Downs and ups of tourism to Malta in the 1950s

Downs and ups of tourism to Malta in the 1950s

Tourist postcard by the Cathedral Library, 1950s.

Tourist postcard by the Cathedral Library, 1950s.

“I suppose no one goes to Malta unless he is sent,” wrote R.N. Bradley in 1914. Robert Noel Bradley loved Malta, torts, warts and all, though he had a thoroughly ambivalent rapport with its inhabitants: admiring, defeated, condescending, exasperated.

To leave no one in doubt, and shielding himself awkwardly behind the pseudonym of John Wignacourt, he published a book entitled The Odd Man in Malta. Kindly, trenchant, often vexed, he believed Malta could one day become attractive to tourists, if only the Maltese learned to rein in their greed – which he thought unlikely, as “the huckstering element is deep-rooted in the Maltese psychology”.

Bradley saw in the local hotels the greatest enemy to the expansion of a tourist industry and paints an unrelentingly dire picture of them, the amenities they don’t deliver, the ser­vice they cheat on, and mostly their stubborn and avaricious owners, bent inflexibly on one religious pursuit, that of fleecing visitors.

Now, I wonder where he got those ideas from...

Despite so many misgivings, shared by other visitors, Malta, slowly and unsurely, started building up its tourist profile.

Inevitably still perceived as a military base for a great empire and a greater fleet, the pre-independence governments of the 1950s still began investing in infrastructures and promotion. They believed in its potential as a travel resort rather than merely as a base.

With all their foresight, they never envisaged a success to end the mother of all successes.

This does not intend to be a history of the evolution of tourism in Malta, but rather a loose pot-pourri of curiosities related to that development.

Herbert Ganado observes that “in the twenties we had started to take the first timid steps to develop tourism… in those days our tourism consisted in visits by some large cruise liners that disembarked passengers for a few hours”.

A Tourist Bureau was officially set up in 1934, run by Leslie Stephenson from No 2, Lascaris Wharf, Valletta. Its functions included the licensing of cars for tourists and of guides.

Malta could one day become attractive to tourists, if only the Maltese learned to rein in their greed

In the early 1950s, the bulk of tourism still consisted of visits by large cruise liners. The appearance in Grand Harbour of the MV Corinthia proved so memorable that its name is said to have rubbed off to a major pioneering tourist venture by the Pisani brothers.

Two promotional publications by the Malta Tourist Bureau (which had meanwhile moved to the Royal Malta Library building, telephone number 3248) document this period.

They show no date but must be between 1948 and 1959, as they mention the Old Age Pension Scheme introduced in 1948, and before 1959, when the Bureau was absorbed by the new Tourist Board.

They are modest and utilitarian affairs, black and white on cheap newsprint, and lay no claims to graphic elegance.

One is called Fifty Facts About Malta. The other, Malta Welcomes You.

From them, we learn some curious data: that the population increases by 8,000 heads a year; that there are 78 doctors in private practice, 242 miles of asphalted roads and 180 miles of secondary ones. Petrol costs 2s.9d. a gallon; air mail letters reach the UK in one day; one-seventh of Malta’s budget goes on subsidies; and the Sacred Infirmary is reputed to have the largest room in Europe.

These publications assume that tourists to Malta must necessarily be British: “During their stay in Malta, tourists may become honorary members of the British Institute, Garrison Library, Union Club, Sliema Club and Marsa Club”.

Some typical prices are given: bread, two pence per pound; beef, one shilling, six pence per pound; sherry and port, seven shillings per bottle; local wine, two shillings. Housing is scarce, but a small unfurnished house with modern conveniences can be rented for £60 a year (equivalent to €11 a month).

The 26 hotels then operating are listed and priced en pension (full board) – the most expensive being the Phoenicia, which charged 35 shillings per day, and the cheapest, the Savoy in Sliema, which put the visitor back ten shillings for bed and breakfast.

In Gozo, you could splash at the Royal Lady for 15 shillings a day; the Duke of Edinburgh in Victoria undercut to 12 shillings, six pence.

An assertive figure breezes through the tourism stage during the Mintoff government, 1955 to 1959. Dodo (Dolores) Lees, a Labour politician coming from a British Catholic family was introduced to Mr Mintoff by a common friend, Cecilia de Trafford. She fell under the spell of the Maltese Prime Minister and claims that he too fell under hers. “Dom always gets things done when I tell him what is needed, whether he is in power or not,” she said in her autobiography.

She had access to him whenever and wherever she wanted. Almost at their first meeting he appointed her Tourist Advisory Expert, with a salary of five pounds a week. The budget she could play around with was £1,000 a year. She lived for long stretches in Malta or Gozo. She claims she invented the slogan ‘Dynamic Dom’.

Among her tourist-related achievements, Lees counted a brochure which she wrote Come to Malta, the English Riviera, the Island in the Sun!. A sort of in-house affair, she had it designed by her friend the good artist Charles Bone, who was staying at the de Trafford’s, and her husband’s uncle Dudley printed it cheaply in the Isle of Wight.

