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NEWS | Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Mind your language... students

The current furore surrounding students’ misbehaviour also throws into sharp focus our lack of preparation for the annual tourist invasion, writes Raphael Vassallo

Apart from swallows and fig trees in leaf, there are a few less pleasant ways to tell when summer is nigh. One telltale sign is the plethora of letters to the local papers complaining about the unruly behaviour of one of Malta’s more conspicuous migratory species: the foreign language student.
Most of the complaints involve the sort of behaviour traditionally associated with reckless youth: noise, drunkenness, vandalism, brawls, public urination, vomiting… in other words, all the beauty of adolescence. Some allegations have been serious, others little more than amusing teenage pranks. In the main it seems we are dealing with a highly predictable clash of civilisations between inhabitants of (normally) quiet residential neighbourhoods, and an army of teenagers enjoying what is often their first taste of unsupervised summer mayhem.
Naturally it is easy to laugh the whole thing off, but the possible repercussions of this annual hostility between locals and visitors are not always amusing. FELTOM, the federation of English language schools in Malta, has already warned that the bad press generated by these and other incidents may have serious consequences for the future of the industry, which accounts for approximately nine per cent of the total incoming tourism market, and which directly employs some 1,500 teachers and support staff.

The importance of ELS
Today, our sister newspaper Business Today published statistics issued by the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), which appear to confirm FELTOM’s views of the importance of the English Learning Segment (ELS). During 2005, 61,607 foreign students attended English language courses in Malta, representing 5.3 per cent out of the total number of tourists visiting Malta over the same period. More significantly, an MTA official dispelled the traditional perception of students as low paying visitors due to their lower than average daily per capita expenditure. “This segment ultimately generates a very important share of total tourism expenditure due to its long stay (averaging 2.4 weeks). ELS generates an estimated Lm39 million, accounting for nine per cent of tourism expenditure.”
FELTOM president Joe Dimech adds that ELS “is possibly the only sector within the tourist industry that has constantly grown by an average of nine per cent for the past five to six years, is very likely to grow further this year, and has the potential to grow to up to 100,000 students a year in the next five years.”
Few would argue, therefore, that Malta could realistically do without this lucrative market. But then again, this argument does not empower an army of teenage mutant ninja students to disrupt the peace and quiet of their long-suffering neighbours. Clearly, a compromise is in order.

How big is the problem?
Let’s start with the complaints themselves. This summer, the MTA has so far received four reports involving three different hotels, all made by other guests. A separate report of noisy and unruly behaviour was filed by residents in the vicinity of a fourth hotel, making for a grand total of five.
Not exactly an earth-shattering figure; but this tells us little about the true extent of the problem. Most incidents, if reported at all, would be dealt with by the police. But questions sent to CMRU regarding the number of reports received, as well as arrests made, remained unanswered at the time of going to print.
The bulk of the problem appears to concern noise and rowdiness occurring late at night, presumably as students return to their host families/hotels after an evening on the town. In these instances, it seems the police’s ability to actually intervene is curtailed by the fact that, a) drunkenness among those aged above 16 is not actually a crime; and b) unlike many foreign cities, there is no such thing as a late night curfew for minors.
But under scrutiny, it also emerges that many of the problems could be avoided by a more judicious approach to the issue of tourism infrastructure in general. Not just by the law enforcement authorities, but also by the central government, local councils, as well as by the individual schools themselves.

Not expecting the expected
At a glance, most of the problems appear to be caused by sheer numbers alone. Precise statistics for this year’s influx of tourists – more specifically the exact impact of tourism on the population density of individual localities – are not yet forthcoming. But conservative estimates suggest that popular tourism destinations such as the Sliema/St Julian’s/Swieqi areas (which also seem to generate the bulk of the complaints themselves) experience a veritable population explosion of as much as 200 per cent between July and August.
Naturally, only a small percentage of this growth is accounted for by foreign language students; but the fact remains that despite this highly predictable annual population surge, little or nothing appears to be done to cater for the inevitable pressure on certain sensitive infrastructural nodes.
One sector to bear the full brunt of this state of affairs is public transport. Local commuters have long complained that riding the bus is next to impossible in summer because of the sheer numbers of foreign language students who (they claim) paralyse the entire service. And yet it seems that the number of buses allotted to these densely overcrowded routes remains unchanged throughout the entire calendar year.
Some schools have attempted to circumvent the problem by providing alternative transport in the form of coaches. But as in the case of drunkenness among teenagers, there is no law against students choosing to ride the public bus instead.



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