Stephen Calleja The Malta Independent Sunday, 13 June 2021,
Malta’s tourism industry has been the mainstay of the economy for decades.
Starting off with the first hotels in the 1960s, the sector developed quickly over the years as successive governments understood that it was generating jobs and bringing in so much money.
By 1970, the arrivals were at around 170,000, a big number at the time, given the infrastructure Malta had 50 years ago, but less than what we get in one month these days – pre-Covid19 days, that is.
We had reached 700,000 by 1980, but the political tribulations of that particular decade pushed the numbers down again to around 500,000 before starting to climb again post 1987 as the country started to invest heavily in upgrading its services including, but not only, communications.
We reached the one million target in the early 1990s, based mostly on a strategy to market Malta as an island of sea and sun. The private sector heavily invested in new hotels and the upgrading of existing ones, going for the high-end tourist as well as opening up more to business and conference travel.
As Malta diversified its product, went for more niche markets and worked to expand the English language schools sector, more and more tourists chose this little island of ours to spend a few days of holiday, come over for corporate purposes and study.
Since then, the industry grew exponentially until it doubled itself to two million arrivals in the mid-2010s and edged closer to three million. Year after year, the number of arrivals grew, although this did not always translate into higher expenditure. Still, the industry remained one of the major pillars of the Maltese economy.
Then Covid-19 hit, and what was painstakingly built over many years crumbled into almost nothing. The spread of the disease quickly meant that the airport needed to be closed for a time and, even when it reopened, most people were still too afraid to travel. As a result of this, the tourism industry as a whole suffered tremendously. Tourists stopped coming to Malta. There followed months of empty hotels and jobs in the industry being lost.
With Covid-19 numbers going down since April, the government could plan what it described as the road to economic recovery. It set 1 June as the day when it would become pro-active again in the tourism industry, while at the same time offering incentives to potential tourists, such as the free independent traveler scheme. Tourists were told that they will be “paid” to come to Malta, as they would be given up to €200 each in free services.
1 June has come and gone, and it is still too early to gauge the results. But the months-long “suspension” of the tourism industry should have been a chance for a rethinking of the tourism industry.
It will take some time, possibly a few years, for Malta to return to having the same tourist numbers that it did in 2019. Statistics available on the Malta Tourism Authority website show that, in 2019, the number of tourists who visited Malta was nearly 2.8 million, including overnight cruise passengers. The number of guest nights moved up to more than 19 million, for a seven-day average length of stay. That year, tourists spent €2.2 billion.
Looking more closely, per capita expenditure dipped slightly from €687 in 2018 to €683 in 2019 but, given that, on average, fewer nights per spent, this still meant an increase in per capita expenditure per night from €113 in 2018 to €115 in 2019.
Big numbers which were set to grow even more were it not for the pandemic.
But the question that should be asked is this: how many tourists can Malta sustain? The older generations will remember that there was talk of a saturation point even when the one million target had been achieved. As the numbers continued to grow and we moved beyond double and were getting close to triple, the debate continues.
Before Covid, the government constantly boasted about the regular increase in arrivals. But is there a limit as to how many tourists Malta can accommodate? Is there a saturation point? Have we reached it and, if not, are we getting close to it?
Many will argue that although the numbers are very high in the summer months – some would say “too high” – there are months in which Malta could sustain an even bigger influx. The mild winter Malta experiences, together with the various cultural events that are being held during this time, could be an attraction to the many tourists who would prefer not to come over in our stifling summer months. We still have pockets we could fill in these particular months.
So far we have not been able to level the numbers across the year. We have many more tourists arriving in summer when compared to winter, which means a bigger stress on the industry and infrastructure in the warmer months, and less pressure in the cooler weather.
We would like to think that Malta is a five-star destination. But if you just look around you will quickly realize that we are far from reaching that level.
Our hotels, perhaps, can offer such a service to their customers within the confines of their complex. But most tourists do not come to Malta to stay in hotels. They come here to visit parts of the country, and so they come across situations which do not give them the idea that they are in a top-notch destination. Once they leave the comfort of the hotel they are staying in, they come face to face with situations that are not pleasant at all.
Cleanliness, for a start, is not our strong point. Most of us still tend to think that what is public is not ours. We keep our homes spick and span, but we do not care to do likewise when we are on the road and in other public places, be they beaches or gardens. There is litter everywhere.
That the government then boasts that hundreds of tonnes of waste were removed in a clean-up campaign confirms all this – we are a dirty nation and a dirty people. The question is: how long will it take for a need for another clean-up campaign, when more hundreds of tonnes of waste will be collected?
Services offered to tourists also leave much to be desired. Improvement has been registered in public transport, but we still lag behind in terms of bus punctuality. This, in part, happens because most Maltese still prefer using their own vehicles to go from point A to point B, which means that in spite of all the investment in the road network, there are still too many areas where traffic slows down. Talk of other public transport alternatives remains just that – talk.
The country still remains one whole permanent construction site. Go anywhere, and you will find cranes which disturb the view or block roads. Go anywhere and you will find some building being pulled down. Go anywhere and just listen to the noise of cars and machinery. Go anywhere and you can taste the dust and pollution.
This is having an impact on the lives of the residents, but also leaves tourists disenchanted. They were promised a quiet holiday, but they are not getting one.
Malta’s geographical size is not getting any bigger, but the population has mushroomed. It took us 50 years to climb from the roughly 300,000 people in 1960 to the roughly 400,000 people in 2010, but then it took us just 10 years to move up by another 100,000 to 500,000 and more in 2020. Add give or take an average of 200,000 tourists who are in Malta every month (in normal times) and one can understand the stress – from an already high population density of 1,600 persons per square kilometer, this moves up to more than 2,200 persons per square kilometer when one calculates tourists.
The Labour government’s policy of upping the economy through population growth had its positive effects but it had its downsides too.
It meant more apartments, more cars and more pressure on the infrastructure and the environment. The new roads that were built are already not enough to meet with the demand. And the building goes on, relentlessly, often taking up the few open spaces that we have left.
Gozo was once a quaint little place where one could get some respite and much-needed breathing space. It is no longer so (except for the time when pandemic restrictions were in place). And there are now plans to link it by tunnel to Malta. If and when it happens, it will become less isolated and more accessible, but also more crowded and unattractive.
For many years, tourists used to come to Malta because of the quiet, laid-back atmosphere and the weather. But summers are becoming hotter and, sadly, Malta is no longer as picturesque and charming as it used to be.
Experts will tell you that it would be better to attract fewer tourists, but bigger spenders. This would ease the pressure while at the same time maintain or possibly increase profits. But we are far from being able a top-notch destination, so there has to be a reliance on numbers. The more we get, the more Malta becomes less attractive. And the more Malta becomes less attractive, the more it is shunned by the bigger spenders.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.