Johnnie Gaggero is a man well placed to comment on the challenges surrounding tourism in Gibraltar. Sitting in the Board Room of M H Bland, the 206 year-old family business in the maritime and tourism sector that he joined thirty years ago and of which he is now Chairman, he outlines his vision and talks about his ideas to ensure that Gibraltar can achieve continuous growth and compete with other tourism destinations in the future.
“In terms of tourism, the quality of the Gibraltar tourism product is one that has been tinkered with in recent years but hasn’t really changed since the 1960s – it demands considerable improvement,” Johnnie states.
“What Disney creates out of papier mâché and concrete, we have got the real thing, and there is so much more that tourists could see and much more that we can show them,” he explains, continuing ““Essentially, we still sell ‘The Rock Tour’ – and once you have done ‘the Rock Tour’ – that’s it.”
“We are facing a Kodak moment,” he states. “Kodak missed the digital revolution because they carried on printing on paper and then filed for bankruptcy a couple of years ago, and I believe Gibraltar is in danger of experiencing its own Kodak moment.”
Going on to explain that there are a number of problems that need addressing. Johnnie starts by citing what he calls ‘the Easy Jet factor’.
“Nowadays people like to make their own itineraries and to tailor make their own tour,” he says. “We need to provide a tourism product so that if people have been to Gibraltar before, they can visit different attractions each time.” Johnnie thinks that it is vital to provide new product and in that respect he sees great potential on the Upper Rock.
Statistics for the Nature Reserve for the last sixteen years have been relatively static, hovering around the level of 800,000 tourist/ passengers per annum. Comparing those numbers with tourists coming in via the cruise lines, the coach park and the frontier, produces a completely different graph which shows considerable growth. “We have got many more tourists coming in to Gibraltar (this year has been exceptional) than going to the Upper Rock,” Johnnie confirms. He goes on to state that in his view the problem is not the number of tourists; the problem is how they are transported. “On the Upper Rock on any day during the summer there are huge traffic jams, and that is the experience the passenger goes away with.”
On average between 15% and 20% of passengers arriving on a cruise ship actually take a tour which compares unfavourably with some of the statistics from other ports.
“The problem is that we, as shore excursion agents, have to limit the number of passengers that we are able to sell and provide tours to because Gibraltar doesn’t have the transport to offer them,” Johnnie says.
The Rock Runner
The solution, according to Johnnie, is to change the way passengers are transported around Gibraltar. “All stakeholders in Gibraltar’s tourist product have now arrived at the conclusion that we need an Integrated Transport System on both the Lower and Upper Rock linked by a new improved cable car,” he explains, “so that passengers can jump on and tailor-make their trip.”
Johnnie explains that there are some elements of the plan which have come from Government and some from the Taxi Association and the PSV operators.
Not wishing to alarm people, Johnnie talks about the risk of fire on the Upper Rock. “Not only is the current system far from perfect, it is also dangerous,” he says. “We haven’t had a fire on the Upper Rock for ten years, but it is just a question of time.” He goes on to pose the question as to how vehicles could reverse or how passengers would be able to run away from a fire if the wind was in the wrong position.
“It is a health and safety issue to have so much traffic stuck one behind the other and the fire engines not being able to reach a fire.”
The solution is to have an integrated transport system, which he calls the ‘Rock Runner‘. “It has got to be a win-win situation for all the existing stakeholders,” he states, going on to say that it will be up to Government as to how the details are worked out.
In essence the idea is very simple, and Johnnie agrees. “There is sufficient experience and expertise locally to know that we must go ahead with this and it would send a strong sign that there is life after Brexit.”
Johnnie believes that now is the time to instigate the transport initiative proposed by the working group. “I think it will send a very strong signal to the people of Gibraltar, to our clients and to the UK Government.”
Another important factor cited by Johnnie is the problem of providing transport for cruise line passengers. “This year we handled about 224 cruise liners and next year the numbers will be closer to 259,” he states. “As far as Gibraltar is concerned the client is not the passenger walking up Main Street, it is the cruise line that chooses where to go based on where they are going to make the most money – and selling tours is a major factor.”
Expounding the point, Johnnie explains that if a cruise ship comes to Gibraltar with 4,000 passengers on board and we can only sell them 500 tours, the company will opt to go to another port where they can sell more tours which will be more lucrative for them. There is an added issue with the news that Tangier is redeveloping its Port with a focus on cruise liners and yachts. “Up until now we have counted on the fact that vessels registered in the EU get a VAT refund if they call at Gibraltar, and that is a valuable asset,”
Johnnie says. “In the future, cruise ships could opt to go to Tangier instead of Gibraltar and get the VAT refund.”
The risk of not keeping up with other ports is that Gibraltar gets left behind or stagnates and Johnnie knows that there are ports around the Mediterranean who are desperate for more cruise liner business. ”We are already successful in the cruise line business, if you think that just 20 years ago Gibraltar was down to about 70 cruise line calls, some of which such as P & O would refuse to sell tours because they couldn’t guarantee the quality,” he states “I am not saying that we would return to those numbers but at present cruise lines are looking for more from Gibraltar and we are falling short of the mark.”
Johnnie is confident that the Rock Runner will make money for everyone: “The sad thing is the people making the most money out of the Gibraltar tourism product for many years has been the Costa del Sol tour operators,” he says, going on to stress that “Gibraltar is highly competitive and we are fighting against each other and it is about time that we stood together.”
“One of the key things about this is that it will make sure everyone in tourism in Gibraltar is facing in the same direction and working together – for the betterment of Gibraltar and the product.”
Some of the attractions that Johnnie would like to see opened up or improved are Eisenhower’s Tunnels, the Northern Defences and Lower St. Michael’s Cave. “That is a gem, and it is absolutely right that not many people should go down there – but if carefully managed with restricted numbers so that the product or environment isn’t destroyed – then it should be done.” He cites Governor’s Camp as another attraction that could benefit from a hop-on hop-off transport system and also as somewhere that locals could access in the winter months where they could enjoy barbecues with activities for the kids, such as zip wires.
There are many other ideas and plans for M H Bland led projects that Johnnie is not able to divulge at the moment, but his priority and passion for the ‘Rock Runner’ is evident: “This project is transformative and will completely change the tourism product in Gibraltar,” Johnnie declares.
“There is a lot which can be done and we have to evolve the Gibraltar product so that it is not just ‘The Rock Tour’,” he says. “We can have iconic things going on so that people want to go there and when they do they say ‘wow’! It is just a question of getting everyone saying yes at the same time and then we can seriously do things together which are significant.”