One of the main foundations of the Gibraltar economy is tourism and the good news is that tourists are returning to the Rock following the lockdowns and travel restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Hon Vijay Daryanani MP, Minister for Business, Tourism and The Port, gives Jo Ward an update on the tourism sector and outlines his hopes for the future.
Back in 2019, when Minister Daryanani had only been in office for a couple of months, he was looking forward to getting to grips with the job. “It was an exciting time for me because I had been elected as a Minister and I had been given a portfolio that included tourism and business that I thought I could do a lot with,” he states. “The GSLP Liberals had been governing for eight years, and were doing some wonderful things and I was joining a very proactive and exiting team.”
“If had told you in Christmas 2019 that we won’t have a cruise ship for eighteen months coming into Gibraltar Port you would have said that I had gone bananas, but that is exactly what happened.”
The Minister went on to say that he thinks people realised how serious it was when they announced that they were locking down, that airlines were closing and cruise liners were stopping. A normal term of office for a Minister is four years, and so far the Hon. Vijay Daryanani has been in place for three and a half years, and during that time no tourists were coming through the frontier and cruise liners were not docking in Gibraltar. “It has been a huge challenge and at the end of this term of office it will be as if I have worked for only half a term, because it has been two years of total havoc,” he explains. “There are projects that I have initiated that we haven’t been able to get on with because of the financial constraints, but all the time during lockdown we were working hard behind the scenes, navigating the way forward, not knowing when we would be reopening ‘Gibraltar Plc’.”
This included keeping in touch with airlines and cruise ship companies to see what would happen when eventually they would be able to open up. “I think we have done very well because we have managed to bring back the business that was stopped – that in itself was a huge challenge – but in 2023 we will have very similar figures when it comes to cruise liners and we are pretty much at the same capacity when it comes to our airport,” The Minister says. “People are impressed when I go abroad and they ask questions about how Gibraltar has recovered from the pandemic.”
The Minister goes on to clarify that in 2019 there were 197 calls to Gibraltar Port by cruise ships, and that this year they will probably finish at approximately 187 calls. Regarding the land frontier, the figures are once again similar to those pre-pandemic. “The main tourist is someone who is visiting the Costa del Sol and comes to Gibraltar for the day, and this year we will see a huge benefit because more and more people are starting to travel now.”
With the news that the Eastside Tunnel under the runway is due to open soon, I asked the Minister what difference he thinks that will make to tourism. “When we have flights coming in to Gibraltar we see the closure of the airfield,” the Minister says. “So, for example, on a Sunday when seven flights arrive, that means fourteen runway closures, but with the tunnel we are confident that we will see the movement of traffic and that the flow will be easier, and hopefully people will love the experience of coming through that tunnel.”
During the pandemic, Gibraltar was seen as a safe destination compared to others which were the subject of travel restrictions. In 2021 Eastern Airways announced that it was launching flights to Gibraltar from Southampton and Birmingham in May, and later that year Wizz Air announced the launch of a new route from London Luton to Gibraltar from December.
Addressing the fact that both companies pulled out of Gibraltar, The Minister comments that an airline will only come into Gibraltar if they think that they can do business. “If they left Gibraltar it was because there wasn’t enough business, and although we talk about that in terms of airlines it is the same in any business, if it doesn’t do well and you start losing money you will close as soon as possible,” he explains. “We started talking to Wizz before the pandemic and they eventually came to Gibraltar during the pandemic, and even though the load factor was 65% it wasn’t enough to keep the route going.”
“In so far as Eastern are concerned, they are a smaller airline and I think that was more of an ambitious project, but having said that I attracted them here and they didn’t do well enough and therefore decided that they couldn’t continue because they made a hefty loss during the period that they were in Gibraltar.”
There was also an announcement that Spanish airline Volotea planned to launch direct flights between Gibraltar and Bilbao in Spain, but this never materialised, and the Minister clarifies that by stating that the Spanish Civil Aviation turned their application down. “It’s as simple as that,” he says.
Asked if there any other airlines coming to Gibraltar, the Hon. Vijay Daryanani explains that many factors are involved in bringing an airline to Gibraltar. “The main one is the type of aircraft that the airline flies,” he states, going on to say that an airline such as Ryan Air fly jets that are too heavy and can’t land at Gibraltar airport.
“I am constantly speaking to all the airlines that can fly to Gibraltar – and even the ones that don’t fly here – and it is important to keep in touch because you never know what might happen in the coming years and they might change aircraft.”
The Minister recently attended the European Cruise Summit in Paris, a conference attended by CEO’s and presidents of most of the important cruise lines in the world as well as politicians and the industry press. Asked if Gibraltar was losing cruise ships to other ports and whether Gibraltar has the infrastructure and transport to cope with increased demands for cruise ships that may come into Gibraltar, he commented that Gibraltar is a very traditional and well-known port. “Previously there were only three important Mediterranean ports, Barcelona and Malaga in Spain, and Gibraltar,” he replies, “but today there are ports in Malaga, Cadiz, Valencia, Cartagena, Tarragona, Bilbao and Gijon where there were none ten years’ ago.” The Minister goes on to explain that it is this competition that perhaps makes it more difficult for the cruise liners when they are planning an itinerary because there is now so much to choose from. “All the major cruise liners in the world come to Gibraltar and although Royal Caribbean International will not be calling in 2024, they will be coming back in 2025.”
Some of the new cruise ships accommodate 5,000 passengers, so is there enough for them to do when they dock in Gibraltar? The Minister says that there is enough of an offering when you take into account that Gibraltar has a total area of only 2.5 square miles. “We do extremely well in the space that we have and yes, I agree the more the merrier and that if we had more things to do then perhaps we could get more people off the cruise ships,” adding that they are always working on new products and that the Minister thinks they have done well in increasing the kind of offering that they have had in the past. “I think Gibraltar is an exciting destination as it is, but we need to keep working hard to see what we can attract here, and that includes overnight tourism,” he states. “That can only happen in Gibraltar if we have more hotels and that is something that I am working on, but with investments of millions of pounds people have to think properly to be able to say ‘yes’ we are going to invest this kind of money in Gibraltar.” The Minister goes on to say that: “At the moment there is a lot of movement behind the scenes and although it is difficult to get it over the line, we hope to do so in the future.”
Another project that the Minister is working on is refurbishing, or possibly building a new cruise terminal. “Again there have been financial constraints otherwise I would have this done by now, but there are all sorts of possibilities on the table and we are seeing what is the most value for money way forward and I hope that we can make an announcement about this soon.”
The message that the Minister would like to impart is that Gibraltar is doing well. “We will keep on working hard to make sure that we are bringing as much tourism, new business and new hotels here, and I will carry on speaking to the airlines to see whether we can open up new routes.” He tells me that it is very difficult because if they don’t make money they will stop. “It would be easier for me to not do anything because if I don’t do anything I won’t get criticised, but that is not my style – I like to get stuck in and to make sure that we can do our best and try and attract as much as possible and if it doesn’t work out – at least we tried.”