20 April 2005

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Tourism in malta: fallacies and contradictions

Speech delivered by by economist Lino Briguglio at a business breakfast organised by The Malta Financial & Business Times that discussed tourism

1. Importance of tourism in Malta
Expenditure by incoming tourists has a major impact on the Maltese economy. It directly contributes about 12% to 15% to Malta’s GDP (i.e. to Malta’s economic value added), and has high multiplier effects in comparison with other forms of expenditure, in that tourist expenditure has a relatively low import content. It also generates indirect demand for many other goods and services including agricultural and manufactured goods, banking and transport. As a result it creates considerable employment, not just in the hotel and catering establishments, but in the other sectors which benefit from tourist expenditure. Tourism also generates about 20% of foreign exchange inflows on trade in goods and services.
However its contribution is often overstated by some (mostly those who offer tourism services) and denigrated by others (particularly because of its negative environmental and cultural impacts). In this short speech I shall refer to a number of fallacies and contradictions which pervade with regard to tourism in Malta. I will end by making a few suggestions as to how the contribution of tourism could be developed sustainably.

2. The Fallacies
Fallacy No. 1: Because there are many other Mediterranean destinations with sea and sun attractions, we must not sell Malta as a sea and sun destination.
This view does not take into consideration that Malta’s major attraction is its climate and its sea. Taken to its “illogical” conclusion, this would suggest that we should downplay Malta’s major assets, in so far as tourism is concerned.

Fallacy No. 2: Tourists come to Malta because of its culture.
This follows from fallacy number 1. Malta has a rich cultural heritage, but we should not exaggerate it attraction. Very few non-Maltese are aware that Malta has a hypogeum or a Roman Villa, but most people know we have a nice climate. In fact, if Malta did not have the sun and sea, very few would pay hundreds of liri to vist the Ggantija temple or the Mosta dome or St John’s co-cathedral. Undoubtedly culture scholars would still visit if we had the climate of the Scandinavian countries, but these would amount to few hundreds - certainly much less than the 1.1 million tourists that currently visit.
I must add here - and I am emphasizing this point - that I am aware that a destination possessing cultural attractions is better than one which does not. Malta’s cultural heritage is indeed an important attraction. My argument is that the competitive advantage of Mediterranean islands lies in sea and sun and the thrust of our promotion should be on these factors. Our cultural heritage should be considered as an added bonus. Put bluntly, if we had cultural assets only and no sea and sun, our tourism industry would be very limited. But our sea and sun endowments, even without cultural assets, attracts the vast majority of tourists that visit Malta.

Fallacy No. 3: Alternative tourism is better than sea and sun tourism for the economy.
Alternative tourism generally refers to ecotourism and cultural tourism. For the reasons already given with regard to the first two fallacies, this is certainly not true with regard to the Maltese economy. In addition, cultural and eco-tourism have specific disadvantages, other than economic ones. Professor Jeremy Boissevain once described the undesirable intrusiveness of cultural tourists on the Mdina residents. I personally have seen so-called cultural tourists treating natives as if they were observing animals in a zoo. In addition, cultural tourists often degrade the cultural assets that they visit (e.g. St John’s Co Cathedral).
The so-called eco-tourists can do incalculable damage to the ecosystem. I personally saw tourist trodding over important vegetation in the island of Dominica (which offers bio-diversity as an attraction). And in any case I am still yet to be convinced that Malta has major ecotourism attractions to offer.

Fallacy No. 4: We should discourage sea and sun tourists.
This fallacy often comes from outside the sector, particularly from those who believe that tourism is very damaging to the coastal zone. It follows from fallacies 1, 2 and 3 above.
This argument has two weaknesses. Firstly, if it is true that tourism impacts negatively on the coastal zone, do we want to extend this damage to other areas?
The other weakness is that this view seems to be based on the assumption that there is something wrong in traveling to relax on the beach. There are people who believe that we must push education and culture down tourists’ throat. Most tourists come to Malta to relax and enjoy our nice seascapes and warm climate. I know of cases where tourists were offered an excursion free of charge but they preferred to relax on the beach.

