With visitor numbers growing every year bar one since 2007, tourism is riding a wave. Now the authorities want to spread the attractions throughout the year, increasing economic viability and avoiding peak-time stress on infrastructure.
The world’s most-visited country, France, boasts a little over 30 percent more tourists than its 65 million population. In Malta, where capitalising on the advantages of being small but beautiful is almost an art form, the equivalent of four times the entire population travel to the island each year. The figure for 2014 was around 1.7 million visitors descending on 423,000 inhabitants. And the tourism number, larger than the average for Europe as a whole, is still rising.
Yet the principal pillars of the sector are sustainability and return on investment rather than pure visitor numbers. The strategy for the next 15 years is to extend the busy vacation period to longer than seven months a year, to spread the appeal geographically vis-à-vis source markets and in the variety of attractions offered, and to concentrate on quality over quantity. The authorities are swift to point out that to them, quality and high prices are not synonymous.
“The strategy is to extend the vacation period from seven months into economically-viable, all-year-round attractions.”Tweet This
According to Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), around 80 percent of tourists come from Europe. Paul Bugeja, the authority’s CEO, said, “Malta is seeking to increase established markets such as North America and Japan while also tapping newer markets such as China, South Korea, the Arabian Gulf, India and Brazil.”
China’s tourist “exports” surpassed the much-forecast 100 million target in the first 11 months of 2014 and Europe’s share is rising rapidly. Given the distances involved in long-haul flights, Malta’s slice is more likely to come from multi-destination holidays than from direct single resort bookings.
A third of visitors stay outside the system of “collective accommodation”, registered hotel rooms, leaving spare capacity. So hotel modernisation is based on upgrading existing facilities, adding floors or rebuilding. The other third stay in private houses. The tourism minister, Edward Zammit Lewis, said a €400 million luxury hotel project is being developed on the site of San Gorg Corinthia, the Corinthia Marina and Radisson Blu hotels. As well as improving hotel standards, Zammit Lewis sees this kind of exercise as providing a good return on investment.
“Share of long-haul markets more likely to come from multi-destination holidays than from direct bookings with resorts.”Tweet This
Central to sustaining the sector is integrating the activities of the national carrier, Air Malta, into tourism planning, much as is done in Turkey and Dubai. A mutually-beneficial relationship between the MTA and Air Malta should favour routes that benefit tourism, as well as Air Malta itself and the economy generally. Meanwhile, low-cost carrier market share has grown from 13 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2014. The effect has been a greater number of younger visitors, shorter lead times between booking and arriving, briefer stays and increased internet use in making arrangements.
Although ferries from Sicily bring in 45,000 visitors annually, the cost of instituting services elsewhere in Europe is probably prohibitive. Of greater marine potential is expanding the cruise business, including possible “home port” voyages. The half-million people who disembark from cruise ships annually are on top of the tourism figures because technically they do not sleep on the island. Malta-based services may encourage passengers to stay briefly in local hotels before or after the cruise.
The accent on marketing Malta will be gradually be switched from sun and sand to segments including culture as exhibited in Maltese lifestyle as well as museums, weddings, sports, ecology, and wellness. Once enough of the smaller parts are in place, the MTA will rebrand the sector to ensure harmony of image. Harmony on the ground will come from coordinating the island’s assets, planning saleable activities throughout the whole year and monitoring visitor numbers to avoid stress on the infrastructure.
Looking out onto the harbour from Fort St Angelo. Photo: Malta Tourism Authority
A panoramic view of Malta from the sea. Photo: Malta Tourism Authority
As millions of euros are poured into restoring the spectacular historical sites, such as the St Elmo and St Angelo forts, so too a modern face is being fashioned for the city of Valletta itself. As part of a new approach to expanding tourism from sun and sea to culture and modern amenities, not to mention showcasing Valletta’s status as European City of Culture 2018, private initiatives and public works are joining forces to breathe life into the capital. A down-at-heel government printing press, St James’ Cavalier, is becoming a ‘centre for creativity’ with an art-house cinema, performance spaces and exhibition halls. Equally crumbling smaller areas, such as the music halls once frequented by British service personnel, have been converted into designer wine bars or posh retail outlets.
In fact, a whole derelict area is now a prestigious commercial waterfront with cafes, restaurants and cruise liner facilities in a regeneration process that started around two decades ago. Karsten Xuereb, executive director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, recognises the ironic difficulties of harnessing so much enthusiasm and so many ideas for change when he says, “For every bone there are 100 dogs.” Although forging cooperation among the extensive private sector has not been easy, Xuereb is determined that the individual developments will harmonise with all the other city plans for upgrades.
And conversion of the area behind Auberge de Bavière, known as the Old Abattoir, into the Valletta Design Cluster shows it is possible to take blood out of stone.