Four months on from the sudden closure of all schools teaching English as a Foreign Language during the most critical week of the peak season, Caroline Tissot, CEO of the schools’ representative organisation, says that the industry is slowly getting back on its feet, as communication with Government “is now open and ongoing”.
Saying that she “fully understands” that the Government’s primary objective was to safeguard the health of the nation, Ms Tissot nonetheless describes the heavy handed approach towards the sector as “ill-advised”.
“I feel that the Government took a hasty decision which had repercussions beyond the authority’s expectations, not only on the ELT industry, but on all its stakeholders, both locally and internationally,” she says, adding: “I firmly believe that consultation is always the best approach.”
The 9th July announcement of the 14th July shutdown came just as schools were gearing up for what should have been the two best weeks of the year – which, given the pandemic, Ms Tissot points out, should have in fact been the best weeks of both 2020 and 2021.
The decision sent shockwaves around the world, and was characterised as an “irreparable reputational disaster” that could lead to the “decimation of a 58-year-old industry”.
In August, Paolo Barilari, President of the Federation of Education and Language Consultant Associations (FELCA), sent a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Robert Abela in which he highlighted the panic caused due to the decision, as parents of minors already present on the island scrambled to evacuate their children, while cancellations flew in by the thousands, prompting schools to work through the weekend simply to process them all.
Mr Barilari slammed Prime Minister Abela for the “disastrous image on Malta as a study travel destination that your Government’s decision caused”, calling the damage to the industry “immense” and estimating a total loss of around €10 million for the association’s members.
Despite the apoplectic language used at the time, CEO of the Federation of English Language Teaching Organisations (FELTOM) Ms Tissot, speaking to BusinessNow.mt, says that of the federation’s eighteen member schools, all are still operating, with the owners “managing to limp through this very difficult period”.
She presents a calm figure, but makes it very clear that the sector is not out of the woods yet.
“The number of bookings dwindled significantly after the third unexpected closure of ELT schools,” she says, “and the subsequent reopening with added restrictions which required that only vaccinated students attend ELT schools.”
This, she says, compounded with the very gradual recognition of COVID vaccine certificates from non-EU countries, which are some of the sector’s key markets during the shoulder months.
“This slow recognition had a huge impact on low booking numbers,” explains Ms Tissot, adding: “Also, the negative international media exposure did not help.”
“Notwithstanding all this,” she continues, “bookings have slowly started to trickle in.”
So have Malta’s reputation as a destination and schools’ relationships with their agents already recovered, then?
“Sadly, not quite. The sudden closure dented our agents’ trust in our islands significantly, as we could not offer assurances that another sudden closure would not occur again.”
Ms Tissot explains that, “On an international front, FELTOM has been working hard to rebuild bridges with international agent federations and associations through regular virtual meetings. We also recognise that we must move forward, and with the assistance of the Malta Tourism Authority, we are continuing with the promotion of Malta and our industry by participating in international workshops.”
On the local front, FELTOM, together with the The Malta Chamber and the main tourism stakeholders, has been engaged in regular consultation meetings with Government representatives.
“Progress is tangible as communication is now open and ongoing.”
As for agents, Ms Tissot explains that “most agents have been working with FELTOM schools for many years and are fully aware of the all-round exceptional quality experiences they offer their visitors”.
She says this deep-rooted trust has worked favourably, “considering the circumstances”.
“Notwithstanding this,” she continues, “relationships are reasonably strained as agents are still trying to recoup their losses from member schools and challenging cancellation policies on behalf of their clients.”
Coming back to the subject of COVID vaccine recognition, Ms Tissot details how authorities’ decisions are affecting the sector.
“Some of our main markets that have been severely impacted include Brazil, which is still on the dark red list of countries, and Russia and Ukraine, whose Sputnik vaccine is not yet recognised locally.”
She points out that international attendees at the recent SIGMA conference in Malta who had received the Sputnik vaccine were not only allowed to enter the country but were exempt from the required quarantine period.
“Yet prospective ELT travellers are still denied this possibility. The Government is currently still imposing restrictions on our industry which are not imposed across the tourism industry.”
“I feel that such an approach is unjustified as the authorities are singling out an ELT traveller in a different manner to a regular tourist.”
Ms Tissot expresses her view that all foreign visitors to Maltese shores should be treated equally, and measures introduced by health authorities should be enforced with regular checks and consequences where breaches are found.
“However,” she continues, “EU markets have been contributing to the survival of the industry during this sluggish process.”
Asked how this year compares to 2020 in terms of bookings and revenue, Ms Tissot explains that “the momentum between 2020 and 2021 has been erratic, both in relation to bookings and revenue. However, overall, 2021 has been a better year than 2020, and this year could have equalled 2019 figures if it were not for the closure.”
She says that FELTOM has been discussing the financial impact of the closure on its member schools with Government and is basing its arguments on data collated by audit firm Deloitte on behalf of the Federation.
“Deloitte has been instrumental in putting together FELTOM’s proposal, which is currently under consideration with Government,” she says.
Such a proposal would be tailored to help schools get through the quieter months. “Normally summer revenue covers us through winter, but that was obviously very badly impacted by the closure. So we are seeing whether we can find a solution to assist us.”
These discussions, Ms Tissot confirms, are still in their early stages, although progress is hoped to be quick, as the termination of the COVID Wage Supplement in December may have a severe impact on these already stretched operations.
Asked for any sign of hope for the industry, Ms Tissot points to the emergence of new markets, thanks to the international workshops the federation is participating in.
“Among these is Libya, which is looking very positive.”
With the sector suffering blow after blow during the pandemic, Ms Tissot observes, “every glimmer gives hope to the industry” – an industry that hopes that the worst is behind it.
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