According to an economic impact report by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC, 2014), last year the travel and tourism industry in Malta contributed 13.6 per cent of the country’s GDP. This figure is expected to rise by 5.6 per cent this year.

WTTC reported that the tourism industry alone has directly generated more than 25,500 jobs. This figure is forecast to grow to 27,000. It translates to 15.5 per cent of the total employment in Malta and Gozo.

Arguably, positive results do not come by chance. In the past decade, Maltese governments’ concerted efforts may have helped ensure that our tourism industry remains a major contributor to the Maltese economy. The fruitful and collaborative relationships among tourism stakeholders also augur well for the sustainability of the islands’ tourism industry.

A 2013 report by the economic policy department of the Ministry of Finance aimed to establish a strategy for accommodation development, while taking into account the type of accommodation required, the optimum mix, market developments, the market segments, limiting factors and environmental considerations.

A number of actions have already been undertaken or are being dealt with in this regard. Emphasis is being placed on supporting investment in tourism product development by the private sector. This is being accomplished through the allocation of €120 million of EU structural funds (from the 2007-2013 programming periods) and additional national funding. Some €10 million were allocated to a grant scheme for sustainable tourism projects by enterprises, including small and medium sized enterprises.

Given that a large number of businesses in Malta are operating either directly in tourism or in related sectors, it is important to maintain or increase current tourist numbers and tourism earnings, and to tackle seasonality.

Malta is also seeking to attract tourists from a spread of markets that are attracted by niche products. Some market segments may respect Malta’s unique heritage and may have the propensity and the resources to spend more.

Malta is striving to make the islands more accessible for all. Two EU co-financed Calypso projects were implemented between 2009 and 2013. The first one focused on research analyses which define the present product offering. This project found that the Maltese tourism product and service quality can be differentiated to attract visitors with personalised services and accessibility needs.

The second project in 2011 assessed the degree of accessibility in selected tourist zones around the Maltese islands. It also recommended improvements.

In spite of the record figures in terms of tourist arrivals, bed nights and tourist spending, the tourism stakeholders are very aware that not everything in the garden is rosy

A special allocation was directed to the maintenance and promotion of rural localities by supporting the establishment of walking trails and small-scale infrastructural interventions which, in turn, improve rural and natural areas. This latter project is being co-funded through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

The Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) is increasingly focusing its energies on environmental initiatives. Today’s travellers are becoming more demanding on sustainability issues and green travel. This may pose a number of challenges for industry practitioners to stay in line with the constantly changing market requirements.

Eco-certification is the national scheme, launch­ed in 2002, which ensures the environmental, socio-economic and cultural sustainability of hotels in Malta. Some 16.2 per cent of local hotel accommodation establishments, just under a third of all beds, are eco-certified.

In spite of the record figures in terms of tourist arrivals, bed nights and tourist spending, tourism stakeholders are very aware that not everything in the garden is rosy.

Times of Malta Business reported (March 27) about unlicensed accommodation establishments that evaded VAT and taxes last year. It goes without saying that such accommodation establishments may have not been subject to any form of quality control on their product. Such unlicensed accommodation establishments may have also created some distortions in price structures, particularly for hospitality enterprises.

Another Times of Malta article (March 25) featured a summary of MTA research about the highs and lows of tourism in Malta. Among others, it reiterated the importance of impro­ving aesthetics in Maltese tourism zones.

It also reported that eight per cent of visitors said they would not return to Malta. Apparently, some respondents complained of a dirty environment, excessive building, bad experiences with accommodation, poor transport and unfriendly locals.

The same article hints that MTA may set up quality assurance structures to measure sustainability. It mentions some of the challenges of the tourism industry and makes recommendations that resonate with national policies.

Frequent situation analyses and longitudinal studies may possibly give a better picture of our product offering and service quality. Certain findings may be an eye-opener for some stakeholders as there are some issues that will have to be addressed in the foreseeable future.

Mark Anthony Camilleri is a resident academic at the University of Malta. He is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

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