Gov­ern­ment in­sists on strate­gic part­ner for Air Malta, but does not rule out lo­cal in­vest­ment

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

Tourism Min­is­ter Ed­ward Zam­mit Lewis in­sisted yes­ter­day that the way for­ward for Air Malta was to find a strate­gic part­ner but said the gov­ern­ment had never closed the door for lo­cal in­vest­ment.

His com­ments came after a news­pa­per report this morn­ing said the gov­ern­ment was likely to pull the plug on the Air Mal­taAl­i­talia deal.

Ques­tion­ing the tim­ing of the report, Dr Zam­mit Lewis said that, while lo­cal in­vest­ment was not being ex­cluded, Air Malta needed to join a larger net­work.

He men­tioned how, in an interview in The Malta In­de­pen­dent, for­mer Air Malta chair­man Louis Far­ru­gia had in­sisted that the only real choice for Air Malta was to en­ter a strate­gic al­liance.

“I brought this Me­moran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing be­fore this very house and I am not ashamed of it. I don’t want quick fixes for Air Malta, but long term sus­tain­abil­ity.”

He also ac­cused Op­po­si­tion Leader Si­mon Busut­til of being “in­con­sis­tent” on Air Malta. “Some­times he says Air Malta needs a strate­gic part­ner then he tells us that he would is­sue the air­line’s shares to the pub­lic. Which one is it?” The Tourism Min­is­ter said he had not once heard Si­mon Busut­til speak­ing on Air Malta un­der PN gov­ern­ments. “He is not cred­i­ble on the sub­ject be­cause he has never done any­thing about it.” The Min­is­ter did not ex­clude that an IPO (Ini­tial Pub­lic Of­fer­ing) would be is­sued once the air­line was on more solid ground.

A lot of progress had been reg­is­tered at Air Malta, Dr Zam­mit Lewis said. This in­cluded the rene­go­ti­a­tion of cer­tain con­tracts and ar­range­ments for work­ers. “We have been con­sis­tent and have al­ways in­sisted that the gov­ern­ment has to re­tain a 51% share­hold­ing.”

Dr Zam­mit Lewis was speak­ing in the de­bate on the fi­nan­cial es­ti­mates of the tourism min­istry. To­day is the first of many marathon par­lia­ment ses­sions fol­low­ing the bud­get. Ear­lier, Op­po­si­tion MPs had in­sisted that the bud­get speech did not fo­cus much on the vi­tal sec­tor.

Re­act­ing, the min­is­ter said the bud­get speech gave di­rec­tion, not de­tails. He pointed out that tourism had grown by some 35% since 2012 and, con­trary to the PN’s claims, the num­ber of air­line routes was in­creas­ing.

“The PN crit­i­cized us on Gozo. What I can say is that seven ma­jor Gozo ho­tels closed dur­ing the last two PN ad­min­is­tra­tions while we have sev­eral ap­pli­ca­tions for new ho­tels, hos­tels and guest­houses, not to men­tion the ap­pli­ca­tions for AirBnB ser­vices.”

The PN Leader, Dr Zam­mit Lewis said, seemed to be obliv­i­ous to the de­vel­op­ments sur­round­ing him.

The tar­get for 2017 is to ex­ceed the two mil­lion tourist mark. “We should reach this num­ber, ir­re­spec­tive of the EU pres­i­dency. We are al­ready at 1.9 mil­lion tourists and I be­lieve we can do it.”

A lot of the work being car­ried out was not men­tioned in the bud­get but this did not mean that noth­ing was being done. The gov­ern­ment, he said, was work­ing on the sea­son­al­ity prob­lem, had cre­ated an in­sol­vency fund for when travel agen­cies went bust and the cruise liner sec­tor was also growing.

Dr Zam­mit Lewis said some 700,000 cruise liner pas­sen­gers were ex­pected to visit Malta next year while a se­cond cruise liner – the P&O Oceana – would make Malta its home­port.

The MTA, he said, was fund­ing se­cu­rity cam­eras in Paceville to make the area safer and was also work­ing on in­creas­ing the num­ber of Blue Flag beaches in Malta.

The au­thor­ity was also work­ing on the Comino sit­u­a­tion, which he de­scribed as a ‘Baby­lon.’

“The MTA does a good job of mar­ket­ing the is­land but tourists find some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent when they get there.” The MTA is work­ing on a report and op­er­a­tors will have to abide by much stricter rules.

Only 111 words on Air Malta in three-hour long bud­get speech - PN tourism spokesman

Ear­lier, Op­po­si­tion spokesper­son for tourism An­toine Borg com­plained to­day that there were only 111 words on the sub­ject of Air Malta in the bud­get speech.

“There was more on Comino than on Air Malta in the bud­get speech,” Mr Borg said. “I counted and there are only 111 words on Air Malta in the en­tire speech. Such an im­por­tant is­sue de­serves more. As a party we have said that this was a cos­metic bud­get. On tourism it was a ‘touch and go’ job. It is like the gov­ern­ment found that it had two empty pages in the bud­get speech and de­cided that it might just as well say some­thing on Air Malta.”

The PN MP also urged the gov­ern­ment to be straight­for­ward on de­vel­op­ments at the na­tional air­line after more re­ports have emerged on the pos­si­bil­ity that the Air Malta-Al­i­talia talks might be scrapped. “Six months ago we were shown the MoU and given the un­der­stand­ing that a strate­gic part­ner had been found. Yet noth­ing has ma­te­ri­al­ized so far and we do not know what is hap­pen­ing.”

Turn­ing to other sub­jects, Mr Borg said the pro­posed in­vest­ment in the tourism sec­tor left much to be de­sired. “The fi­nance min­is­ter told us how money col­lected from the 50 cent tax will be used to up­grade touris­tic ar­eas. But the em­bel­lish­ment of such ar­eas should be taken for granted – we should not have to hear it once a year in a bud­get speech.”

Mr Borg said Gozo was “another dis­ap­point­ment”, with the gov­ern­ment hav­ing failed to make solid com­mit­ments. “They will men­tion the Cit­tadella project, which is, after all, a PN project. Gozo needs much more.”

He also said that the draw­ing up of a mas­ter plan for Paceville was pos­i­tive be­cause large scale de­vel­op­ment needed a holis­tic plan. “The Op­po­si­tion has an open mind on the sub­ject. In the mean­time there are some fac­tors we can­not ig­nore. We have to be care­ful not to close off the area dur­ing the time it takes to im­ple­ment the mas­ter­plan.” He also pointed out that some shops, bars and eater­ies depended on Paceville’s en­ter­tain­ment es­tab­lish­ments and one had to be care­ful that th­ese were not put out of busi­ness.

Mr Borg also in­sisted that the gov­ern­ment should have been more gen­er­ous with grant schemes be­cause tax cred­its have a ten­dency to favour thriv­ing busi­nesses while other, less suc­cess­ful ones do not get the full ad­van­tage.

PN MPs Robert Ar­rigo, Kristy De­bono and Clau­dio Grech also spoke for the Op­po­si­tion dur­ing this morn­ing’s de­bate, while Sil­vio Par­nis, God­frey Far­ru­gia and Franco Mer­cieca spoke for the gov­ern­ment.

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