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Question time: The numbers game

What needs to be done to meet the demands of a rise in tourism and population?

Gavin Gulia, MTA Executive Chairman

Rising trends depict MTA’s firm disposition to cater for success. The situation in itself is positive; the number of tourists visiting our islands has increased incessantly over the past years. Latest results indicate that this year is no exception, marking a 17.4 per cent increase in inbound visitors between January and June, when compared to the first six months of last year. This rise need not be seen in terms of repercussions, especially within the Maltese context, but rather in terms of challenges that are constantly anticipated and catered for.

One of the major points to consider is how tourist arrivals are spread across the 12 months of a year. The World Tourism Organisation recommends a seasonal spread approach, rather than having isolated peaks during particular months. Malta has become one of the least seasonal of the Mediterranean’s island destinations, due to its success in developing a multitude of off-peak attractions to attract tourism volumes during the low season. During the last two years, the inbound tourism growth rates recorded in the off-peak periods (between January and June) have significantly surpassed those recorded between July and September.

MTA is seeing to the development of existing and new market segments and the organisation of activities and  events. As a destination, Malta is attracting tourists who visit for different reasons. Although the amount of visitors is high, they do not concentrate their interests on the same facilities. Some may visit Malta for its beaches, others because of its disposition as a conference destination and others for its cultural and urban fabric. Although numbers are increasing, they are also being absorbed by different activities that do not overlap each other.

One must also keep in mind an inclination towards a shorter length of stay. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of inbound tourists increased by 27.5 per cent, whereas the number of overnights increased by 16.6 per cent. Tourists on a shorter stay spend higher per capita per day; therefore more turnover without an equivalent increase in pressure on services. I must remark on the evolution of the services being provided. Novel types of accommodation are available, ranging from boutique hotels and small guest houses, to self-catering accommodation, all pertaining to the concept of a shared economy. Tourism is hence spread within a wider territory, as opposed to the previous geographical concentration over two or three major areas of our islands. 

The government has embarked on many projects to provide better management of road networks and improved infrastructure. A lot of work has been done to prepare Valletta for its role as European Capital of Culture, and there have been major works in other locations, such as the Three Cities. There has recently been an exercise of sand regeneration in places such as Balluta Bay, while beaches around the island boast of Blue Flag quality. Visitor attractions such as the Grandmaster’s Palace and St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta have changed their visiting methodologies, allowing for swifter queuing and visiting systems.

Locals realise that tourism is an important activity

Perhaps the most important element in dealing with increased numbers is to ensure that the host community derives economic, financial and social benefits. Maltese communities stand to gain directly from the presence of visitors. This is not to be dismissed as a casual occurrence, as there are many scenarios in other tourist zones whereby large companies seem to reap all the benefits, leaving local communities in a state of frustration. However tourism is firmly intertwined with the Maltese community and locals realise that tourism is an important activity that needs to be handled with great care. 

Therefore, though the numbers of incoming visitors are continuously rising, the way in which they are handled is also constantly evolving. The fact that Malta has secured itself among the world’s top travel destinations is something that each and every one of us stands to gain from. When seen within the context of such a competitive industry, it is a result that local authorities such as the MTA ought to be proud of and strive to manage diligently.

Robert Arrigo, Shadow Minister for Tourism

The arrival figures registered at Malta International Airport have kept on rising for the past eight to nine years. We have to differentiate that arrivals are not tourists so long as this has a proportion of 70/30, meaning that 70 per cent of the arrivals were tourists who purchased a package and stayed in hotels while 30 per cent were going elsewhere, probably living in apartments, with host families and the like. At present, however, there are no statistics that may give us the exact picture.

In the past two to three years, Malta has seen its arrival numbers go up to around two million or more, with a heavy increase in foreign workers, who generally arrive in Malta with their families too. Thus, the population in the Maltese Islands, and not of the Maltese people, has risen to approximately 650,000.

This number is only the extra figure of foreign workers in all sectors, which I deem to be around 70,000 and a spouse and one child. This is a very conservative figure. The strain is there, as Malta is fit to be inhabited by 450,000 people. Our road infrastructure is nowhere top notch, and the changes being done will only cater for the present situation, but not for the future needs and more so if another 10,000 workers will arrive in Malta every year.

We are still basking in the sun like there is no tomorrow

Beneath our roads there are services which are vital. What if the present drainage system, the electricity supply – this year Malta suffered multiple power cuts – have not been cared for? To my knowledge no such plans are on the table and no future planning is being done; the government seems to plan from one election to another, therefore only short term.

What has happened this year is that the above-mentioned proportion has now become 50/50 because the Airbnb phenomenon has reached massive proportions. To be fair, without the increase of tourist custom into Airbnb outlets, the low-cost airlines can become unsustainable and therefore one may risk a pull-out. Airbnb also spreads wealth around the islands and again, some flights have started to be operated to different capital cities, to service the foreign workers and their families arriving here, who probably go back home twice a year, thus the arrivals get a spike as they return, twice yearly to Malta.

The problems concerning the arrival of foreigners have now spread all over Malta and are not found only in designated areas. Most villages and towns have seen this increase in foreigners. Solutions need to be made and planned. Are we on the right track on numbers, on planning, on future visions, on all sectors that government controls? I sincerely doubt this is being done.

The quality of life we as Maltese were used to just a few years ago will be long forgotten in the years to come. We have basically entered into a super formula 1 race with no ending until, of course, the bubble bursts. We tend to invest for fast gain and profits; but we are doing so and selling or renting to many companies and foreign workers who can just unplug and leave our country to another area in the world. This happened in the textiles industry a decade ago, when companies changed completely and relocated to Asia. We can see a remake of this scenario albeit for a different industry. What if Malta suffers a slight decrease in arrivals, or in real tourists? Say for a moment this is only 10 to 15 per cent. Hardly an impossibility.

Seeing our position on the fast track for all these years, what would be the fallout or the financial consequences for the investor, or for the lending institutions? Even if unwanted, a government should have a plan, a real roadmap. With what I see at the moment, this is not the case: we are still basking in the sun like there is no tomorrow.

If you would like to put any questions to the two parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

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