Sadly, not too original, as Devon, Torquay and Torbay all advertised themselves as the English Riviera before Lees pinched that slogan. She did not include food among the attractions that Malta offered “because it wasn’t frightfully good” and English people abroad anyway only wanted steak and chips.

Lees (1920-1991), over six feet tall, was smart, intelligent, an Amazon with gracious features and manners to match. “When I started, we had 2,000 tour­ists a year and in 1985, we had 800,000. It was the achievement of my life”.  That self-congratulation flies in the face of Ganado’s more sombre judgement: “The tourist drive willed by the Mintoff government and led by Dodo Lees, a tall or rather, immense lady, but beautiful all the same, had failed.”

With BOAC aborting the Malta route, the Phoenicia was struggling. No large hotels with swimming pools were yet in place and the beaches were littered. The tourism explosion came between 1959 and 1971, after Lees had left the scene, and owes next to nothing to her.

Still, the Lees autobiography is a must for those who want to know what went on behind the scenes in the Labour tourist drive.

Promotion postcard for a hotel in Malta in the 1950s.Promotion postcard for a hotel in Malta in the 1950s.

Though star-struck by Mintoff, she could not help resenting his penny-pinching manias. The entrepreneur Tony Cassar (of Cassar & Cooper) wanted to introduce charter flights from London at £19 return but needed  the International Air Travel Associa­tion (IATA)’s blessing, which they were most reluctant to give. Lees offered to rope in Sir Hartley Shawcross, the outstanding British prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials and possibly the most prominent barrister in the UK, who married at 95 and died aged 101.

Out of his friendship for Lees, Shawcross accepted to do it for a nominal fee of £1,000. Mintoff recoiled in horror: “A thousand pounds! You must be joking! I can get a Maltese lawyer to do it for £10.” Lees’ comment: “Well, unfortunately he got a Maltese lawyer to do it for £10, so we lost our case”.

When she announced the idea of a Casino at Dragonara Palace, a concerned Archbishop Gonzi wanted a word with Lees. They had an hour’s cordial conversation, by the end of which she realised that casino means a brothel  in Italian, and her project was thought to lean rather shamelessly on the horizontal side.

The air finally cleared, she kissed the bishop’s ring and renamed the venture Dragonara Kursaal. Closer to fact, it opened on July 15, 1964, many years after Mintoff lost power.

Very few then believed in and wanted to invest in tourism. A lonely exception was Moses Fennick: “I have some land at Golden Bay. Will I lose all my money if I build a hotel there?” Lees reassured him he would not, but he would have to get an English manager. He did and made a fortune. “I am awfully glad for him, especially as he was the first to take my word that tourism would succeed”.

The ‘Please Keep The Beaches Clean’ signs Lees placed in swimming areas were later replaced by ‘Don’t Wear Bikinis On The Beach’. This was seen as a drag on tourism, but police regulation could hardly be circumvented.

So a stratagem was deliberately staged. She persuaded Christine Adams, the girlfriend of George de Trafford, later his wife, a strikingly attractive girl, to lie down in a bikini in St George’s Bay where everyone could ogle her, and had someone else notify the police. Lees alerted the press to send reporters to take pictures of the delinquent’s arrest. A good lawyer (Benny Dingli, LP) and an understanding magistrate (Joe Debono) secured her acquittal, and the bikini ban was binned. Sadly, the intriguing imbroglio behind this bikini prosecution seems to have been one more of Lees’ fantasies.

With all her dedication and ambitions, Lees was prone to sweeping generalisations, like “I’ve been the unofficial Ombudsman for the people of Gozo” or “The Maltese don’t like air-conditioning, they think it will kill them” or “The Nationalists and the Church were not only anti-British, they were anti-tourism”. A bit rich, seeing it was a Nationalist government that, realising its vital importance and its untapped potential, had appointed the very first ever Minister for Tourism, Dr Giovanni Felice, in 1962, and had overseen the first huge tourist boom just before and after Independence.

The dazzling number of hotels opened in the Borg Olivier era speaks for itself: Selmun Palace, the Comino and the Corinthia Palace in 1962, Paradise Bay and Calypso in 1964, The Excelsior and the Golden Sands, both started in 1965, Fortina opened in 1966, Promenade, Neptune, St Julien’s, Hilton, Ramla Bay, Kennedy, Sheraton, Metropole all in 1967, Marina, Hyperion, Salina Bay, the Cavalieri, the Sliema and Dolmen, in 1968, Preluna, Halland and Mellieħa Bay Hotel in 1969 and the Verdala, Tower Palace and Green Dolphin all opened or started in 1970. Not bad, for a government that loathed tourism so noxiously.

The passenger ship MS Dunera was a frequent visitor in Grand Harbour in the 1950s.The passenger ship MS Dunera was a frequent visitor in Grand Harbour in the 1950s.

