Most optimistic prediction by industry sources is 1.3 million tourists in 2021 – Tony Zahra

MHRA President Tony Zahra

Last Updated on Friday, 22 May, 2020 at 10:41 am by Andre Camilleri

The best possible scenario predicted so far for next year is that 1.3 million tourists will visit Malta, MHRA President Tony Zahra told The Malta Independent.

2.8 million inbound tourist trips were registered last year, but the sector ground to a halt this year with the suspension of all passenger flights as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is believed that the pandemic could cost the country up to €3 billion in tourism revenue and lead to thousands of redundancies.

Zahra told this newsroom that it is difficult to predict tourist arrivals for 2021, but the best case scenario predicted by industry sources would place the totals for next year at around a third of last year’s numbers.

The Malta Independent asked Zahra whether he could confirm reports that several routes will be cut from the Winter 2020 and Summer 2021 flight schedules. He said that the association does not have any information to this effect.

Zahra added that it is very difficult to predict what routes could be axed and if flight frequencies would change, adding that Malta would have to adapt to the situation.

“If we manage to get 30% to 40% of last year’s numbers in the upcoming winter schedule, it would not be so bad,” Zahra said.

He added that those who think that things will go back to normal the day the airport reopens are “gravely mistaken.”

“This is not some annual shutdown where you pick up where you left off,” he said.

Zahra noted that there are many who are putting pressure on the authorities to keep the airport shut. “For sure, if the airport remains closed, there will be no flights and no passengers.”

The government said last week that it is discussing the possibility of opening ‘safe corridors’ with nine other countries that have kept their COVID-19 numbers low. These are: Luxembourg, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Israel.

The UK is also mulling the idea of ‘air bridges’, removing the 14-day quarantine requirement for people coming from ‘safe’ countries, while Italy has said it will open its airports on 3 June. It is unlikely, however, that Malta will consider re-launching flights to the two countries – even if they are Malta’s biggest tourism markets – given their high COVID-19 infection rates.

The idea of restarting flights has been met with fierce opposition by a number of social partners and medical associations, who say that the economy is being prioritised over public health.

On Thursday, the Medical Association of Malta (MAM) and UHM-Voice of the Workers said that Malta is now in the second Coronavirus wave and warned that the country could end up with the “worst statistics in the Mediterranean.”

Asked for a reaction, Zahra said he would not go into the medical argument but wanted to make an economic argument that everyone can understand.

“Imagine that tourism is a hosepipe attached to a water tap. This hosepipe feeds into other smaller pipes, a sort of irrigation system. These small pipes represent many sectors of the economy; airport shops, taxis, public transport, restaurants, hotels, bars and many more. At the end, there is something called ‘government taxes’ and these taxes finance things such as public healthcare and education. If you close the tap, there will be no water in any of the pipes. So how can you expect the flowers to live?”

Zahra said there has been a lot of talk about a “second, third, fourth or fifth wave, but the only thing that is certain is that if the hose remains closed, the economy will remain in a disastrous state.”

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