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Exclusive Interview: The Hon Julia Farrugia Portelli

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The Hon Julia Farrugia Portelli had barely settled in her new role as Minister for Tourism and Consumer Protection when she was faced with dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.


In an exclusive interview with Horeca Magazine, the Hon Minister shares her experience in the first few months in her new role and the challenges the local tourism industry is currently facing.

 
Congratulations on your new appointment as Minister for Tourism, one of the most important portfolios within the Maltese government. What is your overall assessment of the current situation within the Tourism, Hospitality and Catering industries in view of the ongoing growth in recent years?

I am indeed honoured that the Prime Minister has entrusted me with this important and wide-ranging portfolio. Tourism is seen as my primary responsibility, but my ministerial responsibilities include also tourism studies, the film industry, the Freeport, national parks, countryside and valley management, urban embellishment, together with competition and consumer affairs, public cleansing and maintenance. All very interesting areas where a lot has been done in recent years but also where there are still several challenges and opportunities to take on and do even more with the ultimate objective being to have a better Maltese Islands for the Maltese residents as well as those visiting us from abroad for holiday, business or to visit friends and relatives. I am very pleased with the combination of state assets in my portfolio as it allows for considerable synergies and fast interventions in various areas.

When I took up this portfolio just over 3 months ago, we were debating the idea of capping tourism numbers, slowing down our rate of growth and targeting more a higher spending visitor to our Islands. In the space of just one month all tourism has vanished and with Covid-19 still spreading strong in our tourism source markets we are now with the unhappy prospect of zero incoming tourism for the weeks and months ahead. Our world, our strategy has been turned upside down and we are being faced with the task of starting back from scratch. My focus currently is to support the tourism industry, as well as other sectors under my responsibility, in Malta and Gozo, to survive and be even better prepared when the time comes to bounce back and rebuild quickly and strongly.

It has truly been a baptism of fire, but I truly believe we’ll be back stronger than before as soon as the health crisis is over and the world economy starts to slowly recover.

I am indeed honoured that the Prime Minister has entrusted me with this important and wide-ranging portfolio. Tourism is seen as my primary responsibility, but my ministerial responsibilities include also tourism studies, the film industry, the Freeport, national parks, countryside and valley management, urban embellishment, together with competition and consumer affairs, public cleansing and maintenance. All very interesting areas where a lot has been done in recent years but also where there are still several challenges and opportunities to take on and do even more with the ultimate objective being to have a better Maltese Islands for the Maltese residents as well as those visiting us from abroad for holiday, business or to visit friends and relatives. I am very pleased with the combination of state assets in my portfolio as it allows for considerable synergies and fast interventions in various areas.

When I took up this portfolio just over 3 months ago, we were debating the idea of capping tourism numbers, slowing down our rate of growth and targeting more a higher spending visitor to our Islands. In the space of just one month all tourism has vanished and with Covid-19 still spreading strong in our tourism source markets we are now with the unhappy prospect of zero incoming tourism for the weeks and months ahead. Our world, our strategy has been turned upside down and we are being faced with the task of starting back from scratch. My focus currently is to support the tourism industry, as well as other sectors under my responsibility, in Malta and Gozo, to survive and be even better prepared when the time comes to bounce back and rebuild quickly and strongly.

It has truly been a baptism of fire, but I truly believe we’ll be back stronger than before as soon as the health crisis is over and the world economy starts to slowly recover.

The COVID-19 High Level Working Group, set up by the Ministry for Tourism and Consumer Protection has issued a set of Operational Guidelines for operators in the Travel and Tourism Sectors.

The COVID-19 High Level Working Group was an initiative in anticipation of the huge challenges that I saw coming our way. With hindsight I can say that this has functioned extremely well and the working group has helped us with having very strong direct lines of communication, important dialogue and quick hard decisions taken with full industry support. The work of this group is ongoing but in the past weeks we have switched to online communication and meetings. This efficient set up has made it possible for us to set up and offer the services of a helpline centre for the industry, tourists that were in Malta as well as the Maltese public. Thousands of calls have been taken and hundreds of emails answered with a solution of advice.

This working group has also been very active in the consultations with the Prime Minister as well as other Ministries and state agencies to draw up the generous industry support measures that have been announced as well as others that we are still working on.

 

Looking ahead, what are the long-term goals and challenges facing Tourism in Malta. Are the plans for “Strategy 2025” still on track? What initiatives are being planned to improve Malta’s tourism product.

The 2020 -2025 strategy that I was ready to launch in February is naturally now shelved as we are in a new reality. The revised strategy that we are working on will have to target building up tourism once again from zero but keeping in mind the experience and teachings of the past.

It is my objective to balance the necessity of building up numbers early on, to oil and give fuel to our tourism industry, but at the same time keeping in mind that Malta and Gozo must aim to position themselves as a destination of choice for a fulfilling travel experience and seek to keep The Maltese Islands out of the price war that mass tourism destinations will be embroiled in.

Every cloud, or I better say this perfect storm, can have a silver lining. It is an opportunity to re-design our future towards a more profitable, sustainable and eco-friendly tourism industry.

In order to achieve a higher level of quality and deliver a memorable tourism experience we must now more than ever capitalise on this down time to invest in the industry’s HR, facilities as well as the infrastructure of the destination for the benefit of both the local residents and the tourists that will be visiting us again.

The local population will be the first clients of Malta & Gozo’s tourism industry once the current social distancing regulations can be relaxed and then withdrawn.

Malta’s culinary culture has been recognised with the first ever Michelin Star awards. Can you share your thoughts on this prestigious achievement?

I am really happy with these awards as the level of excellence that several of Malta’s and Gozo’s restaurants have attained is now officially recognised by the Michelin brand, one of the foremost global authorities in the culinary arts scene.

I also take much pride in the fact that all 3 chefs that have been awarded the Michelin star are past students of Malta’s Institute of Tourism Studies. This is a very important acknowledgment of the standards at ITS. ITS shall be playing a key role in the new future of Malta’s tourism industry, not only in culinary arts but also in all others area of industry like service, events organisation, tour guiding and general management to mention a few.

Unfortunately, the announcement of these awards has been obscured by the Covid-19 emergency but one of the first activities on my agenda once we can organise social events again is the formal presentation of the Michelin Star plaques to the awarded restaurants.


Click here to see Horeca Issue 3 online