The United Nations General Assembly declared 2017 ‘The International Year of Sustainable Tourism’, a significant opportunity to promote the contribution of the tourism industry to creating abetter world.
The concept of sustainable tourism is a very positive one. It is an industry committed to ensure that its impact on the environment and local culture is minimal, while at the same time offering a positive experience for the locals, companies and the tourists themselves. In fact, UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai emphasises that sustainable development has three main components, namely, economic, environmental and social, all of which contribute to ameliorate the life of citizens.
I presented this topic with distinguished policy and decision makers during a conference entitled Smart Tourism Destinations’ Contribution for the Planet and its People in Seville, Spain. My objective was to accentuate the point that tourism is a fundamental component within the European Union economic and social equation, and indeed a formidable generator of jobs and a main driver for development.
Tourism, especially in Europe, is marked by the rich cultural heritage that each member state enjoys. Citizens and tourists find inspiration in the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe. Retrospectively, then, this inheritance must be primarily safeguarded and, secondly, enhanced for the purposes of tourism and the development of the diverse regions in Europe.
It is for this reason that the EU Commission submitted to the council its proposal for The European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, which will coincide with our Valletta 2018: European Capital of Culture. We must take advantage of this occasion to raise awareness about the opportunities that cultural heritage brings about in terms of sustainability, dialogue, social cohesion and economic growth.
Nevertheless, the issue of sustainable tourism development for Malta is particularly challenging. We have a population of 420,000 people within only 330 square kilometres and natural resources are scarce. Concurrently, the record-breaking results achieved by our tourism industry are having a direct impact on our infrastructure, that is, hotel establishments and occupancy, airport infrastructure and most importantly, our distinct heritage.
For this reason, I shall be working to formulate long-term policies based on a sustainable framework. Growth must be well planned and based on more balanced, year-round carrying capacities. This is our main aim for the next years: the generation of sustainable tourism can prove fundamental in coping with the challenges of modern tourism, minimise any negative impacts, while ensuring long-term returns for Malta.
The preservation of the natural heritage and the environment is a major concern throughout the Mediterranean, especially for our islands. We need to bear in mind that the Mediterranean basin hosts considerable natural resources, ecological biodiversity, and a 46,000km stretch of coastline. Simultaneously, this region is also particularly vulnerable in terms of environmental sustainability, especially to the effects of climate change. From a tourism perspective, expanding international tourism flows are exerting a considerable amount of pressure on our natural and cultural assets and resources.
Environmental consciousness among consumers is rising, and is also being reflected in the choices and preferences of travellers. The Green Economy Report prepared jointly by the UNEP and the UNWTO a few years ago, emphasises the investment required for transforming tourism in a green industry. This would enable destinations to reach the objectives set for energy consumption reduction, which has been set at savings of 44 per cent by 2050. This transformation will require a model shift to less carbon intensive transport and better energy management through technological advances in energy efficiency.
Investment in greener and sustainable tourism can, in itself, also be a means of creating jobs while improving the environment for the locals. Taken within the context of increasing tourism flows, this investment shall lead to significant resource conservation through improved efficiencies. Naturally, any effort towards a more sustainable tourism industry needs the active involvement and co-operation of the private sector.
For this reason, this government embarked on various energy schemes aimed at SMEs. Lately, we have been working with the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) on a scheme to incentivise energy efficient investment by hotels and restaurants. This scheme will reward operators through the issue of ‘White Certificates’. Such certificates guarantee that the holders have achieved a specific amount of energy savings. This is an excellent opportunity for operators to become more energy efficient and effective, also leading them to be more competitive.
In the last four years, I have worked to implement a series of measures that have further solidified the competitiveness and the sustainability of our local tourism. We ensured that as from 2014, Malta’s economic sectors, including tourism, would start benefiting from more cost-effective water and energy tariffs.
This productive initiative translated into around €50 million in disposable capital that was essentially reinvested. I am pleased to note that the private sector has responded positively to this measure through major investments for new, refurbishment and other projects.
There is no doubt that we have managed to enhance the competitiveness of our collective accommodation sector, and contributed to the destination’s tremendous, record-breaking success that we have been witnessing over the past years.
It is therefore a great pleasure for me to refer to another milestone initiative placing Maltese hotels at the forefront of energy efficiency within the Mediterranean. I strongly believe that this is also a prime example of best practice that can be adopted by other countries in the region. Sharing experiences on this level can also be an essential element of the collaboration required between Mediterranean destinations.
By way of concluding, I cannot but stress how vital transforming tourism into a sustainable industry is. I will seek to strengthen the competitiveness of Malta’s tourism product and enhance the greening of our industry by following UNWTO’s sustainable development goals.
I will strive to ensure that the preservation of the Maltese cultural heritage is definitively recognised that, ultimately, will also ensure a sustainable future for the motor of our economy.
Edward Zammit Lewis is the Minister for Tourism.