The truth, not the Lees spin, is that both governments, Labour and Nationalist, had tourism at heart, but the Borg Olivier ‘anti-tourist’ ministries did ever so much more about it.

The Mintoff years, 1955-59, were nowhere near tourism-boosting and Lees’ claims to have presided over the outburst of tourism in Malta can only be dismissed as exercises in endearing, self-serving mythomanie.

By 1959 there were only 25, mostly smallish and old, hotels with 1,200 beds. By the time Borg Olivier lost power in 1971, another 76 new hotels with 7,500 beds served the tourist industry. The earnings from tourism had multiplied by over 1,400 per cent.

In April 1959, London revoked the self-government constitution and Malta reverted to direct colonial rule, which lasted up to 1962. One of the first steps Westminster took was to set up the Malta Government Tourist Board. The nascent tourist industry fell under the tutelage of foreigners. Philip Henry Barker-Benfield, who had previously chaired the Tourist Board in Jamaica, took charge. In Malta he came to grief when he immersed himself in Maltese malpractices and exited on tiptoe tainted with corruption.

As chairman of the board, Barker-Benfield drew up a five-year plan for the tourist industry’s development, with several sound suggestions. He advocated both summer and winter tourism “catering to visitors of all income brackets”. He acknowledged that, so far, Malta could not be described as a tourist resort.

The islands could never be competitive by merely relying on good hotels by the sea but needed to switch to the new trend of “all-in accommodation”, self-contained resorts where the tourist could obtain “board, accommodation, evening amusement such as cinema, dancing or concert, tennis, golf and similar sports facilities and have free access direct from his room to private bathing facilities” because, “insofar as bathing beaches are concerned, Malta has great limitations”.

Malta Tourist Board brochures, 1950s.Malta Tourist Board brochures, 1950s.

These resorts should be fully air-conditioned all year round to ensure high occupancy both in summer and winter. The main market would always be the UK “but there is an increasing potential in Germany, the Scandinavian countries, France and in short-term traffic from Sicily”. The US and Canada also held promise.

Barker-Benfield decried the poor promotion so far: “Malta in the past has done a certain amount of advertising and publicity to attract tourists, but without the necessary funds, without a policy and without an overall plan”. His chief target was “the exclusive gay international set” – in 1959, gay meant something else.

He identified the need for an urgent “improvement of the cleaning and garbage disposal system”. The endemic fly nuisance also deserved honourable mention. He advocated the conclusion of double-taxation agreements with the US, Canada and Italy as prerequisite for enticing investment in tourism. Direct telephone links with the UK and the US on a 24-hour basis should also be considered. The forthcoming Olympic Games in Rome would coincide with the local St Paul’s centenary celebrations, and this could be an opportunity for enhanced tourist traffic to Malta.

Dodo Lees, in charge of tourism in Malta in the 1950s. Cover of her autobiography.Dodo Lees, in charge of tourism in Malta in the 1950s. Cover of her autobiography.

This would make it seem that everything in tourism sailed hunky dory. It did not. Cries of serious mishandling of tourism monies started appearing in the papers until scandals connected with the misappropriation of tourism funds ended on the agenda of the House of Commons. Conservative MP William Teeling (1903-75) had played a heroic part in supporting the Opposition parties in Malta in their resistance to Mintoff’s project to strip Malta of its national identity and fuse it, lock stock and barrel, into the UK. Teeling felt outraged and was forthright in opposing the integration folly and equally so in exposing what Barker-Benfield had managed to get away with.

The MP showed the House of Commons how Barker-Benfield had spent the five-year budget allotted for tourism – in just two years.  A substantial part of his claimed expenditure was not supported by invoices or receipts. He   pointed out “many serious irregularities and no accounting for a considerable amount of public expenditure”. Cars were bought for the use of Tourist Board members without calls for tender or board approval. The board had asked for an public inquiry into this questionable disappearance of funds but was ignored. “The chairman was hardly ever in Malta during the time that he was chairman” but received a full-time salary all the same. Halfway through his second year of appointment, he disappeared from Malta and was reportedly living in France.

Teeling did not shy away from hammering in the impression that everything related to tourism in Malta was tainted by graft

Teeling was all for breaking the monopoly of BEA flights to Malta and to allow budget alternatives to operate, as this would boost tourist traffic to Malta no end, but this was stonewalled by the Board, on which sat two members with a blatant conflict of interest, as they had personal financial benefits in BEA.

He quoted from the Director of Audit report that slammed many of the transactions made by direct order and not justified by a convincing paper trail. Barker-Benfield had appointed two agents in the US to promote tourism to Malta – positions of trust. They were paid exorbitant fees for their purported advertising. One agent submitted some documentation, but no receipted bills. The other could not be bothered to submit anything. Teeling did not shy away from hammering in the impression that everything related to tourism promotion in Malta was tainted by graft and blatant corruption.

Tourism in Malta eventually prospered to a success story which is still gathering momentum to this day.

Thanks to Leonard Callus at the National Archives.

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