroque architecture, the numerous heritage sites, an assortment of museums, unique artefacts, as well as the culinary and artisan offers among others.

Where should Malta go vis-a-vis tourism in the coming few years?

Malta needs to continuously seek to rejuvenate as a destination as there is the grave and imminent danger that its present touristic offer is beginning to age and stagnate. Tourism is an active industry. If a destination is not dynamic and vigilant it will lose contact with the demand. While resting on its present successes other competing destinations would be diversifying and becoming more attractive. Malta thus needs to monitor its offer and strive to make it always as fresh and enticing as possible. This can be done by coming up with diverse and novel products that offer unique experiences, which many discerning tourists look for when planning their trips. More niches need to be identified, developed and refined. Potential possibilities include faith-based tourism, dark tourism, medical tourism, experiential tourism, adventure tourism and community-based tourism. Aquatic tourism, educational tourism, conference and MICE tourism, along with other already functioning niches can, and should be investigated, rethought and remodelled so that these may be improved and become more appealing. Malta has remained too much on the beaten track, which has proven to be lucrative enough up till now but will eventually lose its sheen at a progressive pace as competitors introduce improved and more enticing offers and novel products that are better-priced and more value-for-money, offering higher attractiveness and uniqueness.   

Which aspects in Malta’s tourist product should we forego?

Mass and low-quality tourism should surely in my view be the first casualties when diversification and rejuvenation set in. Masses may look nice on paper because many are mesmerised by numbers and politicians use them to indicate how successful they have been in propping this industry. Yet, as research continues to indicate and shout out, numbers in themselves mean nothing or very little; indeed many a time they spell disaster and destruction for a destination, and Malta is no exception. We need to invest in quality which renders better returns as opposed to quantity which generally depletes our resources without compensating adequately for the many stresses incurred.   

What projects are you currently working on?

Ongoing immediate projects include several books. One is a new publication concerning tourism of which I am co-editor. I am at present also authoring two books on two localities and am also looking forward to finalising a further publication related to Malta’s colonial education.   

Where do you see Malta’s tourism sector 10 years from today?

Being a rather optimistic person, I am hoping that in the coming decade Malta will make the important diversification leap I already mentioned above. Malta’s cultural heritage and cultural tourism need to be brought more into the limelight. The islands’ cultural heritage must be safeguarded and protected from destruction by soulless construction and the limitless urges of businesspersons /entrepreneurs to make money out of everything at all costs to the detriment of Malta’s inheritance and beauty. It is the only way Malta can remain a viable touristic destination.   

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