Fallacy No. 5: Tourists in Malta do not spend a lot of money per capita.
This is a matter of relativity. Malta is one of the most expensive destinations in the Mediterranean, and as a result we do not generally attract the very low-income tourists. If one visits Spain one immediately understands what I mean here. We do not depend on the the so-called lager louts, although we encounter a few especially in Bugibba. This could possibly be also due to the relatively high average age of tourists visiting Malta.

Fallacy No. 6: Tourism has a major impact on the environment, when compared to other economic activities.
Those who push forward this argument are of course forgetting that the really environmentally damaging economic sector in Malta is the construction industry, possibly followed by manufacturing. Tourism may in fact be one of the least damaging activity in this regard. It is true that certain coastal areas have been cemented over for touristic development and that erstwhile pristine coastal areas have been degraded. But we must put things in perspective. Every human activity has an impact on the environment, and tourism is certainly not the worst one in this regard.

3. Shortcomings and
Although we wish to have more tourists, we say we do not want more.
The tourism strategy adopted by the MTA emphasizes the concept of carrying capacity – but in reality, in spite of all the words about sustainability - we despair when our hotels are not full, and a decline of just 1% in tourists inflow is considered to be bad news. So let us tell the truth – we want more tourists, and that all this waffle about limiting the number of tourist is just a series of platitudes. Carrying capacity after all is not something static, and with better management we can extend it.
We know that beaches attract tourism, yet we neglect our beaches.
Given that our most important attractions are the sea and the sun, why is it that we do very little to upgrade and to properly manage our beaches? What do we see on our beaches? Providers of beach furniture hog the beaches, shower facilities are generally absent, safety features are minimal. In addition, the kiosks situated on the beaches often charge exaggerated prices, often for unhygienically prepared food. We allow people to organize barbeques, and we hardly ever punish those who litter the place. Parking close to the beaches is disorganized.

We have a government that considers tourism as a pillar of the economy, and yet government-run amenities leave much to be desired.
Almost all amenities in the hands of the central government are badly managed: roads are bumpy and dangerous, beaches are below standard and often badly managed, as already explained, Valletta is dirty and disorganized, many cultural assets are degraded.
The government does not properly enforce rules and regulations: the construction industry is allowed to reduce the whole of Malta into a dusty building site (the construction industry remains effectively very little regulated, inspite of the MEPA,; wherever tourists go in Malta, they are greeted by dust and noise, unsightly hoardings and bad-mannered truck drivers); many of Malta’s parking lots are in the hands of self-appointed parking attendants; and worst of all, the “white” taxi service at the airport, remains monopolized by a few drivers, who in actual fact often provide a dis-service to tourists. Many guidebooks on Malta discourage tourists from using the white taxis. I ask here, what is stopping the government from effectively liberalizing the taxi service?
The karozzin service is run by untrained and shabbily dressed people.
Malta is receiving bad press due to the poorly controlled bird hunting and trapping. And yet the government seems is not taking the matter as seriously as warranted.
This is not of course an indictment on the Minister for Tourism, who is with us today, but on government as a whole, because the amenities and services just mentioned are the responsibility of many departments and authorities.

We have potential for winter tourism, and yet we do very little to encourage it.
Malta has an attractive winter climate. We could sell Malta as a health and sport resort during the winter months. Country walks are also attractive in winter. But we need to develop appropriate facilities in this regard. Country walkers in particular often find hunters and trappers in their way. At the moment these are very underdeveloped. Gozo is particularly suited for winter tourism, and yet, tourism in Gozo remains disadvantaged.

When talking about tourism we refer to the four Ss: Sun, Sea, Sand and Sex. I would add a fifth, namely safety. We have at least 3 of these, Sun Sea and Safety, and we should make the best of these attributes.
What is to be done then?
1. Maximize the attractions of the sun and sea assets and promote them in tourism publicity
2. Emphasize and promote the fact that Malta is a very safe tourist destination
3. Provide better beach facilities and better beach management (to a blue flag standard when possible).
4. Manage the construction industry so as to minimize the negative impacts on tourism.
5. Liberalize the white taxi service.
6. Step up publicity, letting the private sector do the job when possible (too much money is spent on bureaucracy at the MTA)
7. Improve our cultural assets, with better managed sites, enhanced interpretation services, and better transport management.
8. Encourage winter tourism, principally by promoting health and sports tourism. Other attractions could relate to our religious heritage. Country walks tourism should also be promoted.

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