Culture and tourism often go hand in hand, but individually both have a huge influence on the local community. Jo Ward talks to two Government Ministers to find out what impact Covid-19 has had on these two sectors in Gibraltar and what people can look forward to in the future.
Prof John Cortes MBE is the Minister for the Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Heritage, Public Health and Culture, which seems like a huge undertaking, but it is clear that he is passionate about each of the departments that he is responsible for.
Asked what sort of effect the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown has had on culture in Gibraltar, Minister Cotes says that the cultural world has been very active but in a different kind of way. “It stopped one form of culture which is that of performance with audiences, such as musical, drama, and dance, but it also had the effect of curtailing the activities of performing arts and dance academies, so that has been a negative, but on the other hand a lot of these cultural groups have been working even during lockdown,” he states. The Minister explains that dance schools have been giving both one-to-one and group lessons via Zoom or Teams, and musicians have been performing and putting their work online. “In fact some local groups that hadn’t played together for many years were able to link up via the internet and play together.”
Gibraltar has a large and thriving artistic community and artists have been pro-active in producing new work, some of which has been inspired by Covid-19. “During critical times, culture becomes even more important,” Minister Cortes says, continuing “and I know that writers have been writing about their experiences and I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a few publications, plays, etc. written by local writers which are inspired by Covid-19 and the way that we have had to adapt and change.”
The Minister agrees that the lockdown situation has had some hidden benefits. “It has made a lot of us think about how we live and how perhaps we should live, and although it has curtailed a lot of cultural events and performances that the majority of us enjoy going to, had this happened without the internet it would have been a very different experience,” he comments. Gibraltar Cultural Services run cultural activities on behalf of the Ministry for Culture and have been able to provide virtual exhibitions, competitions and to organise activities for young people who haven’t been able to go to school for months. “People may say that culture has no importance, but I think it is the very opposite,” Minister Cortes says. “It gives us an anchor and an identity and I am very proud of everybody in the cultural world in Gibraltar – not just how they have survived but how they help us survive through difficult times.”
Unfortunately, decisions had to be made early on in the year to cancel several events which, in hindsight, proved to be the right thing to do, one of which was the Music Festival. “Hindsight is a marvellous thing of course, but it was a very difficult decision to take, especially as it was made during my first few months as Minister of Culture where I was really looking forward to all these sorts of things, but clearly it was the right decision,” Minister Cortes explains. “We are looking forward to reviving the Music Festival next year, along with many of the other performances, events and activities that our society is so well known for, but in a different form to the old one which is something we were already moving towards anyway.”
Something that everyone in Gibraltar looks forward to is National Day, celebrated on the 10th September each year. The Minister confirms that sadly National Day this year cannot be celebrated in the traditional way with large gatherings. “Families will of course make their own arrangements within the public health guidelines, but the official events will be different. There will be the usual boat procession and the Castle will be lit up with the national colours, but the events themselves, both cultural and political, will be replaced with broadcast and streamed performances and messages,” he tells me.
Another favourite, the Gibraltar Gibunco International Literary Festival to be held in November, will take place as a virtual event that people will be able to log in to.
Event led tourism, of which the Literary Festival is just one example, is something that has become increasingly successful in bringing visitors to Gibraltar, but it has also taken a hit during lockdown. “I meet regularly with the Minister for Tourism to discuss this sort of thing and we think that carefully planned and structured event led tourism can have a future even through Covid-19, provided it is done in a responsible way with smaller numbers and with more of the usual precautions we all know about ,” the Minister confirms. Many of these activities and events, such as the Gibraltar Snooker Open, the Darts Open and the World Pool Masters have already taken place or have been postponed and will take place in the virtual sphere at a later date.
As an amateur performer himself, Minister Cortes knows how frustrating it is for people who want to perform and who aren’t able to get on stage in front of an audience. “If all goes well, hopefully we will be unlocking the Rock over the next few months – better times are around the corner!”
As a top leisure and tourism destination Gibraltar is unique in many ways, but the coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted how crucial tourism is to the local economy.
Vijay Daryanani, Minister for Business, Tourism and Transport, confirms that the pandemic has dealt a very important blow to the tourism industry, as it has everywhere else in the world. “We were not able to welcome visitors to the Rock and consequently this has had a very serious effect on those working in the industry,” he states.
The lack of tourists coming to Gibraltar has meant that restaurants and shops struggled to keep afloat; with many businesses having to rely on Government aid. “For the Second quarter of 2020, the Government has provided financial assistance through the BEAT Scheme. We have paid the wages of all businesses who have qualified for this scheme and we have also waived all commercial rates and rents on Government Property. At the same time, we have recommended private landlords to give a 50% reduction on rent, and we have deferred utility charges and PAYE/Social Insurance.” The Minister for Tourism went on to state that for the third quarter of 2020, they have introduced a new scheme, BEAT 2.0. “This scheme has provided a grant to all those businesses who qualified for the earlier BEAT. We have reduced rates by 50%, rent by 25% on Government owned property and recommended private landlords to do the same.”
“I think we have put forward an excellent package and I know this has been a life saver for most businesses,” the Minister comments.
Looking to the future, how does the Minister think businesses will adapt? “Clearly the pandemic has changed the world and in many ways how we do business. Those in the tourism, leisure and hospitality sector will have to rethink how they provide their products and services and whether or not the target market has changed,” he states. “I’m confident that, as is always the case in Gibraltar, businesses will adapt and respond proactively and innovatively to move forward.”
It was a lifeline that British Airways continued to fly into Gibraltar at a time when many flights were cancelled around the world. High on the list that everyone wants to know about is the future of flights to and from Gibraltar. What can people plan for, and with Christmas on the horizon, will families be able to be together? Minister Daryanani says his hopes are very positive. “EasyJet have also now started to resume their services to Gibraltar and I’m sure that as we work through these troubled times we will find ourselves in a position that we were in previously, enjoying a great range of destinations from the UK and Morocco. We are always looking at new routes and speaking to new airlines to attract them to Gibraltar.”
Asked if there could be any reason for flights to stop coming into Gibraltar and what reassurance he could give to people booking holidays, the Minister agrees that the airline industry is very changeable and in the circumstances we have faced this year it is difficult to predict what may happen from day to day. “However, I can reassure anyone wishing to visit us that we have the highest levels of protocols in place. We are in constant contact with the airlines and the tour operators serving Gibraltar and we have an excellent relationship with them. This enables us to keep a track of all that is happening in the industry.”
What about the decision to ban cruise ships to dock in Gibraltar? Was it the right course of action? “Any decision taken to protect the community and the future of our people is the right decision to make,” he says. Minister Daryanani goes on to comment that he is eagerly awaiting the resumption of calls by cruise ships to Gibraltar. “They will be welcomed in the same way as in the past, enjoying legendary Gibraltarian hospitality, but having said that – the safety and security of our people is paramount.”
In an attempt to attract visitors from Spain to come and spend their money in Gibraltar, the Tourist Board ran a very vigorous marketing campaign across the border including radio and television, online advertising and some in-print advertising. “This has been very well received and has given Gibraltar great coverage in southern Spain,” he says. “It is heart breaking to see an empty Main Street so I’m definitely looking forward not only to the day when Main Street becomes as busy as it used to be, but also that all our visitors can enjoy the wonderful products that Gibraltar has to offer as a tourism destination, of which we are very proud.”