Tourism - an ecosystem on steroids

So, the question remains - are we poised to capitalize on an outstanding recovery this year capitalizing on the phenomenon of 'revenge tourism'?


Malta’s Tourism Strategy for the period 2021-2030 was dubbed “Recover, Rethink, Revitalise” and on paper it promised to be placing more emphasis on sustainable tourism development. A strategy paper covering the ten-year span to 2030 was a bold attempt to inculcate an innovative approach towards responding to new travel trends by unceasing marketing efforts to position Malta as a destination of choice in the widest feasible range of geographic and motivational travel segments.

The stark reality is that Mediterranean’s tourism has been historically focused on ‘sun, sea and sand’ low price package holidays.  The present and future challenges for the Mediterranean involve becoming a sustainable tourist destination and impose a shared responsibility based on the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. The tourism of the future decade must incorporate balanced and focused development objectives.

Stephen Xuereb, the CEO of Valletta Cruise Port, recently said that Malta had been a significant player in the recovery of the Mediterranean tourism industry after the COVID-19 pandemic. Xuereb is the CEO of Global Ports Holding PLC, which oversees the harmonisation of processes and operating systems of cruise liner traffic across the group. The Valletta Cruise Port has seen passenger volumes increase from 260,000 in 2001 to over 900,000 in 2019.

Good news is expected in 2023, which triumphantly started with a bang. Records show 125,000 tourists holidayed in Malta in January, with both visitor numbers and total expenditure beating pre-pandemic levels.

Officially figures disclose total tourist expenditure surpassed €99.1 million. On a micro scale, each tourist spent an average of €96.1 per night.  A record 2.28 million tourists visited in 2022, with a total of over 16.6 million overnight stays.

In addition, total tourist expenditure was estimated at €2.0 billion.  By comparison, in January 2019 Malta welcomed 127,723 tourists who spent a combined total of €84.7 million, or €92.8 each per night.  This shows a slight improvement in per capita average (not adjusted for inflation) but one may ask what is the ideal figure to reach an optimum return on investment for various five-star hotels now under construction.

Another inevitable statistic is the ratio of visitors to locals.This has expanded very quickly and the strain on infrastructure from too many tourists is evident. Many tourism experts complain that the current strategy is a mere short to medium term recovery. In fact, during the lockdown period government was more concerned about how to assist hotels and catering establishments not to sack workers by paying a comprehensive yet expensive wage subsidy scheme and issuing of €100 vouchers to all and sundry.

Very little or nothing of capital investment was carried out to embellish the environment and seriously prepare the country to welcome visitors following the end of the pandemic. Again, no massive effort was made to upskill the tourism workforce and strengthen the digitalisation potential.

With losses incurred by the national airline, this had the effect of seeing Ryanair and Malta Air increasing their share of tourists at the expense of other legacy airlines.

Again, the effect of the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic has somewhat paralysed national resolve to invest real money in a wholesale embellishing and upgrading of resorts. Last year, observers saw the mass exploitation of Comino isle (a Natura 2000 site).

All the same, the drive to license and build more luxury hotels went by unrestricted in the past three years. It came as no surprise that the current bed stock plus rented accommodation far exceed the arrival numbers.

A recent survey carried out by the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association showed that Malta needs to attract around 5 million tourists every year in order to sustain the hotels which are built or which are planned to be built.

That is almost double the 2.8 million the country attracted in its record year, 2019.  Again, as an island we have not invested heavily in reducing carbon footprint (green energy reaches a mere 10% when EU average is 37% - our electricity production is entirely based on LNG). Some argue that as a small island we cannot achieve a lot in the holy quest to fight climate change.

Yet, it is well known that Malta is likely to face extreme heatwaves in the summer season while on the contrary northern destinations that rely on outdoor winter activities will face shorter periods of snowfall, leading to potentially larger seasonal variations for many countries. The body is weak but the spirit is willing.

Many politicians have assured us that they plan to introduce a set of measurable climate and sustainability indicators to properly measure tourism impacts on the environment. This is an essential regulation to ensure that future tourism development embrace sustainable parameters within the widest possible range of measurable variables. Certainly, we must give due recognition to the detrimental effects which unchecked climate change and global warming are bound to have on the country’s tourism appeal.

What is our target at achieving Climate Friendly Travel by 2050? For both government and industry, this will require a serious rethinking of how travel activities are offered and how tourism is managed over the long-term. Recent statistics show that net per capita spend is improved on the figures reached in 2019 (a record year).

Even so, per capita spend needs to increase at a faster rate so that revenues need to be offset costs of traffic congestion, mobility problems in arterial roads leading to beaches and places of interest.  It is easy to blame authorities for not securing European and National funds to push for tourism product development and improvement but we must not give up.

The new MTA executive needs to build a strong case for the conservation and preservation of natural and man-made tangible and intangible heritage in recognition of their growing relevance and importance to the discerning tourists of today.

Critics exhort us to promote our historical heritage as an integral component of the brand. Ideally, trained officers are engaged by MTA to inspect and protect areas as models for sustainable tourism, enhancing responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.

So, the question remains - are we poised to capitalize on an outstanding recovery this year capitalizing on the phenomenon of “revenge tourism”?  Few doubt that arrivals will reach another record this year as the entire ecosystem is conveniently geared to please the all-inclusive, flowing beer brigade.

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