Adapt or perish

“Those (in the hospitality and tourism industry) who refuse to invest in their workers and view them solely as profit sources, have no place in our country’s economy.”

You have friends visiting from abroad and you would like to take them out for dinner. You conduct an online search among hundreds of potential places, and struggle to find one serving authentic, Maltese food that doesn’t break the bank. You get to your destination. There is not a single member of staff who is Maltese, which is fine, since you’re not interested in their nationality but in good customer service.

As it turns out, that staff member serving you does not speak any of the country’s two official languages – Maltese and English. They don’t really know how to pronounce the names of local dishes, or which local wine to recommend. The menu is riddled with spelling mistakes. You end up feeling very apologetic, wondering whatever happened to the good old days of service.

What on earth have we done wrong?

That’s a long one to explain. In an over-simplified nutshell: we have clearly been favouring quantity over quality. The past decade was mostly about numbers and about the money cashed in by the industry.

Fair enough, you hear the decision-makers say. The economy needed a jump-start. The pandemic halted things and we needed to set the wheels back in motion.

Now, those same voices justifying the exponential growth in the industry are now much more reflective and subdued in nature.

The Journal spoke with the Minister responsible for Tourism, Clayton Bartolo.

We’re going through changes

Minister Bartolo explained that Malta has been observing a rise in tourist numbers, nights spent, and visitor expenditures, indicating a successful notable shift in the island’s marketing efforts.

Having said that, he insists that the next milestone is centered on improving service: “We recognise the fact that we have a lot to offer in terms of culture, festivals, and more, but now the focus must turn towards the quality of our service. This aspect has been neglected, and when spoken about, the goals were very vague. We now believe it’s essential to establish and adhere to industry standards, akin to those found in other sectors, such as healthcare. In the hospitality sector, it’s important to set similar benchmarks when it comes to the service being given.”

A stakeholders meeting on the issue was held on Thursday, in preparation for the launch of a public consultation process, next week, aimed at ensuring that, in a year’s time, a system comes into force whereby all those working in the hospitality industry must be professionally trained and assessed. This means that the emphasis will not just be on completing a course, but also on being evaluated for competence. It is being proposed that, as from the 3rd of January 2024, third country nationals (TCNs) and those coming from visa-exempt countries will need to have successfully completed a course to be able to obtain a work permit. Starting from October 2024, certification will be a sine qua non for the renewal of work permits for TCNs, while as from January 2025, all workers in the industry must have a skills card.

Wait, aren’t unskilled workers already among us?

Yes, they are, and the Minister acknowledges it. Regrettably, there have been stories of untrained individuals landing in Malta and commencing work within the same day.

Minister Bartolo emphasised that, whilst some of these imported hands are skilled and competent, others are not: “We recently learnt of a situation where a person struggled to even understand what a beer was when approached in a local bar. There was a time when we tolerated such cases, but such standards are no longer acceptable.”

Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo (2nd from left) exchanges views with tourists visiting Malta.

What are we going to train people in?

In short: proficiency in basic English, effective communication with customers, and competency in their respective field.  

These prerequisites must be met prior to applying with Identità. If an applicant does not meet these criteria, their application to come to Malta will not be considered. Upon arrival in Malta, there will also be an in-person assessment to verify that the skills claimed online are genuinely possessed.

The assessments will be conducted by the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS), and students graduating from ITS will automatically receive accreditation. Recognition will also be granted to local workers with informal but accumulated, valuable experience.

The ultimate objective is to have a Skill Card system, enabling everyone in the sector to showcase their abilities. Trained assessors will issue these Skills Cards, which will be administered by the Malta Tourism Authority.

The rollout of this system will extend to all workers within the tourism sector over several years.

Pressed for further details, the Minister said that further information about this process will be announced in due course.

What will happen to businesses that have built their success on unskilled labour?

“They need to adapt” said Minister Bartolo, without mincing words. “Those who refuse to invest in their workers and view them solely as profit sources, have no place in our country’s economy.”

In short, those who have cared less about the country’s ‘non-offficial ambassadors’ are in for a tough ride. By the country’s non-official ambassadors, we mean the staff that tourists meet in hotels and restaurants and refer to for directions, for information, or for general chit-chat to get acquainted with the island and its islanders.

Should we not care about numbers?

Whilst quality is a priority, quantity is also necessary. We need a substantial number of tourists visiting Malta to support investment. “As tourist numbers increase, our focus shifts towards attracting more affluent visitors who contribute significantly to the local economy. This, in turn, will encourage hotels to elevate their standards and invest more in their workers, resulting in higher wages and more comprehensive training programs. The introduction of skills cards will play a pivotal role in this,” Minister Bartolo said.

In conclusion: It would have been great to strike the right balance between quality and quantity from the get-go. This simply did not happen.

The way forward seems to steer towards the right direction, though it will be painful journey and, for some, an uncomfortable new normal to adapt to.

Let’s hope that the new system doesn’t find solace in dreaded loopholes, such as those that contractors who import workers by the dozen know only too well how to navigate.

At least in principle, this administration has the courage and the willingness to call an ice cream spade an ice cream spade, and is willing to change what is clearly frustrating us all, in a sector that is dear to us all.

Main photo: Towfiqu Barbhuiya

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