Friday 20 July 2018

Do we really want tourists or not?

The other day I did my bit for Brand Malta.

A British family stopped to ask me which bus stop they had to go to, in order to catch the X3, which would take them from Mosta to Mdina. I had no clue, but rather than let them continue to wander around in confusion in this terrible heat, I felt so sorry for them that I offered to drive them there myself, seeing it’s only a ten minute drive and I had to run some errands anyway. They were so effusive with their thanks that I had a warm, fuzzy feeling the whole morning; that feeling you get when you do things for others for no reason at all.  You do it just because it feels right.

I’m mentioning this incident not to toot my own horn, but simply to illustrate how our every day contacts with that breed of people known as ‘tourists’ can either leave them with a great or terrible impression of our country. [After all, we all have horror stories of appalling encounters with locals in other countries, which left us with a bitter taste and the tendency to come out with sweeping statements about the entire population. In some cases, it is very likely that we have vowed never to return to that place again.]

I’m also recounting this incident because it is very exasperating to see Maltese people willing to justify the most appalling behaviour towards ‘foreigners’ without stopping to think that with their, yes, xenophobic comments, they are jeopardizing one of our main industries. We are not in the position of saying with a careless shrug, like they sometimes do in the States, ‘America, love it or leave it’. We are a tiny dot struggling to compete against much larger countries for a slice of the touristic pie. Having worked in the industry as my very first foray into the working world, I wonder whether some people realize that when tourism dries up, so do a whole myriad of other related industries which depend on the ripple effect for their business.

And I fear that is by the very behaviour of many of my fellow Maltese that we are killing the goose that laid the golden tourism egg.

Take a recent very sincere blog post by blogger Kate McCulley, an American visitor who wrote with humour and great insight about Malta, and who gave us a very fair, quite positive review.  As can be expected, her blog attracted different, varying opinions about our island, one of which was less than complimentary.

The comment was this:

“I lived in Malta for over 1 year. I loved it and also hated some things. I will always have mixed feelings about Malta. All my friends that still live there feel a bit the same. Sometimes you get tired of it, just want to leave that rock. And sometimes you just feel pure bliss about it. 

Things to “hate” about Malta: the “Maltesers” in general, rude and xenophobic; They try to rip you off especially when renting a flat or buying something expensive like a car or a TV; Uncivilized and crazy driving, be careful pedestrians, they don’t really stop in a zebra cross; The lack of things to do, when you eventually get tired of the island.”

 

Both on the blog, and on my wall where I reproduced the comment, it triggered off such defensive, over-protective, overly-patriotic reactions that it was verging on the ridiculous.  One gentleman even said there was absolutely nothing wrong with our driving because  “our driving habits are exactly like those in England, that is where we got them from” – that had me spluttering up my morning coffee, let me tell you.

I know that it sometimes irks us to hear our flaws being laid bare like that for all to pick on, but if we had to be brutally honest with ourselves we would have to admit that most of what this reader said rings true. Why cannot we just admit it, and try to work on what can be fixed? No, instead we have to lash out and hurl back insults, practically telling the commentator, “go back to where you came from”.

Seriously? Are we that self-sufficient that we can afford to offend not only tourists but ex-pats who actually want to come and live in Malta permanently, thus contributing to our economy? The ensuing conversation on my Facebook wall on this issue revealed just what does happen to those who decide to uproot themselves and transfer to Malta. It’s not just the unnecessary red tape of trying to settle here (why should this be the case if we are EU members?), it’s the sheer discrimination when it comes to such things as water & electricity bills, different prices on buses,  and even being asked for an additional deposit to install Internet.  One person on my wall, who happens to be Maltese herself and who came back to live here after many years in the UK, aptly described it as “institutionalized discrimination”.

Meanwhile, I have been following the saga of the procedure for ex-pats to apply for their new residential ID cards which can be simply summed up in one word: chaotic.

Many people could not agree on whether foreigners in Malta are overcharged in shops. My answer is yes, this is a common practice, and I have seen it happen with my own eyes. Ripping off tourists at every opportunity is one sure way for them never to return; think about it, do you like being fleeced just because you are visiting a foreign country? No, I didn’t think so.

There is only one area where I find complete equality. When it comes to sheer rudeness, not only towards tourists or ex-pats, but even towards each other, we are definitely in the run up to becoming The World’s Next Top Rude Country.  Forget the French stereotype, or even the notoriety which New York has for rudeness, if you want the full on rude experience just grab the next flight over to our little isle.

Throughout the service industry there needs to be some major training and sharp discipline pronto because it has now become completely unacceptable. Sure, dealing with the public is very, very difficult and there are days when, as we say in Maltese “ikollok aptit tgholli kollox” (you feel like sending everyone flying). You may be seething on the inside, but if you cannot control what you are really thinking, you are in the wrong job.

I speak from experience, harking back to my tourism days – try explaining to as many as 20 angry, frustrated tourists at a time why the government of the day was turning off the water in their self-catering apartments in the peak of summer. “We’re starting to smell”, I remember one of them telling me, beside himself with rage and yelling in my face. And me there, all of 19 years old, trying to placate him while apologizing profusely even though it was definitely not the fault of the company I worked for at the time and it was a situation beyond our control. Let’s just say I learned how to always keep smiling, even through gritted teeth.

These days rather than smiling, it is waiters, shop assistants and even people on the other end of ‘customer care’ lines who are snarling at us, the customers. I had one snarky lady this week actually tell me, ‘do you think yours is the only email we have to deal with?’ when I pointed out that their customer care was not very efficient because they took so long to answer. I looked at my phone in disbelief: did she really just say that?

Hey, two thumbs up lady, way to go – now give me your name so that I can recommend you for ‘customer care person of the year’. Not.

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