Sunday, 6 September 2009

Dreaming About Maximising our Tourism Potential

6th September 2009
The Malta Independent on Sunday

To continue with my views on tourism following my column last Friday in the daily version of this paper, I find it almost offensive that a mediocre breakfast in a dull hotel in London, Paris or Berlin costs more than a half board package price in a superior Maltese hotel.

Those who have the slightest knowledge of how tourism works are probably protesting that London, Paris and Berlin are not our competitors, and as far as we are concerned their pricing is irrelevant.

True, our competitors are the Mediterranean resorts and our pricing has to be competitive with such resorts not with prices prevailing in the main European cities. But this is true if one accepts the status quo as an eternal permanent state of affairs.

It need not be totally true for innovators or dreamers who believe they can change the world.

With determination to improve, enhance and build an aura around our tourist product (especially those elements of it which give us a natural advantage if not unique attractions), with learning how to treat the tourist as a valued guest not as an exploitable number, and with massive investment in building a Malta brand to match the up market image we need to create, we can change what now seems immutable.

And change we must if we are to move from being price takers to price setters.

So why have we done nothing about it yet, one could reasonably ask? Do we not believe in our own potential? And if we don’t, how can we persuade others to believe in us?

This lack of self-esteem is indeed the biggest obstacle to set us on a long-term process to maximise our potential.

Let me give a small example of this lack of self-esteem. Take the karozzin service. Properly packaged this should be a premium service. Yet how do we package it?

Spend some time on City Gate bridge where many cruise passengers entering Valletta are a captive market for this service. Instead of a uniformed cab driver ready to deliver service against a well-exposed price list, tourists just a few metres away from the City Gate tourist office are subjected to poorly-dressed drivers rudely touting for business, price haggling typical of a Turkish bazaar and total obscurity as to what exactly is being promised. How long will the tour take? What route will be followed? Will the cab driver act as guide or just drive the cab?

I have no doubt that many potential clients for such service are put off not so much by the price but more by the perception that the process is loaded against the tourist who needs substantial negotiating skills to avoid being had. I would probably gladly pay a higher authorised and advertised price rather than a lower negotiated price, which leaves me with an aftertaste of having been fleeced.

Does it take too much to put an official tariff on cabs, to have drivers wearing an appropriate uniform, to ensure that cab drivers can give a well pronounced guide commentary via a loud speaker or to equip cabs with multi lingual pre-recorded audio service?

Absolutely not, but we take no pride in our product so where it matters, things keep to Third World standards.

It would be disastrous if we try to brand our product before we bring it up to the level that makes it saleable at a premium. Good advertising kills a bad product faster than bad advertising.

But even if and when we find the courage and determination to expose our tourist product to its full potential branding, it is a process that will take years of effort and many millions of investment.

And here we hit cultural barriers. We are impatient. We lack staying power. Our investors, especially the government that invests many millions annually in the industry, want immediate results. Problem is that investments in product improvement and branding are expensive and can only deliver results over the medium to long term if well executed.

Governments argue that in the long term we are all dead. They want results here and now. But here and now results are fickle, subsidy dependent and unsustainable.

To maximise our potential we need to overcome our lack of self-esteem and our short-termism. You could say that we need to be reborn.

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