Interview with MEP Josianne Cutajar

1. The European Parliament TRAN Committee’s opinion on the Digital Markets Act (DMA) shows an excellent understanding of the digital challenges for the transport and tourism sector. What do you consider to be the most important calls made by the committee on these topics and what is on your ‘wish list’ to the IMCO Committee?

We were aware from the onset of the importance of the Digital Markets Act for transport and tourism, but in particular for the hospitality sector. Indeed, where an opinion can be limited due to the challenge of keeping within the Committee scope, it can also be an exceptional opportunity to focus and shed light on paramount sectorial issues that might go lost in discussions on a horizontal regulation. This is what I aimed to do in TRAN. I am satisfied with the final progressive outcome of the opinion. For me, the most crucial call we make is to ensure that the DMA is future proof, ready to timely capture new gatekeepers in the market. We indeed request to lower the quantitative thresholds in Article 3 to ensure that in markets where asymmetries exist corrective measures are taken to ensure fair and contestable markets. What is on my wish list for IMCO? Surely, the obligation ban on self-preferencing and display and the call to allow businesses to offer listings at different prices on third party websites, including their own (The ban on Narrow Price Parity Clauses). What is also important is that the DMA has “teeth”, is strongly enforceable and has clear deadlines so as not to allow gatekeepers to profit from grey areas – something which I pushed forth in the TRAN Opinion.

2. The European Parliament’s report on the EU SME Strategy of December 2020 underlined the new challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. As the ITRE Committee’s shadow rapporteur, which supports measures do you consider as essential for European tourism SMEs?

European SMEs had been facing structural challenges even before the COVID19 outbreak. Excessive administrative burden, difficult access to finance, upskilling of the workforce: many entrepreneurs have historically faced these issues regardless of the sector. Yet, as the pandemic has hit the tourism industry the hardest, these challenges were exacerbated, leaving small and medium businesses with a grim outlook. While last summer showed some positive signals, the industry should still be supported to adapt to the new normality, which embeds the next challenges of the twin transition. The tourism sector can benefit from this process, especially when it comes to the digital transition, but we still have a long way to go.

It is key to bridge the “knowledge gap”, which often hampers SMEs from getting to know about the opportunities stemming from the digital transformation Europe is undertaking. The EU SME Strategy Report which I worked directly upon, stressed this point specifically, along with the importance of wider uptake of the digital tools and EU instruments to enable the digital revolution. Digitalisation will be key also for SMEs operating in the tourism sector. The report also emphasised the role of the so-called European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs), financed under the Digital Europe Programme 2021-2027, that will promote the uptake of digitalisation at the national and local level, both among SMEs and in the public sector. The contribution of the hubs to the digitalisation of the tourism sector can be relevant. It would be advisable that countries highly relying on this sector strongly promote an ad-hoc focus of the EDIHs, making it possible to involve SMEs and operators of the tourism industry to support an advanced uptake of digital tools.

It is indeed belittling to simply link digitalisation in tourism to the development of digital solutions enabling online booking or service/accommodation reviews. The digital transformation can positively affect tourism in additional ways. For instance, digital tools can further help market tourism destinations through digital channels and social media promoting tourism and complementing the travel experience via virtual tours and experiences through augmented reality. In addition to that, we are still missing a well-deserved focus on analytics concerning digital tools: SMEs should be able to access data to perform analytics and enhance their positioning. To achieve these ambitious goals, it is key to reskill and upskill key stakeholders including SMEs and their workforce to reap the full benefits.

3. Policies on the green and digital transition of tourism are likely to be an integral part of the TRAN Committee’s agenda in 2022. Which policies will you be closely looking into?

The tourism sector is slowly recovering from the greatest shock it has ever faced. It has proven to be resilient, yet it had to be supported for the great part by government loans and other support schemes. We must address uncertainties surrounding the future of tourism including new spikes in Covid cases, staff shortages, and rising costs. Let us not forget the risks of bankruptcy as government support schemes end. Tourism will not return to pre-pandemic levels until mid-decade. For this reason, the first policy area we must focus on is continued support to SMEs, including the extended application of relaxed state aid measures. This will be essential to help the sector survive.

At the same time, as we recover, we must focus on a digital, green and social transition for the sector. When it comes to the sustainability aspect, circularity and carbon-neutral mobility must become a reality. On digital, I stress the importance of redefining curricula to implement courses on digital skills and a focus on innovation and resilience especially in case of future shocks. This could also assist in the retention of the workforce, something the sector is struggling with. I would like to work towards Tourism becoming a long-term career.

Lastly, on the social side. We travel not only because of the beauty of the landscape or the historical sites; we travel to meet new cultures. We need a policy that places local communities at the centre of projects, creating synergies that uphold local craft and skill, for example by connecting local fishermen and hotel restaurants or by promoting the sale of local craftsmanship or food in shops. Whilst I welcome the ongoing work by the Commission on the Transition Pathway for the tourism ecosystem, we need to ensure a strong EU tourism agenda at the beginning of 2022, which will include the relevant policy areas including the ones mentioned above.

4. Tourism is key for the Maltese economy. What are the most pressing issues for your constituency?

There are some common issues that Malta shares with other countries when it comes to tourism such as a successful environmental and digital transition as well as the staff shortage. Then other challenges are specific to us or affect us more given that we are a small island Member State – including when it comes to connectivity.

Having said that, the Maltese Government has taken a proactive stance to transform its tourism market, understanding the many challenges ahead. The government has set forward a 2030 Tourism strategy that outlines the main issues – but also opportunities – for the archipelago. The first goal is to return to pre-pandemic revenues streams for tourism and focus more on quality tourism as we go ahead. Our strategy also underlines a very important realization. If we want to maintain the appeal of the country, we must work on fighting climate change. The beauty and attractiveness of our island would be at risk if we do not focus on sustainability.

Investment in digital infrastructure, skills and projects is also key. Strong digital connectivity across the islands and innovative digital initiatives are essential to meet the needs and demands of the evolving touristic market. Proper connectivity, incentives and facilities could lead to more people working from remote in Malta and Gozo and thus extending their stay – it could lead to the attraction of digital nomads. This is one of the steps that can be taken to end seasonality, the importance of which has also been recognised by the Maltese Government.

Another key aspect of Malta is connectivity. Whilst Covid-19 had its effects we need to focus on a strategy ensuring seamless, safe and affordable transport – especially when it comes to air and sea travel – which includes carbon reduction standards. This is also a priority which the Government has been focusing upon in the past months to regain strong routes following the pandemic’s effects.

When it comes to addressing the staff shortage and turnover in the tourism field, given that this is a European challenge, European initiatives such as a European Academy and a digital platform that brings together employers and employees in the tourism field which I proposed a while ago could help in addressing the issue.